Issue ads topic of panel on Michigan Supreme Court

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Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, speaks Monday night at the Law School for a forum on Michigan Supreme Court elections. Buy this photo

By Channing Robinson, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 12, 2013

The University’s Law School co-hosted a forum Monday evening to discuss how Michigan Supreme Court justices are appointed.

The event, organized for members of the Law School community, included panelists such as former Justice Marilyn Kelly and Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network — a nonpartisan coalition advocates campaign finance reform.

MaryAnn Sarosi, senior adviser for Bridget McCormack’s successful campaign for Michigan Supreme Court in the Nov. 2012 elections, spoke on behalf of the recently elected justice.

A major topic of the event was issue advertising which interest groups and political parties spent millions during the nonpartisan state Supreme Court elections.

“Issue ads are ads that characterize the suitability to hold office of the candidates, but don’t explicitly tell you to vote for or against a candidate,” Robinson said. “These are not reported anywhere in the campaign financial disclosure system.”

However, because issue advertisements are not a part of a candidate’s campaign, they are not included in the campaign’s financial report. As a result, Robinson said many voters are ignorant of the source and cost of the ads that may sway their decision at the polls.

Robinson added that while partisan campaign reform may still be out of reach, judiciary campaign reform should be held to a higher standard.

“One could make the case that elected executives and legislators have legitimate relationships with interest groups,” Robinson said. “I think one would have to agree that judges serve only the law and to have all this unaccountable influence in our judicial campaigns is certainly corrosive of the trust and confidence and the impartiality of the judiciary.”

Many of the panelists said the negativity of issue advertisements also calls for concern.

Sarosi argued that issue ads don’t focus on the relevant characteristics of the candidates.

“The problem with these ads — that I’ve seen throughout this election — is it doesn’t really tell you the quality of the individual that’s going to sit on Court,” Sarosi said. “It doesn’t go to their judicial skills; it doesn’t go to their respect for the rule of law. There’s always these insinuations about who they are that may or may not have anything to do with their role on the Court.”

Sarosi personally experienced the anxieties of facing issue advertising while working on McCormack’s state Supreme Court campaign. In the last weeks of the election, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network launched a million-dollar attack campaign against McCormack. The commercial criticized McCormack’s role in the defense of an alleged terrorism case involving Guantanamo detainee Wahldof Abdul Mokit.

“I just don’t agree that they’re helpful to the conversation and they’re certainly not helpful to the collegiality that one needs when one gets to the Court and has to work with six other justices,” Sarosi said.

In response to the negative ads, former Justice Kelly said a possibility would be creating an organization separate from the government and partisan politics that would review issue ads, similar to media outlets like Politifact, “for truth and untruth, factual inaccuracies.”