Two seats up for grabs on state Supreme Court

By Ed White

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- It seems dissension always is on the docket at the Michigan Supreme Court.

The surprising result of the 2008 election gave Democrats a working majority in many cases for the first time in nine years, an advantage that has allowed liberal justices to reverse the decisions of their conservative colleagues with insults lobbed from both sides in legal footnotes.

With two seats on the ballot, the Nov. 2 election will determine if Democrats maintain or even stretch their 4-3 margin or whether Republicans regain control.

At stake isn't just the tilt of court decisions. District boundaries for seats in Congress and the Legislature will be redrawn after the 2010 census, and the court could determine what the maps look like if there's a challenge by political parties as there has been in the past.

Some observers predict a rocky time at the court no matter the outcome of the election: A Democratic majority could continue chopping down previous court precedents or a new Republican majority could undo the work of the past two years.

"The partisanship in Michigan is so extreme," said Liisa Speaker, a Lansing lawyer who specializes in appeals. "There's going to be a lot of instability for a while. There are more decisions being teed up for re-examination."

Republicans have nominated Justice Robert Young Jr. for another eight-year term, along with Wayne County Judge Mary Beth Kelly. Democrats are offering Justice Alton T. Davis, newly appointed to the court in summer, and Oakland County Judge Denise Langford Morris.

Political parties nominate candidates for the Supreme Court, but the races appear as nonpartisan at the end of the ballot.

"Most people don't know much about the courts and how important they are," said Mark Brewer, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "The challenge for the parties and the candidates is to educate them to vote the entire ballot."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, appointed Davis to the court when Justice Elizabeth Weaver quit on Aug. 26. Weaver, a Republican, was out of favor with her party and had signed up to run as an independent before her sudden resignation.

A group called American Justice Partnership responded with a radio ad criticizing Granholm and calling on Davis to resign. The governor had agreed with Weaver's request to pick Davis, a fellow judge from northern Michigan.

The deal "would make Rod Blagojevich blush," the ad says, referring to the disgraced former Illinois governor.

That knock is tame compared to what's coming to Michigan living rooms. Brewer is promising TV ads against Republican court candidates, two years after he portrayed then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor as asleep during oral arguments.

Taylor denied any snooze but the attack was effective. Voters who may have known nothing about his judicial philosophy laughed about the "sleeping judge," and he became the first Supreme Court justice to lose an election in 24 years.

"What citizens expect are fair and impartial courts, that someone gets their day in court without bias or prejudice," Brewer said. "The Supreme Court is getting much better in that regard."

Young will be the main target for Democrats, who describe him as a pro-business judge deciding cases at the expense of the little guy. For the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, however, he's a hero who is tough on crime and unlikely to make new law from the bench.

"The stakes are very high," said Rich Studley, president of the business group. "It's very important for the business community to have a stable and predictable legal climate. That's why job providers are so concerned about activist judges who will write their own personal opinions about the law."

In August, the state Supreme Court set broader legal standards for auto-wreck victims seeking compensation and who has standing to sue in certain cases. Conservatives were in the minority in both cases.

It means "more litigation, which means a higher cost of living and higher cost of doing business," Studley said.

And it hasn't been done with much civility. In footnotes to 100-page-plus decisions, the justices have repeatedly sniped at each other.

Justice Michael Cavanagh says complaints from conservatives formerly in the majority "should taste like ashes in their mouths." Justice Stephen Markman, one of those conservatives, jabs Cavanagh for the number of dictionaries -- seven -- cited in an opinion.

"The whole back and forth on both sides -- it's been an embarrassment. ... What sort of example does that set for the attorneys before the court?" Speaker said.

Published: Wed, Oct 6, 2010