$9.2M: Michigan tops nation in supreme court campaign spending

Michigan led the nation in campaign spending for 2009-2010 on state high-court elections, according to a report prepared by the Justice at Stake Campaign and two of its partners, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009–10” compiled figures that showed high-court spending in Michigan was nearly $4 million more than in Pennsylvania, the next state on the list:

Michigan: $9,243,914
Pennsylvania: $5,424,210
Ohio: $4,437,302
Alabama: $3,538,805
Illinois: $3,477,649
Texas: $2,951,719

The report had this to say about the election cycle:

In Michigan … interest groups and political parties dominated the airwaves, estimates of campaign spending ranged from $9.1 million to $11.1 million (with $6.8 million to $8.8 million in non-candidate spending). Regardless of the precise figure, Michigan’s judicial election spending was easily the nation’s highest in 2009-10. …

So great was the independent spending in Michigan that the four supreme court candidates [Young, Kelly, Justice Alton Davis and Judge Denise Langford-Morris], who raised a total of $2.3 million, at times seemed like bystanders in their own elections.

The state Republican Party single handedly outspent all four candidates, investing more than $4 million in electoral support. Kicking in more than $1.5 million was the state Democratic Party, while the Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA), a Virginia-based group with ties to the National Rifle Association, also made a major TV splash.

Most of the special-interest spending in Michigan was concealed from the public, a fact that accounts for the variation in estimates of total spending. Although ads by both parties and the LEAA were blatant attempts to sway votes, Michigan’s outdated disclosure law treated them as apolitical “issue ads,” and required no campaign finance filings disclosing the amounts spent. Estimates of total spending therefore were largely based on the volume of TV ads each group ran, and estimates of what that airtime cost. It also was impossible to decipher who ultimately bankrolled independent efforts in Michigan.

After being the preeminent player in the previous five supreme court campaigns, the state Chamber of Commerce sponsored no television advertisements in 2010. But it did give $5.4 million to the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a national campaign organization. The RGA ultimately transferred $5.2 million back to Michigan’s Republican Party, which was the leading television sponsor in this year’s high court campaign. Accountability was lost in the face of the RGA’s massive national shell game.

The report also slammed the Michigan Democratic Party’s campaign against Young:

The Democrats anti-Young campaign reached rock-bottom … when they ran an ad that said Young “used the word ‘Slut!’ and ‘The “N” Word!’ in deliberations with other justices” and urged voters to call Young and “tell him we don’t need a racist or a sexist on the Michigan Supreme Court.”

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$2 million too much for missing status conference?

No doubt about it, Jordan Mirch or someone representing him should have appeared at a scheduled status conference in Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford-Morris’ courtroom.

But summarily clobbering him with a $2 million default judgment isn’t right either, according to a per curiam Court of Appeals panel in RDI of Michigan v. Michigan Coin-Op Vending, et al.

Langford-Morris granted the motion of Mirch’s counsel to withdraw from the case on Aug. 27, 2008. She stated on the record:

So, what I will do is I will stay the case for 21 days and we’ll have you appear with or without counsel, and all trial counsel must appear on that status date.

My clerk will give you the date in approximately 21 days. Failure to appear could result in sanctions and/or finding of liability.

A 21-day stay would have lasted until Sept. 17. But the judge’s written order called for a Sept. 16 status conference, at which “all counsel and parties” must appear.

Mirch didn’t show, later explaining that the written order’s scheduled date clashed with what Langford-Morris told him in court.

Wrong, COA judges Henry William Saad, Joel P. Hoekstra and Deborah A. Servitto collectively said. Even if the date was incorrect, Mirch still had an obligation to appear, the panel said, citing Porter v. Porter, 285 Mich. App. 450 (2009).

Langford-Morris’ response to Mirch’s non-appearance wasn’t right either, the panel ruled. After noting that no one representing Mirch had appeared, the judge, “without any analysis, consideration, or weighing of options,” entered an on-the-spot default and a $2 million default judgment against him.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to go under MCR 2.401(G)(1). The COA panel explained:

[U]nder MCR 2.401(G), the trial court was required to excuse defendant’s failure to attend the pre-trial conference and not enter a default if it found that the entry of default would cause manifest injustice or if defendant’s failure to attend was not a result of his or his attorney’s culpable negligence. Here the trial court did not make any findings pursuant to MCR 2.401(G).

When defendant’s counsel argued at the hearing on his motion to vacate the order finding liability that permitting the default judgment of more than $2,000,000 to remain in place would result in manifest injustice, the trial court simply replied that there was no excuse for failing to appear at the status conference. Therefore, the trial court appears to have disregarded MCR 2.401(G). …

Accordingly, the trial court abused its discretion when it failed to evaluate any other available options on the record. On remand, the trial court is to evaluate less drastic sanctions … .

What’s more, because Mirch had previously appeared in the case, under MCR 2.603(B)(1), he was entitled to seven day’s notice before the default judgment was entered. The lack of notice was “plain error,” the COA panel said.

And, despite plaintiff’s protests, Mirch should have been allowed to contest damages, the panel ruled:

Plaintiff argues that, regardless of any notice violation, the end result will remain unchanged because the damages were all enumerated in the complaint and lease agreement. While this may be true, this Court cannot assume it will be the case – that is the very reason to allow defaulted parties an opportunity to participate in any damages determinations.

The parties, and Langford-Morris, will have another go at it on remand.

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Michigan Democrats ID three MSC candidates

Michigan Information & Research Service is reporting that the Michigan Democratic Party is naming “at least three judges are already seeking a Democratic state Supreme Court nomination for 2010. …

“They are: Wayne County Circuit Court judges Deborah Thomas and Robert Columbo and Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris.”

Subscribers to MIRS can read the whole story here.