Disclosure Laws Are Essential to the Transparency of Judicial Elections

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As this year’s election approaches, political attack ads are flooding the airwaves, fueled by unprecedented sums of money from corporations and wealthy individuals funding “independent” political ads. Much of the money is funneled through nonprofit orga­nizations that do not disclose their donors.

Although disclosure laws usually apply to elections for all branches of government, judicial elections involve unique interests that make the need for transparency in cam­paign finance even greater than in other elections.

In a series of cases striking down campaign finance reform laws, federal courts have opened the door to unlimited political spending by ostensibly “independent” groups. The U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission overruled a 1990 case that thwarted an attempt by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a non­profit corporation under Michigan law, to spend its general treasury funds on political ads in the local newspaper. Since 2000 the organization has become a major player in judicial races, having purchased $14 million in ads for Michigan Supreme Court candi­dates—$14 million, which was not reported under state law.

The rapid rise in unlimited independent spending is even more alarming when the politicians in question are judges, who are supposed to be true to the law, not to campaign contributors. Voters are not surprised when legislators are responsive to their campaign donors, but in a courtroom, ordinary citizens should stand on the same footing as those most powerful in our society. Justice is supposed to be blind, but polls suggest Americans are concerned that campaign cash will influence judges’ rulings.

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