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Published: 9/7/2010

Order in the court

As late as last month, almost nobody outside northern Michigan legal circles had ever heard of Alton Davis, a 63-year-old judge from Grayling. Suddenly, that all changed.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver abruptly quit, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm immediately appointed Mr. Davis to fill the vacancy. That gave Democrats a 4-3 majority on what may be the nation's most bitterly divided and partisan state supreme court.

Governor Granholm denied that any deal had been made. But the mercurial Justice Weaver, a Republican who is estranged from her party, appeared to confirm that's exactly what it was.

The Michigan Democratic Party swiftly nominated Mr. Davis to a full eight-year term on the high court. Party convention delegates, most of whom also hadn't heard of the new justice until just a few days before, went along.

Mr. Davis will have an enormous advantage in the November election, since the ballot will list him as "Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court." Yet these developments are unlikely to do much for the reputation of the court itself, which has been rated the least respected in the nation by a University of Chicago Law School study.

In recent years, some of the seven justices have seemed to revel in ad hominem attacks on each other, partisan bickering, and a tendency to overturn decisions almost gleefully when the court's balance of power shifted.

Much of the problem is the bizarre system by which Michigan justices are nominated by the two major political parties. In gentler times, that wasn't much of a problem; Republicans and Democrats often sent elder statesmen, including former governors and senators, to the bench.

But these days, the parties are polarized and the justices are far more ideological. In a disgraceful spectacle, shadowy groups have spent millions of dollars on TV ads attacking the reputation of Supreme Court incumbents and challengers.

Michigan voters will be asked in November whether they want to call a constitutional convention, which could be one way to fix the Supreme Court mess. Another would be to craft a constitutional amendment that changes the way the state's top judges are selected.

In any event, Michigan's highest court needs to stop looking like a judicial version of The Gong Show meets Let's Make a Deal.



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