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
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
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
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