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Michigan Court Race Is Nation’s Dirtiest, Watchdog Group Says

October 31, 2008

Justice at Stake Campaign

For Immediate Release October 31, 2008

Contacts: Charles W. Hall of Justice at Stake,202-588-9454, chall@justiceatstake.org

Michigan Court Race Is Nation’s Dirtiest, Watchdog Group Says
Late Ads Make Campaign an ‘Orgy of Negativity,’ Justice at Stake Says; Spending Also Cited in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and West Virginia

With just a few days left before voters decide, Michigan’s state Supreme Court campaign has degenerated into the nation’s dirtiest court race, a judicial watchdog group said yesterday.

A flood of TV ads has turned an election between Republican Chief Justice Cliff Taylor and his Democratic challenger, longtime trial judge Diane Hathaway, into an "orgy of negativity," said Bert Brandenburg, executive director, of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan national partnership that seeks to protect courts from special interest and political agendas.

Brandenburg cited ads that depicted Taylor as asleep on the bench and a "good soldier" of big business, and Hathaway as a goldbricking terrorist sympathizer who gives light sentences to sexual predators.

Michigan is one of a half-dozen fall court races that have been marked by heavy spending and organized attempts by special interests, political parties and an emerging class of "superdonors" to pack courts with judges to their liking, Brandenburg said.

Justice at Stake also cited Mississippi, where an attack ad was pulled off the air by one network after it proved false; Alabama, where special interest spending on court elections has become a central issue; Texas, where state Democrats are mounting an expensive challenge against the state’s all-Republican Supreme Court; Louisiana, where a record was set for television spending in an Oct. 4 preliminary Supreme Court elections; and West Virginia, where three candidates seek two seats after a special interest-tainted chief justice was defeated in a primary.

Justice at Stake’s evaluation was buttressed by the most recent edition of"Buying Time 2008," are port on TV advertising in judicial races by the

Brennan Center for Justice. Taylor and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent a combined $1,098,330 on TV ads in the two-week period ending October 24, Brennan said—more than four times what was spent on Hathaway ads. 


Brandenburg said his group had expected this year to be quieter, because three states that broke campaign spending records in recent years, Georgia, Illinois and Washington, had no competitive Supreme Court races on the November ballot. Meanwhile, Democratic challengers in Michigan and Ohio appeared to be heavily outgunned financially.

But that has changed dramatically in the last two weeks, Brandenburg said.

"Unfortunately, the worst is happening again," Brandenburg said. "The crisis in judicial elections continues to grow. Special interests of all stripes are still fueling a financial arms race, in hopes of claiming court seats as political prizes."

Nationally, $165 million was raised for state Supreme Court races in 1999-2007, compared with $62 million in 1993-1998, and that surge in campaign spending has eroded public trust in the courts. According to polls, three-quarters of Americans think that campaign donations could affect judges’ decisions once they are elected.

"Americans need to know that our courts are fair, impartial and free of special interest influence," Brandenburg said. "Campaigns defined by runaway spending and unsubstantiated character attacks weaken public faith in our system of justice."

While late spending was surging in many states, Brandenburg said a flurry of hit ads on both sides made Michigan the clear choice as the nation’s nastiest fall Supreme Court campaign. Most of the ads have been paid for by outside groups, including the Michigan Democratic and Republican parties and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Those ads, with links, include:

  • The "Sleeping Judge," a Democratic Party ad depicts Taylor nodding off in a case involving the deaths of six youngsters. According to an Associated Press report, Democratic officials couldn’t corroborate the story they were advertising.
  • The "Good Soldier," a Democratic ad that depicts Taylor as a pawn of business groups who has prevented women from suing their employers when harassed and even raped in the workplace.
  • "Bush and Taylor: the Same Agenda," a Democratic ad that closely ties Taylor to the policies of President Bush.
  • "Diane Hathaway – Vacationing on the Issues," a Republican ad claiming that Hathaway once ran for appellate judge because it would allow her to spend more winter vacation time in Florida. The only corroboration available on the internet is a 2006 column in which the author said he heard someone else make this allegation.
  • "Terrorist Sympathizer." A Republican ad, citing a decision by Hathaway to give an Arab American probation, ends by saying, "Probation for a terrorist sympathizer? We’re at war with terrorists."
  • "Dangerous Rulings," A Michigan Chamber of Commerce ad says Hathaway gave a light sentence to a convicted sexual predator.

Despite all the negative advertising, or perhaps because of it, many voters haven’t made up their minds, according to recent polls, which said 57 to 61 percent of the electorate are undecided. Both polls showed Taylor, who has raised a state record of $1.8 million, and Hathaway, who has raised $370,000, locked in a close race among decided voters.

Other states cited by Justice at Stake:

  • Alabama: Republican appellate judge Greg Shaw and longtime Democratic trial judge Deborah Bell Paseur have raised a combined $3.8 million and clashed angrily over the role of PAC money. Shaw, who received much of his funding from the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, accused Paseur of attacking his integrity with an ad that said, "Deborah can’t be bought." For further details and video clips, click here.
  • Mississippi: A television network removed an ad by an out of state group that accused Justice Oliver Diaz of "voting for" killers and rapists three times. A judicial conduct committee found that the ad, aired by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, was false and misleading. In another race, incumbent Chuck Easley accused his opponent of being a "deadbeat dad," based on 1989 court documents. The challenger accused Easley of "sleazy campaign" tactics. Further details and video, click here.
  • Louisiana: Four candidates set a TV advertising spending record leading up to the Oct. 4 preliminary Supreme Court election. Two candidates are in a Nov. 4 runoff. Details and video,click here.
  • Texas: State Democrats have invested $820,000 in a statewide TV campaign for three Democratic challengers who have said the current 9-0 all-Republican Texas Supreme Court is tilted too heavily toward business interests. Details and video,click here.
  • West Virginia: Candidates spent heavily in the spring primary, in which Chief Justice Elliott Maynard was voted off the court after he was photographed in France with a controversial coal mining executive. The three remaining candidates for two court seats have conducted a fairly low-key autumn race. In a sign of public unease over special interest funding of court campaigns, one candidate, Menis Ketchum, also advertised on television that he "can’t be bought." Details and video,click here.
For More Information:

Contacts: Charles W. Hall of Justice at Stake,202-588-9454, chall@justiceatstake.org

The positions and policies of Justice at Stake publications and campaign partners are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other campaign partners or board members.
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