Justice O'Connor warns of the need to change how Michigan elects judgesMichigan Appellate Court judges are elected on a "non-partisan" ballot after being nominated by a political party. Until the last election, Republicans held a strangle-hold on the Michigan Supreme Court, in large measure due to the multi-million dollar campaign contributions of the Chamber of Commerce and insurance industry. The Chamber had been so successful in dictating the constituency of the Supreme Court that its officers and judicial candidates actually bragged about their ability to control judicial elections and decisions. As a majority of the Court, the Chamber-appointees unabashedly embarked on a campaign of judicial activism that resulted in restrictions on all forms of consumer litigation, including insurance claims, consumer protection act claims, environmental claims, product liability claims, medical malpractice claims and no fault actions. The state was stunned, then, when Engler-appointee (and spouse of his Chief-of-Staff) Clifford Taylor was unseated by a relatively unknown judge from southeast Michigan, Diane Hathaway.
At a speech in Detroit at Wayne State University's Law School, former Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor--a Ronald Reagan appointee, by the way, and by no one's description a liberal--issued a warning and called for a change in how Michigan selects judges. She noted that with the recent 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court eliminating limits on corporate campaign spending, the fairness and impartiality of Michigan's judical elections and judiciary will be even further impugned. She was quoted as warning that "Being right has to be more important than being popular...in order for judges to dispense law without prejudice, they need to be certain they won't suffer political retribution."
We agree with Justice O'Connor's ultimate rallying cry for judicial appointments untained by the purchase of votes: "There has to be one safe place in our system of government where decisions are based on the law and people can be fair and impartial." Sadly, when the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision equating corporate campaign money with "free speech" is combined with Michigan's antiquated judicial selection process, the Michigan Supreme Court is unlikely to be perceived as that "one safe place."