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Lansing State Journal

Judicial elections marred by money, negative ads
By John Gear
November 19, 2002 

The Chinese symbol for "crisis" is said to combine the symbols for "danger" and "opportunity." That's quite an apt reference for Michigan's judicial elections.

Consider Ingham County District Judge Richard Ball. As the State Journal explained in a recent editorial, "Ball is a judge - a district judge - running for a higher office. He also has a problem with campaign literature. Ball's brochures, and recent TV ads, say he doesn't take money from political action committees. The brochures he mailed to voters say he refuses PAC money as the only way to 'insure a fair and impartial judge.' But Ball has taken PAC money - $1,500 from two PACs. Responding to the discrepancy between word and deed, Ball told the State Journal: 'I'm not into hypocrisy if I can avoid it.'"

Although attorneys give Judge Ball top marks, voters see how campaign fund-raising pressures can lure even sitting judges into major blunders in judgment. How else to explain a judge who obviously knows that campaign fund raising corrodes trust - but who then takes the money anyway?

This problem exists wherever judges are elected. Michigan, Ohio and Texas are examples of states where supreme court races have become as expensive as any other statewide race. Michigan's quiet race this year was a fluke caused by the overshadowing governor's race. Expect much hotter, costlier judicial races in 2004.

When voters elect judges, judicial candidates must raise money. And boy do they - or else.

But, alas, nothing is free. Letting private interests fund judicial races means letting them pick the judges. The voters only get to choose among candidates made "viable" by plenty of money.

Voters want judicial elections, even though they usually ignore them. This gives the special interests even more power. To restrain that power, we must free judicial candidates from begging for dollars. If we don't, we will see judges suffering the scorn people once reserved for common "politicians."

If that happens, people will not see judges as honest and independent actors, and that means the end of public confidence in courts and peaceful dispute resolution.

We have two opportunities. First, elect judges using an efficient one-round election system called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV gives voters a full-choice ballot that allows ranking as many candidates as desired, 1, 2, 3 ... and so on. This is how Australia has elected its Senate since the 1920s, and voters in San Francisco just chose it also.

IRV eliminates wasteful primaries and the associated fund raising. And IRV rewards positive campaigns appropriate for judicial races, because IRV frees candidates from the zero-sum struggle for one vote from each voter. IRV helps candidates who embrace all voters, including those backing other candidates. That means negative tactics backfire.

Then we should follow North Carolina's example and provide full public financing for judicial elections. Most of the public already strongly believes that campaign contributions affect how judges rule on cases, so we have no time to lose. The danger is real. Will we respond in time?

John Gear of Lansing is a student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School .

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