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Politics > Politics and Prejudices

Let's make a deal

When it comes to Michigan's supreme court, justice isn't blind

 

Published 9/1/2010

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Imagine your little boy or girl gets interested in the legal system and decides he or she would like to be a judge someday. Wouldn't that just be a parent's dream?

What, after all, could be a better or more important job than applying the laws and helping people understand them? It's also ever so much more respectable than being a pimp or a bond trader.

So imagine that little Johnny or Tamika asks, "How do you get to be a really important judge, like on the Michigan Supreme Court?" There are a variety of answers you could give, having to do with studying hard, finding a good law school, keeping your nose clean and your financial dealings cleaner, etc.

However, if you want to be honest, you could say, "Well, it helps a lot to curry favors with the right politicians and donate to their campaigns. Get active in a political party and schmooze the higher-ups. Having sufficiently vague views is a plus too — though members of your party should at least think they know where you are on the litmus test issues, most importantly abortion.

"But being in the right place at the right time is the most important thing of all. Got it, kid?"

Like it or not, that's how the system works in Michigan, and one kid who must get it is a boy from Grayling named Alton Davis. Well, he isn't so much of a kid anymore — he's 63 — but he's just had one heck of a week. Tuesday, he was an unknown judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals. Gov. Jennifer Granola put him in the job five years ago, and he's plugged away ever since. 

Then his phone rang, and it was her gubernatorialship once again. Elizabeth "Betty" Weaver wants to resign. Would he like to be named to the Michigan Supreme Court? Huh? Would Ferris Buehler like to skip school and borrow a Ferrari? Damn straight.

So the next day Betty quits; Jenny appoints Alton, and he's immediately a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, thank you very much. Four days later, delegates to the Democratic state convention, most of whom had never heard of Davis before, nominated him to run for a full eight-year term this November. He'll almost surely win too. That's because his name on the ballot will be accompanied by the words "Justice of the Supreme Court." His opponents, by implication, are the inferior generic brand, and we know none of the cool kids ever go for those. True, two years ago, the Democrats managed to defeat a sitting GOP supreme, Clifford Taylor, by cleverly spending millions on a commercial that professed to show him sleeping on the bench. (He probably never did.)

But that was a lucky shot. In any event, it also further illustrates a major problem this state has. Michigan, in many ways, has the worst and most politicized state supreme court in the nation. That's not just my judgment. Two years ago, the University of Chicago law school issued a study ranking Michigan's highest court worst of all such courts in the nation.

They found that Our Supremities, then controlled by an ultra-right "Gang of Four," were little respected for their decisions, and the least independent from business of any high court in the nation. That was largely because elections for Michigan's supreme court, unlike those in most other states, are partisan.

Were you taught in school that justice was supposed to be blind when it comes to politics? They weren't talking about Michigan, baby. While independents can run, and have even been elected, our seven supreme justices are normally chosen by political party conventions. This year, for example, two of the seven have to run for new eight-year terms. So last weekend, Republicans chose two candidates, and Democrats two — the newly famous Mr. Davis, as I have just said, and Denise Langford Morris. Republicans nominated one of their incumbents, Robert Young, Jr., and Mary Beth Kelly.

They all owe their place on the ballot to partisan convention delegates, few or none of whom are legal scholars. Do you suppose these nominees were chosen for their legal writings — or because they seemed to pass the usual litmus tests on issues like abortion?

Besides that, the way Alton Davis got his job is not exactly the way anyone interested in putting the best judges on the court would design things. That would probably involve a committee of legal experts recommending the names of those most qualified.

The way Michigan does it, the governor can appoint anybody anytime there is a vacancy, and that appointment isn't even subject to state Senate confirmation. Right now, Republicans in the Senate are actually holding up three appointments the governor has made to an unpaid board called, I kid you not, the Michigan Carrot Committee.

But she can plug a vacancy on the state's highest court with whomever she wants. Incidentally, this is not to cast any aspersions on Alton Davis. The few people I know who know him tell me that he is a man of integrity and a good judge. True, Jennifer Hoff, the vitriolic new GOP spokesman, denounced him as a "partisan hack." But that's because her bosses bitterly wanted their own partisan hack instead.

But the way Davis got on the court was this: Betty Weaver made a deal to screw her fellow Republicans, whom she's been mad at for years. Weaver is from Glen Arbor, and wanted another judge from Up North on the court. She told Granholm that if she would appoint Davis, she would quit. Otherwise, she wouldn't.

Weaver said as much. So the deal was done.

Think that's bad? Had Granholm desired, she could have put the pseudo-employed first gentleman, Dan Mulhern, on the court — or anybody else who has been a lawyer for five years.

This is pure craziness, and we need to fix it. But how?

Michigan voters are going to be asked in November if they want to call a convention to write a new state constitution. That would be the best way to address many problems. Unfortunately, nobody is out there crusading for it, and the establishment is working hard to make sure this doesn't happen.

Even if they succeed, we can still change this wacky system with a plain, common, garden-variety state constitutional amendment.

We better do something. The Michigan Supreme Court has several justices who have worked hard to give the impression that the court is a remake of The Gong Show. Permanently combining that with Let's Make a Deal is the last thing this state needs.


How sweet it is:
For the last year, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, the gel-haired wonder from Rochester, has refused to compromise on anything that might be good for the state of Michigan.

He wouldn't permit a cent of new revenue to be raised, or lift a finger to save the college scholarships promised Michigan kids. Nor would he consider any of the governor's proposals. Why? Apparently, he believed this was the best way to get the hard right-wingers to give him the nomination for attorney general at the GOP state convention last Saturday. But guess what?

Despite a last-minute push, he lost. Now, in January, the Bishop of No will have to rejoin the private sector he championed so fiercely, and worked so hard to avoid having to re-enter.

If you are a crocodile, you may shed a solitary tear.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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