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Judiciary for sale

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Naive Michiganders might’ve been startled in recent years to witness judges stumping on television and at public events, delivering campaign promises and raising cash like any other money-grubbing politico. You might ask, "Aren’t judges supposed to be impartial arbiters of justice? And can they keep putting their hands out without engendering mistrust amongst the vox populi?" The answers are yes and no.

Impartial arbiters they’re supposed to be, but they’re also partisan creatures that go sucking up to special interests come campaign time. And the extent of that sucking is raising serious questions about impartiality.

Since 1994, the amount of cashola raised by major party Michigan Supreme Court candidates increased 250 percent, to an average of more than $1 million per candidate, according to a recent report by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Why does that matter? From 1990 to 1999, 86 percent of cases before the state Supreme Court involved a litigant or lawyer who contributed to at least one high court judge, according to the nonprofit campaign watchdog. If you were in court going up against someone who had contributed big bucks to the judge, wouldn’t you be worried about his or her ability to be fair?

Matthew Abel, a Detroit lawyer, wants to do something about the situation. Abel wants the Michigan Bar Association to adopt a resolution supporting public funding for judicial candidates. The American Bar Association, now headed by former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, already supports such a stand. In Michigan, only gubernatorial candidates are eligible for public funds. Basically such funding is collected from taxpayers who check a little box on their tax sheets (donating $1 or more to public campaigns — a Good Samaritan thing to do), and the state provides matching funds to the pool. Politicians (or judges, as the case would be) then have the option of accepting tax dollars to fund their campaign — if they agree to spending limits. It’s not a panacea, but Abel says it’s a big step toward ending a judicial system governed by patronage. If the Michigan bar, whose members donate hefty sums to judicial campaigns, support the measure, Abel thinks it’ll encourage the Legislature to follow suit.

"I’m coming at this as a lawyer who’s trying to get court-appointed cases without bribing judges," says Abel. "The way the justice system in Michigan has deteriorated, defendants and good lawyers get screwed … Judges have particularly strict ethics rules, whether they abide or not. The code prohibits even the appearance of impropriety. I think we’ve clearly met that standard." Abel’s proposal goes before the Michigan bar for a vote Sept. 26.

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