Buying justices

When News Hits received the “More Money, Less Disclosure” report put out by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, we were struck as much by an 18th century quote as we were by all the startling new data the nonprofit has just revealed.

The quote, printed on the report’s back cover, comes from founding father James Madison, who pointed out the following in the Federalist Papers:

“Who are to be the electors of the representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune.”

Counting ourselves among those sons (and daughters), definitely humbled by just how obscure our fortunes are, we News Hitters certainly dig old Jimmy M.’s sentiment. Which is why the report is so unsettling, especially when it comes to another matter near and dear to the heart of Dolley’s husband: the judiciary.

According to the report, average direct campaign contributions for Michigan Supreme Court candidates in the 2000 election increased by a whopping 83 percent over the ’98 race (which broke all previous fundraising records).

Along with the money directly raised by the candidates — an average of $1.1 million each — millions more slipped in under the radar in the form of so-called “issue ads” run by special interests such as the state Chamber of Commerce.

The problem isn’t unique to Michigan, as the American Bar Association pointed out just last week. There is, however, a fairly simple solution: public financing of judicial campaigns.

“It is an affront to the American justice system that electioneering gives the impression justice is for sale,” declared Alfred P. Carlton Jr., chair of the ABA’s committee on judicial independence. “Public funding is one method by which we can restore public trust and confidence in a system that is truly independent and impartial. It can reverse the corrosion that taints all our courts when judicial candidates must turn for campaign resources to the very individuals and organizations that have an interest in the outcomes of cases those candidates may decide as judges.”

Richard Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, says the state’s voters are ready to cut the financial cords binding special interests and members of the high court. In a poll conducted by his organization last October, 64 percent of the electorate questioned said they would approve of public funding for state Supreme Court campaigns.

And if things don’t change? In that case, the humbled ones here at News Hits think we will continue to be saddled with the worst democracy money can buy.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette, the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]
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