Is the Michigan Supreme Court ready for judicial reform?


DETROIT -- Usually, judicial elections make for pretty dull political contests. Ethically, would-be judges aren't supposed to take positions on hypothetical or real cases that might come before them.

They also aren't supposed to bash their opponents. Any candidate running for the Michigan Legislature can rail against Supreme Court decisions on everything from campaign finance to abortion.

However, the standards are different -- rightly so -- for those who seek the bench. Citizens need to be assured that judges are impartial, and that, especially on Michigan's Supreme Court, a justice will decide any case according to whether a law or decision passes muster with the state and federal constitutions.

Most of the time, judicial candidates have content-free campaigns, with slogans such as: "Jones for Justice."

But though few voters realize it, Michigan's Supreme Court is different from other state courts. It doesn't just decide cases. It regulates and supervises lower courts, can discipline judges who behave badly, and sets standards for the legal profession.

This year, a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court has compelling ideas about judicial reform -- ideas that, unlike individual cases, can be talked about in a campaign.

Bridget Mary McCormack is running for one of the two eight-year terms to be filled by election this year. Although she was nominated by the Democrats, she wasn't an early favorite of party leaders. She did, however, powerfully impress former Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, who was unable to run again because she is over the 70-year-old age limit.

Nor is she a traditional candidate. Most Supreme Court nominees have been former senators, governors, or lower-court judges. Ms. McCormack is a popular law professor at the University of Michigan and director of the school's legal clinics.

"I have always been concerned with the legal profession's impact on real people," said Ms. McCormack, who is 46. Her law school dean described her as having, besides an infectious grin, "an infectious commitment to her craft, a subtle, powerful mind, [and] an astonishing work ethic."

Not to mention time-management skills. She and her husband, White House senior counsel Steven Croley, have a commuter marriage and a blended family of four teenagers.

Partly through her work with legal aid clinics, Ms. McCormack said she came to realize that the average person has little or no idea whom to call when he or she needs a certain kind of lawyer.

The legal profession engages in flamboyant and occasionally outrageous advertising, as the billboards along virtually any Detroit freeway make clear. But other than that, she says wryly, "there are not many resources to direct people in the right direction."

Ms. McCormack proposes that Michigan set guidelines and start to certify attorneys as specialists in various legal areas. Other states do this, she said, with considerable success.

We may not think of Texas as the capital of enlightened jurisprudence, but there, Ms. McCormack said, "instead of having to wade through the names of the more than 70,000 licensed attorneys in the state, people can narrow their search … to those who have been certified in various specific fields" by a state board.

She also thinks that lawyers, like doctors, ought to be required to take continuing education courses throughout their careers. "The law is a fast-evolving field," Ms. McCormack said, "and all attorneys, no matter how deeply experienced or accomplished, [could] benefit from having to learn the latest developments in the field."

Their clients could benefit even more. Ms. McCormack also would like to establish an online directory of Michigan attorneys that compiled "all information about licensing, certified specializations, and verified misconduct in one place."

She asked: "Wouldn't that be a simple, common-sense way to improve public awareness and empower people to make good decisions about which attorneys to hire?" The real question may be why the state hasn't done anything like this before.

Whether Ms. McCormack will get on the court is far from clear. There are four major-party nominees for two seats. Republican Justice Stephen Markman, like most other incumbents, is thought to have an edge.

If Justice Markman is re-elected, no more than one of three other major-party nominees can win. In addition to Ms. McCormack, they include Republican Colleen O'Brien and Democrat Connie Kelley, who are circuit court judges in Oakland and Wayne counties, respectively.

Minor-party candidates also will be on the high-court ballot. There's a separate race for a two-year partial term between incumbent Republican Brian Zahra and Democrat Shiela Johnson.

"Sure, I want to win," Ms. McCormack said. "But if I don't, I still have a job now in which I can make a positive impact."

She wants her proposals to be taken seriously. "Everyday people are very good at making the right decisions, as long as they are presented with full information," she argues.

It would be hard to argue that they should have anything less.

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.

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