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Published: Thursday, 5/24/2012

GUEST EDITORIAL

Choosing judges

More than two dozen states are holding elections for judges on their top courts this year, with millions of dollars expected to pour into those races. Among the states with the highest judicial campaign spending is Michigan, where three justices, running in partisan primaries, will be elected to a seven-member court.

To reduce partisanship and repair damage to the court's reputation and integrity, an independent task force in Michigan, convened by a state justice and a federal appeals court judge, recently proposed crucial reforms, which include model elements for other states.

"The 2010 campaign season for the Michigan Supreme Court," the report notes, "was the most expensive and most secretive in the nation," but the problem goes back more than a decade. Under Michigan law, spending by independent groups in judicial elections does not need to be disclosed.

Since 2000, when special-interest groups with innocuous-sounding names began spending money on electioneering television ads, the average spending by all candidates for Supreme Court seats has reached $3.5 million. Half the total spending, or $20.8 million, came from undisclosed sources.

This has made it impossible for litigants to know when they should ask for recusal by a justice, because they don't know whether their case involves a party that supported the justice's campaign.

Increased spending on campaigns also amplifies the public's perception of judicial partisanship. Justices have to seek a party nomination or be selected by the governor, who fills temporary vacancies, with no input from the Legislature.

The task force has recommended legislation that would require all financing for campaign ads in Supreme Court races to be disclosed, and would replace the partisan nominating process by a nonpartisan system with open primaries.

Regrettably, it did not reach consensus on having an independent commission nominate justices based on merit. That would have been the best way to end the profoundly harmful effect money has had on the Michigan court.

-- New York Times



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