State Bar of Michigan seeks to prohibit secret judicial ads


LANSING — The State Bar of Michigan has called for an end to secretly funded judicial campaign ads, urging the secretary of state to require disclosure of the spending that's increasingly dominated state Supreme Court elections.

The possibility of bias arises when the public does not know who has influenced a judge's election, said Bruce Courtade, president of the nonpartisan organization of more than 42,000 practicing lawyers and judges.

He said the bar asked Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to revisit a 2004 interpretive statement from her predecessor that says only ads urging voters to support or oppose a specific candidate are subject to campaign finance requirements. So-called "issue" ads, which define candidates' suitability for office without directly urging a 'yes' or 'no' vote, are exempt.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network – which estimates the state Democratic and Republican parties along with another group spent nearly $14 million on ads for the 2012 Supreme Court races – has complained there is no public record of whose contributions paid for the advertising. Another $2 million in unrecorded money was spent on Oakland County Circuit Court elections last year.

"The public needs to know who funds campaign ads not just to assess the credibility of those ads but to know that justice is not for sale in our state," Courtade said.

The bar association also said three U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 2007 indicate the issue should be revisited. The request is limited to judicial races, not other elections.

Courtade said no ads identifying candidates for judicial office should be deemed issue ads because, unlike other candidates for public office, they are not in a position to be lobbied outside the courtroom. He wants Johnson, if possible, to require the broadest disclosure possible: the names of the people who write the checks and for how much.

Johnson spokeswoman Gisgie Gendreau said the department will review the request for a declaratory ruling and accept public comments. The agency will issue a final response within 60 days, though it can ask for an extension of 30 business days.

In 2011, Johnson called for tougher campaign finance laws but did not include proposed regulations for issue ad groups or individuals. In her 2010 response to an Associated Press questionnaire submitted to candidates for secretary of state, she signaled out issue ads as needing attention.

"People have a right to know if out-of-state interests or a few wealthy individuals are providing major backing to a particular candidate or PAC," she wrote. "Additionally, issue ads – or ads that don't clearly ask voters to support or oppose a specific candidate but are designed to impact the outcome of an election – need funding transparency."

Supreme Court spokeswoman Marcia McBrien said none of the justices will comment on the bar association's request be cause the court might be asked to decide the matter or a similar issue.

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