‘Dark money’ in judicial races is statewide scandal

In no branch of government is it more important for a public official to be beyond even a hint of conflict of interest than in the judiciary.

Our judicial system is based on the presumption of impartiality, and anyone going into court has the right to assume that his or her case will be decided on the basis of its merits, not on the political leanings, financial interests or campaign contributors of the judge.

When public confidence in the impartiality of judges erodes, the very integrity of the justice system is in danger.

And that’s the scenario we’re facing in Michigan, where a broken campaign finance system means we don’t know who’s financing judicial campaigns and we don’t know to whom judges might be beholden.

Since 2000, Michigan has seen some of the nastiest, most partisan and most expensive Supreme Court races in the country and, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, most of the campaign spending has been off the books – so-called “dark money,” unreported spending by anonymous donors on thinly veiled “issue ads.” Some $5 million in campaign committee and independent spending was reported in the 2012 Supreme Court races, but the MCFN documented $12 million in dark money spent on television ads.

The total amount of dark spending is no doubt higher, but the Postal Service and Internet companies don’t keep public records of political spending.

Dark money may even be seeping into lower-level judicial races. Last year, an estimated $2 million was spent by anonymous sources in an unsuccessful effort to unseat two Oakland County Circuit Court judges.

The specter of wealthy groups or individuals trying to throw out of office a judge who ruled against them – without leaving any “fingerprints” – is a very real one in our state.

It doesn’t have to be that way. This month, the State Bar of Michigan requested that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the state’s top elections official, to reverse the 2004 legal interpretation of her predecessor, Terry Lynn Land, that exempted “issue ads” – those ads that trash and badmouth candidates but don’t explicitly urge voting for or against someone – from public reporting requirements.

The State Bar recognizes that dark money must be brought into the light of day and that all contributors in judicial campaigns should be publicly identified.

It’s a reasonable interpretation of state law and consistent with rulings like the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which stated that dollar limits on political contributions were unconstitutional but upheld public disclosure rules.

Freedom of speech, the high court ruled, carries with it the right to allow people to know where the speech comes from and how to respond to it.