When Michigan voters go to the polls next month, buried deep in the ballot will be a difficult choice: Clifford Taylor or Diane Hathaway.

I say “difficult” not because these are two evenly matched candidates or because the position they are vying for is going to be dramatically changed by either of these two.

I say “difficult” because most voters are going to have no idea what they’re getting into with either of these candidates. According to Michigan law, neither is allowed to disclose the decisions that candidate expects to make if elected. Neither will appear with a ubiquitous “R” or “D” next to that person’s name (though Taylor will have an “I” for “incumbent” next to his). And most importantly, both will be allowed to collect millions of dollars in campaign funds from the very same people they’ll be charged with keeping an eye on if elected.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Taylor and Hathaway are running for a seat on Michigan’s Supreme Court — an institution that isn’t Michigan’s third branch of government so much as it is its disrespected third wheel. Partisanship bitterly divides the court. The justices are unprofessional. And almost every decision is called into question by the corrupting stream of money that flows into justices’ campaigns from the same businesses, attorneys and organizations being heard before the court.

Michigan’s Hall of Justice is in bad need of reform. But it doesn’t look like state Democrats and Republicans, bent on finding new ways to turn the court into their pawn, are interested in giving it what it really needs: independence.

Take, for starters, how future Super Friends make their way into the Hall of Justice. Though the ballot makes it look like Supreme Court candidates are plucked from some alternate, non-partisan universe, the truth is that they are party hacks like ordinary politicians, just with a little legal background. Hathaway is a Democrat who has been a Wayne County Circuit since 1993. Taylor is a Republican and the court’s current chief justice, having started his first full eight-year term in 2000 and his tenure as chief justice in 2005. Both had to be nominated at their respective party’s conventions — a process that weeds out those candidates who don’t sufficiently toe the party line.

And then the campaign begins. The thing is, by law, judicial candidates aren’t really allowed to tell you much because they can’t disclose their positions on issues. So, instead, everyone runs on buzzwords. According to Taylor’s website, voters have a pretty obvious choice come November: “preserve what “The Wall Street Journal” calls, the “finest court in the nation” by re-electing Chief Justice Cliff Taylor … or return Michigan to an unsavory era of Jackpot Justice and a frightening lottery of lawsuit abuse by electing a friend of the personal injury lawyers.”

That’s only the official campaign, though. The real campaign is run in the shadows by “independent,” third-party organizations. In 2006, for instance, independent groups paid for 87 percent of all television ads about Michigan’s Supreme Court elections, according to the Justice at Stake Campaign. And that might not be a big deal, except Michigan doesn’t have disclosure requirements for these issue ads — so basically you can say anything about a candidate, slap a high-minded sounding name on it like “Citizens for Judicial Fairness” and call it a day.

Both aspects of the campaign cost a lot of money — money that is poorly tracked and comes from the coffers of the same powerful people that often appear before the court. Some experts expect that this year’s election between Taylor and Hathaway will end up costing more than $20 million — almost the same amount spent on every Michigan Supreme Court election since 2000.

More troubling, Michigan has lax recusal standards, so justices sit on many cases they shouldn’t. A report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that more than 86 percent of cases decided by the Michigan Supreme Court during the 1990’s had at least one party that had contributed to at least one justice’s campaign. Whether this actually influences decisions is questionable, but certainly the perception of impropriety is there — and a court’s legitimacy is built on how fair people perceive it to be.

So what do we do? A public finance system for judicial elections is a good start. Disclosure is another big part. And ending the partisan nomination process is a third thing.

But neither Democrats nor Republicans want to risk their shot at controlling the court. So we are left each election choosing between two candidates we can’t judge with any certainty.

This year, I’m leaning toward Jackpot Justice.

Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at gmgraca@umich.edu.

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