2009-05-30 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Supreme Nominations Under Review
By George Weeks

There is no darker cloud over Michigan politics than the stealth funding of the crazy-quilt process for electing justices to the Supreme Court.

Crazy because partisan conventions put candidates on a "non-partisan" ballot, and then the parties spend millions of partisan funds to tout their decidedly partisan nominees. Nothing wrong with being partisan - except when nominated under false colors.

Crazy because last year under Michigan's weak campaign finance law, "the greatest portion of campaign spending was not disclosed in any campaign finance report" for court spending, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN).

That's a severe indictment of the current system. But hope may be on the way, in large part because of bipartisan recognition in the Senate and House that better reporting and other changes are needed.

Among ideas afoot in Lansing: Getting rid of the "nonpartisan" folly, more timely public disclosure of contributions, and electing justices by districts, as are Appeals Court judges.

Last year, for the first time in 24 years, an incumbent justice was defeated at the polls. Despite a record war chest, and the cherished "incumbent" designation on the ballot, Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, who raised a record $1,937,759, was defeated by Circuit Court Judge Diane Marie Hathaway by nearly 370,000 votes out of 3.75 million votes cast.

Hathaway raised $752,736. But beyond their individual figures were the third party expenditures on their behalf that were the dominant part of the campaigns.

Watchdog MCFN said: "The political parties and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent $3.8 million on television issue advertisements that defined the character and qualifications of the candidates without explicitly exhorting a vote for or against either candidate."

These issue ads were replete among the $5.6 million in TV court ads last year, including $398,596 in the Traverse City- Alpena market and $312,299 in the Marquette market.

"Among the notable issue ads," said MCFN, "was one sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce that said Judge Hathaway gave a low sentence to a sex offender; one sponsored by the Michigan Republican Party that featured a bikini-clad woman on a beach and said that Judge Hathaway had previously pursued a seat on the Court of Appeals so she could have an easy work schedule, and one sponsored by the Michigan Democratic Party that featured a 'dramatization' of a sleeping judge and testimony by litigants in a wrongful death case who accused Chief Justice Taylor of sleeping during oral argument of their case.

"Many observers asserted that the 'sleeping judge' ad was pivotal to the campaign's outcome."

It was indeed a memorable and effective ad, although not confirmed as accurate. But other factors, including anti-Taylor efforts by environmental and other interests, also were at play.

MCFN, in concluding the Supreme Court portion of its just-released Citizens Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance, said, "an appellant who wants to spend heavily to secure the selection of a justice who is perceived to be sympathetic can simply move his money under the table. The conflicts of interest that compromise due process can be concealed easily.

"The court cannot fix this problem. The Legislature must act to bring transparency and integrity to the state campaign advertising."

The Republican-ruled Senate appears ready to give priority to the issue, led by Senators Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau) and Alan Cropsey (RDeWitt).

"I'm very hopeful there is going to be progress," said Republican Justice Betty Weaver of Glen Arbor, a leading advocate of change in the process.

High time.

Tribal Energy

Conservation

Long before Indian casinos became big factors in the Michigan economy, the state's tribes were leaders in conserving natural resources. Last week, the state House, in passing and sending to the Senate a plan that will use $194 million in federal stimulus dollars for energy conservation programs, included funds for a dozen tribes.

"Getting this money into the community will get our workers back on the job weatherizing buildings and working in the energy conservation sector, which will jump start our local economy," Representative Dan Scripps (D-Leland) said of funding in his district that includes $160,000 for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and $54,000 for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

The plan also includes these funds for northern tribes: Bay Mills Indian Community, $51,000; Hannahville Indian Community, $35,100; Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, $68,900; Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, $25,900; Little Traverse Bands of Odawa Indians, $80,200; and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, $382,400.

The Cawthorne Clout

The Lansing-based online Dome Magazine knows a success story when it sees one. It just published one about "Strait Shooter" Dennis Cawthorne, whose trail of achievement includes Manistee, Mackinac Island, and more than four decades on the Capital City political scene.

He was elected to the state House from Manistee in 1966 at age 26 and served 12 years, four of them as Republican minority leader. He co-founded a lobbying firm in 1979, and then, in 1999, formed a lobbying firm with legendary ex-Attorney General Frank Kelley, Democratic "Eternal General," who retired in 1998 after 37 years in office.

Chris Christoff, longtime Lansing bureau chief for the Detroit Free Press and author of Dome's lengthy article, called Cawthorne "Mackinac Island's most ardent advocate."

He was general manager of the Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce summers while a Harvard Law student in the mid- 60s; built the Village Inn, one of Mackinac's most popular eateries and watering holes; is registered to vote on the Island; built a waterfront home that has a spectacular view of sunsets and the Mackinac Bridge; was chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission for a record 16 years until replaced by partner Kelley in 2007. Cawthorne now is vice chair.

Writes Christoff: "He's done much to protect the island from overdevelopment, and has considered writing a book about his island experiences."

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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