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Published: Friday, 8/13/2010

Party, personal feuds turn Michigan high court into low comedy

LANSING - The primary election is over, and for most Michigan voters, the only thing left is to see who the major-party nominees for governor, Democrat Virg Bernero and Republican Rick Snyder, will pick for lieutenant governor.

But what many voters don't realize is that they get absolutely no say in who the major parties nominate for two other major elected positions: secretary of state and attorney general.

Thanks to an odd quirk in Michigan's Constitution, voters don't get to choose nominees for those offices. Political party leaders will select them at their state conventions on Aug. 28.

Democrats pretty much settled on their nominees in the spring: Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton for attorney general and Wayne State University law professor Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state. Republicans, however, expect major convention fights over both jobs.

It may seem odd that voters get no say about those nominees. But it seems even more strange that the parties have the task of choosing candidates people know little about, for positions most voters know even less about: trustees for the state's three major public universities and candidates for the state board of education.

Many voters don't pay attention to those races. Usually, the party with the most straight-ticket voters (Democrats in 2006, Republicans in 1998) wins most or all of these slots.

What seems strangest of all to some is that the major parties also pick nominees for what many think should be the most nonpartisan offices of all: state Supreme Court justices.

For many years, this attracted little attention or controversy. The parties nominated some highly qualified judges, and some politicians with well-known names who were near the end of their careers. Two former Democratic governors ended up on the court: G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams and John Swainson.

For their part, Republicans sent Lt. Gov. Jim Brickley and former U.S Sen. Robert Griffin. For awhile, this seemed to work.

"We had disagreements, but there wasn't the nastiness and the partisanship there is now," said former justice Patricia Boyle, who retired from the court in 1999.

But in the intervening years, the Michigan Supreme Court, like the parties themselves, divided into hardened ideological lines that frequently explode into personal attacks.

Supreme Court elections have become not only bitter, but insanely expensive. Eight years ago, Democrats spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful attempt to oust three Republican justices. Two years ago, they succeeded in defeating Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, partly with the help of an infamous and outrageous commercial that appeared to show him falling asleep on the bench.

The University of Chicago law school issued a study that ranked the nation's state supreme courts that same year, and Michigan's was dead last. The study found that the court was little respected for its decisions, and the least independent from the business community of any such court in the nation.

This year's Supreme Court battle isn't likely to change that impression. Two of the seven justices are up for election. Conservative Republican Robert Young, Jr., is running for a new eight-year term, and Democrats are vowing to do anything they can and spend all the money they can to defeat him.

But the other Supreme Court election is an indication of how bizarre things have gotten. Justice Elizabeth "Betty" Weaver was elected as a Republican, but for the past few years has feuded openly with her fellow Republicans on the court. They've called her names, even belittled her clothes. She's accused them of trying to silence her.

Sitting Supreme Court justices have the right to nominate themselves to run as independent candidates, and this year, she is going to do just that. The GOP is expected to nominate someone to oppose her - but the Democrats are unlikely to.

Justice Weaver has now become a swing vote, and increasingly votes with the three Democrats on the court. Democrats have little to gain by trying to defeat her.

Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, a mild-mannered jurist, has tried hard to get her colleagues to be more civil, mostly with little success. She finds the acrimony especially embarrassing because in Michigan, the Supreme Court regulates the other state courts.

"We set the example for the rest of the judiciary and the lawyers in this state," she told me recently. "If we tell them that they have to treat one another and everyone in our courtrooms with dignity, and we're not treating one another that way, we can hardly expect them to take the message very seriously."

Chief Justice Kelly, now in her last eight-year term on the court, said she thinks the current partisan system of selecting justices needs to be changed.

That would take a state constitutional amendment, but it might be worth the effort.

Michigan has a lot of problems these days winning national respect. Having a Supreme Court that sometimes reminds onlookers of the Three Stooges doesn't do much to help.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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