High-court high jinks

Jul 14, 1999 at 12:00 am

A judicial campaign finance "reform" plan proposed by the Michigan Supreme Court is being harshly criticized as an incumbent protection plan.

The proposal, issued late last month, includes a number of measures that clearly favor Justices Clifford Taylor and Robert Young Jr., says Detroit attorney Richard Skutt, a past president of the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.

Taylor and Young, both Republicans, will face re-election bids in 2000.

Among other things, the proposed changes in the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct would triple the amount of campaign contributions judges could directly solicit from attorneys, extend the time during which judicial candidates can raise money from six to eight months prior to an election, limit rights of judicial associations and allow direct involvement of judicial candidates in raising "soft money" contributions to political action committees.

Noting that the proposed reforms would apply to all state judicial races, a spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party disputed the contention that the changes would especially benefit the GOP.

"All candidates will be able to raise more money," says Sage Eastman, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party. "As to extending the time frame of campaigns, it is a good idea in principle. Voters have a hard time getting to know who judges are. This would give them more of a chance to learn about candidates."

Critics say that with Supreme Court races in particular, where incumbents traditionally enjoy a big advantage and candidates aren’t selected until the parties hold their nominating conventions late in the summer, adding two months of fundraising opportunity adds to an incumbent’s advantage.

"They should call this the incumbent Bill of Rights," asserts Skutt, who specializes in representing injured workers – a group that has not fared well in Republican-dominated courts. Referring to the state Supreme Court’s Republican majority, Skutt described the handling of this reform proposal as "a blatant abuse of power. It’s like they are saying, ‘We’re in power and we’re going to do whatever we want to do.’"

The proposals were issued over the objections of Justice Marilyn Kelly, one of three Democrats on the court. Calling the changes controversial, Kelly noted that it was highly unusual for a proposal of this magnitude to be issued without first being "endorsed or even analyzed by any organization within the legal community."

"I oppose publishing them to the community at-large before the court has had input on them from the legal organizations that work closely with the Code of Judicial Conduct, notably the State Bar of Michigan," said Kelly.

Apparently even Kelly was surprised by the proposal and the speed with which it was issued.

"They just rammed it through," is the way Skutt described the action.

There is a 60-day public comment period before the court can take final action on the proposal.