Focus on Professional Responsibility--The Ethics of Judicial Campaigns—Frequently Asked Questions

by Thomas K. Byerley

As the 2000 judicial campaign season progresses, the Ethics Hotline [(517) 485-ETHX] receives an increasing number of calls concerning ethical campaign conduct for judicial elections. This article is offered to answer some of the most frequently asked questions. All candidates for judicial office are invited to call the Hotline for individualized, confidential consultation on campaign conduct if this article does not directly answer the issue facing the judicial candidate.

The answers to the most frequently asked judicial campaign questions are offered as a quick guide to ethical campaign behavior for the candidate. Citations are given to the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct (MCJC), Ethics Opinions (formal (J) or informal (JI)), and statutes. The full text of the cited ethics opinions may be found on the State Bar of Michigan’s website,, in the ‘‘Ethics’’ section.

Campaign Funding

Q. When may fundraising efforts begin?

A. Fundraising may begin on February 15 of the year of the general election and must cease on the date of the general election. MCJC 7B(2)(d). The judicial candidate may not personally solicit or accept contributions, since that function is reserved for the Campaign Committee. JI-17, MCL 169.221, MCJC 7B(2)(b). However, a judicial candidate may send a thank-you note to a contributor. MCJC 7B(2)(a).

Q. May a judge serve on the campaign committee of another judicial candidate?

A. No. JI-14.

Q. May a member of my immediate family serve as campaign treasurer?

A. No. JI-90 provides that a campaign treasurer should neither reside in the candidate’s household, nor be within the third degree of affinity or consanguinity to the candidate.

Q. May a campaign committee receive more than $100 from a lawyer?

A. Yes. Although a campaign committee may not solicit contributions in excess of $100 from any lawyer, a campaign committee may accept unsolicited and voluntary contributions from lawyers in excess of $100. JI-1 and MCJC 7B(2)(c). The contribution may not be so large, however, that it infers the judge may not remain impartial. JI-92. The maximum amount of the contribution is also subject to the statutory maximum found in the Michigan Campaign Financing Act.

Q. May a campaign committee solicit $100 from lawyers for the primary and then another $100 for the general election?

A. No. The $100 solicitation limit applies to the election cycle, not to individual elections. JI-1 and CI-574. The recent amendment to MCJC 7B(2)(c) provides that it is not a violation of the $100 solicitation limit rule to send a solicitation letter asking for more than $100 to a group of individuals that may include lawyers, if the appropriate disclaimer is added as provided in MCJC 7B(2)(c).

Q. Are there limits as to how much a candidate may contribute to his or her own campaign?

A. No. The candidate may make unlimited contributions to the campaign and may loan funds to the campaign committee to cover campaign expenses. MCL 169.252(b), 169.204(2), 169.206(1), and 169.209.

Q. Are there contributions that may not be received by a candidate committee?

A. Yes. The following contributions are prohibited: (a) anonymous contributions, (b) a corporate (including a law firm P.C.) or labor union contribution, and (c) a contribution made by a person to another person with the understanding or agreement that the contribution will be passed on to a particular candidate campaign committee. MCL 169.241(2), 169.254, 169.204, 169.212, and 169.252.

Campaign Activities

Q. May I attend a nonpartisan dinner held in my honor?

A. A candidate may attend nonpartisan dinners or testimonials held in the candidate’s honor. JI-9.

Q. May I respond to surveys which ask me to "agree" or "disagree" with decisions concerning specific issues already decided by the court of last resort?

A. No, JI-82. Similarly, a candidate may not campaign under a ‘‘strict sentencing philosophy,’’ since the phrase, standing alone, creates an impression of possible bias in the candidate unrelated to the relevant facts in individual cases. C-219.

Q. Must all campaign communications include the name and address of the person or group sponsor paying for the communication?

A. Yes. MCL 169.247(1).

Q. Are my campaign workers subject to the same ethics rules as I am?

A. Yes. Violations by campaign workers may be imputed to the candidate. MCJC 7B(1)(b).

Q. Do the ethics rules apply to judges’ associations?

A. Yes. Under the new Canon 8 adopted by the Michigan Supreme Court in January 2000, the MCJC rules concerning the conduct of individual judges and judicial candidates also apply to judges’ associations or any other organization consisting exclusively of judges.

Disposition of Campaign Funds

Q. When must I submit my final campaign expense report?

A. Campaign expenses and accounts should be settled promptly after the election, but no later than January 1 following the election. MCJC 7B(2)(f).

Q. What do I do with leftover campaign funds?

A. After all campaign debts have been retired and loans repaid, "excess" campaign funds must either be returned to the contributors or donated to the State Bar of Michigan Client Protection Fund by January 1 following the election. MCJC 7B(2)(f).

Q. May I use campaign funds to throw a "victory party" for campaign volunteers?

A. No. Campaign funds may only be used for activities held before the date of the election. JTC A/O 71.

Q. May I receive contributions after the date of the election to satisfy campaign debts?

A. No. A candidate may not accept any contributions after the date of the election, including those to retire campaign debts. A contribution post-marked prior to the day of the election and received the day following the election may be accepted and used toward campaign expenses. JI-5 and MCJC 7B(2)(d).

Other Resources

Q. Are there other resources available to assist a person running for judicial office?

A. A State Bar of Michigan publication, entitled "Becoming a Judge: Ethics and Campaign Practices," is available from the State Bar at nominal cost and was assembled to assist judicial candidates throughout the election cycle. That booklet, published in January 2000, contains more detailed answers to the above questions, as well as the answers to many other ethics issues surrounding a judicial campaign. The booklet includes the January 1, 2000 amendments to Canon 7 and a new Canon 8 of the MCJC adopted by the Michigan Supreme Court.

"Focus on Professional Responsibility" is presented as a monthly feature to address ethics, professionalism, and other regulatory issues affecting Michigan lawyers. Thomas K. Byerley is regulation counsel for the State Bar of Michigan.