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issues - fair & impartial courts

We depend on strong courts to uphold the Constitution and protect our rights, rule on cases fairly and impartially, make decisions based on facts and the law and provide access to justice for all.  Strong courts are essential to our democracy and provide vital balance in our government.  The cost of judicial campaigns in Michigan is out of control, forcing judges to raise money like politicians.  Only the wealthy or those who take money from special interest donors can afford to campaign.  Special interests are spending millions on judicial campaigns and the source of those funds is hidden from public view.  Public trust and confidence in the courts is at risk, as a large majority of Michigan voters believe that the courts are influenced by campaign contributions.  To remain fair and impartial, the courts must be protected from political pressure. 
michigan judicial selection task force report and recommendations
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and Senior Judge James L. Ryan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit convened a Task Force of distinguished Michiganders in December 2010 to study the processes by which state supreme court justices are selected across the United States.  The Task Force studied the issues of judicial selection, heard testimony from experts, debated and eventually reached a consensus on a set of recommendations that they believe can improve the process by which justices are selected for the Michigan Supreme Court.  Click here to download or order a copy the report

Michigan’s process for choosing supreme court justices has been criticized for its excessive cost, lack of transparency, and damaging negativity.  Participation of special interest groups in judicial elections is particularly concerning.  Even the perception that campaign spending influences judicial decision-making reduces public confidence in the justice system.  Advertising in judicial races is powerful because voters generally lack other information on which to base their choices.  Convened in 2010 by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and James Ryan, Senior Judge of the Federal District Court, the Judicial Selection Task Force recently completed a study of Michigan’s judicial selection system and recommended a series of improvements to the system.  Recently, LWVMI sponsored a series of forums in four communities that provided an opportunity for dialogue about the proposed reforms to Michigan's process for choosing Supreme Court Justices. 

The Oakland Press recently conducted an interview with Rich Robinson and highlighted the upcoming forums. In a February 3, 2013 article, Ann Arbor.Com interviewed LWVMI President Sue Smith as well as Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack.  The Ann Arbor forum held on February 11th can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here to see the video.  Click here to read and/or listen to the review on Michigan Radio, and click here to read a review of the event in the Michigan Daily.   

A similar forum held in Traverse City on February 6th can be clicking here to view the program featuring Michigan Campaign Finance Network's Rick Robinson discuss "Dark Money and Justice."

Public Funding for Michigan Supreme Court Campaigns
Judicial elections are different from elections for legislative or executive offices.  Judges do not serve constituencies but are expected to uphold the law and the Constitution.  This is a fundamental component of our balanced system of government and essential both to the perception and reality of a court system that is fair and impartial.  Citizens rightly expect judges to decide cases based on facts and the law, not on political or monetary influence.

But financing for judicial elections operates the same as any other campaign.  Candidates’ campaigns spend considerable time soliciting contributions, which typically come from individuals and organizations that may have an interest in the outcomes of cases that may later come before the elected judges.  The public believes that campaign contributions influence judicial decision-making.  When judges make decisions that favor contributors, regardless of whether there is actual bias, the public may perceive this as favoritism.  Additionally, because money plays such a significant role in judicial elections, the candidate with the most money almost always wins.  These dynamics of judicial elections diminish public confidence in the justice system.

The cost of campaigns for the Michigan Supreme Court has increased dramatically in the past decade and judges, as well as voters, have concerns about the role money and special interests play in campaigns and court rulings.  Nearly 80 percent of Michiganders believe that it is very important for judges to be independent of influence from contributors to their campaigns. (Denno-Noor Research, March 2009)
The March 2009 poll also found that 80 percent of Michigan voters favor a publicly financed election fund for Michigan Supreme Court candidates.  Public funding for judicial races has been successfully implemented in North Carolina and was recently enacted in Wisconsin.  These systems are voluntary; that is, candidates opt to take public funding and forego large and special interest contributions.  They are also required to raise a specified number of small contributions to qualify for the public funds.

North Carolina has found that the availability of public financing reduces financial barriers to running for office, frees candidates from constant fundraising, and allows them to focus on talking to voters, rather than special interests.  It also removes the possibility of real and perceived conflicts of interest in judicial decision-making.

Comments to the Michigan Supreme Court Concerning Judicial Recusal Standards
Absentee ballots are available in every state for residents who cannot make it to the polls.  Twenty-nine states offer “no excuse” absentee voting, allowing any registered voter to vote absentee without a reason, including neighbors Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  Voters apply for and receive the ballot prior to the election, complete it at their convenience, and return it by mail.

In Michigan, voters are not free to vote absentee but must select from a limited list of reasons when requesting an absentee ballot.  This disqualifies most eligible voters from obtaining an absentee ballot.  People over 60, many of whom are retirees, can vote absentee by right.  Yet the busiest demographic – working moms and dads – do not have this opportunity.

There is no evidence that no excuse absentee voting will lead to fraud or otherwise jeopardize the integrity of Michigan’s elections, a concern raised by opponents.  This objection typically is based on problems with invalid voter registrations, which are easily detected by clerks.  Michigan’s clerks and clerk associations are confident that our laws and election procedures provide strong protections against voting fraud.  Additionally, two-thirds of Michigan voters indicate that fraud is not a concern in adopting no excuse absentee or early voting.

Justice Marilyn Kelly Discusses Judicial Selection in Michigan
The 3 videos below comprise Justice Kelly's 20 minute talk: