Election 2012: Control of MI Supreme Court is On the Line

Nov 2, 2012

There are three races this year for spots on the Michigan Supreme Court. Two incumbents are running, and there’s one open seat.

The Republican and Democratic parties spend millions of dollars to get their candidates elected to the state’s highest court – even though they are on the non-partisan part of the ballot.

Two incumbents are running for re-election to the Michigan Supreme Court. Voters will also decide who'll claim one open seat.
Credit WKAR File Photo

Three of the court’s seven seats are up this year. That means the election will decide whether the court will continue to tilt toward the right under Republican control, or shift to a Democratic majority.

Relatively few people know the candidates running for Michigan’s highest court, but it’s not for a lack of spending by political parties. The state’s Republican and Democratic parties are the main bankrollers of the Supreme Court media campaigns.

“On television, the parties have put down $10 million: $5.5 million by the Democrats, $4.5 million by the Republicans.”

It’s Rich Robinson’s job to keep track of this spending, and where it’s coming from. Robinson directs the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He says the Democrats’ ads have been up on T-V longer, since Labor Day, while Republicans have been spending at a faster rate in recent weeks.

What does all that political party money pay for? Ads that repeat the candidates’ names and catchphrases...

(ad sound) “…Connie Kelley, Sheila Johnson, Bridget McCormack. Kelly, Johnson, McCormack…” “Judges Stephan Markman, Colleen O’Brien, and Brian Zahra – honesty and integrity on the bench…”

All that does is build name identification in hopes that will stick in voters’ minds when they reach the non-partisan part of the ballot and the state Supreme Court races.

Justice Stephen Markman is an incumbent seeking re-election. Judge Colleen O’Brien hopes to fill a seat that will be open due to a retirement. Both were nominated by the Michigan Republican Party. University of Michigan law school dean Bridget Mary McCormack  and Judge Connie Kelley were nominated by the Democrats. The top two vote-getters win the seats.

In another race, Republican Justice Brian Zahra, who was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to fill a vacancy. He’s running to finish out the final two years of the term. Democrats nominated Judge Sheila Johnson.

There are also nominees by the Libertarian Party, the U-S Taxpayer Party and others on the ballot, but voters won’t know who put there because party affiliations are not listed in these ostensibly non-partisan races.

The legal community expects justices to know the law, write understandable opinions, and work to create majorities that will hand down clear rulings other judges can apply to future cases. The Supreme Court decides things like whether an accused criminal got a fair trial, whether a law complies with the state and U-S constitutions, and complex tax and insurance questions. The court is also responsible for managing the rest of Michigan’s judicial branch.

The big issues raised by the political parties in these Supreme Court races have been whether the candidates sympathize with pedophiles and other child abusers, and one of the candidates’ willingness to represent suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.

And here’s something all the candidates – the Republican and Democratic ones – seem to agree on – this is not a campaign they or the voters should feel proud of, and they don’t like how the media campaigns are funded…

“And I think increasingly that is calling into question the integrity of the court with many citizens… It really gives the appearance that there’s an impropriety… even more troubling and even more disconcerting and causes an even bigger public confidence problem…The system is not perfect…  it’s difficult for the candidates and it’s confusing for voters … I personally think that judges should be appointed by the governor.”

That was Markman, Johnson, McCormack, O’Brien, Kelley, and Zahra.

Most people don’t know these candidates. And, Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says because most of the money in Supreme Court races is donated directly to political parties, it’s not traceable -- most people can’t know who’s paying to put justices on the court, either.

“You have no idea whose given $10 million-plus to the political parties," says Robinson.

In elections a lot of people will pay no attention to, millions of dollars will be spent to influence how people will vote. Yet, if 2012 is like other years, a quarter to a third of the people who bother to vote, won’t stick with their ballot down to the Supreme Court races.