Michigan Supreme Court race is friendlier, less costly

LANSING – Some of Michigan’s most bitter election campaigns have been fought over control of the Michigan Supreme Court: From 2008’s “sleeping judge” ad that helped defeat former Justice Cliff Taylor, a Republican nominee; to the 2010 ad that described Judge Denise Langford Morris, a Democratic nominee, as “soft on crime for rappers, lawyers and child pornographers.”

But this year, with six major-party candidates and two third-party candidates competing for two seats, the negativity is mostly gone from the Michigan Supreme Court election. And the total spending is way down, too.

Per-seat spending this year will likely be lower than any election since 2006, and it will mark the first time since 2006 that total spending on a Michigan Supreme Court election has not surpassed what was spent in the previous election, two years earlier, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Total spending, including third-party money, likely won’t top $8 million, down from more than $18 million in 2012 and more than $11 million in 2010, Robinson said.

The reasons aren’t entirely clear.

But the fact Republican-nominated justices hold a 5-2 edge on the court — putting a shift in control from one party to the other likely out of reach — could be one reason the spending level and intensity is down.

The change could also reflect the switch from former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer — an attorney who considered the Supreme Court a top priority — to successor Chairman Lon Johnson, a non-attorney who party officials confirm gives the court less emphasis.

Justice Brian Zahra, a Republican-nominated incumbent who is one of five candidates seeking two full eight-year terms on the court, offers another explanation.

The court itself has become more collegial and less partisan, and that’s rubbed off on the campaign, Zahra said.

“We genuinely like each other,” he said of the current seven members, one of whom, Democratic nominee Justice Michael Cavanagh, is retiring at the end of this year. “Most of the time we spend together we’re talking about the law, but not always.”

Competing with Zahra for the two available full terms are: two Democratic nominees, attorney Richard Bernstein and Michigan Court of Appeals Chief Judge Bill Murphy; Kent County Circuit Judge James Robert Redford, who is a Republican nominee, and Hartland attorney Doug Dern, of the Natural Law Party.

Bernstein, who is blind and has litigated significant disability rights cases, has put close to $1.9 million of his own money into his campaign, promoting a name already familiar to TV viewers because of ads placed by his father’s Sam Bernstein Law Firm, where he works.

Though he lacks judicial experience, “I see that as an advantage,” said Bernstein, noting that many U.S. Supreme Court justices, including Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall, had never been judges before.

That contrasts with Murphy, who cites his 26 years of experience as an appellate judge and service as chief judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals since 2009.

Murphy said he’s troubled by the amount of money spent on Supreme Court campaigns, particularly the “issue ads” bankrolled by undisclosed sources. But, he said, he believes the Michigan electorate wants judges who are elected, not appointed.

Redford, a former U.S. Navy judge advocate general who on Thursday picked up the endorsement of a fellow Navy man, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also served as a federal prosecutor in Michigan’s western district.

He said he’s running because of his “real passion for justice under the law,” and believes “the judiciary has a very important role to play … but it’s a limited role.”

Dern did not respond to a candidate questionnaire from the Free Press or a phone message left at his law office.

In the election for a partial term that will end on Jan. 1, 2017, incumbent Justice David Viviano, a Republican nominee, is challenged by Democratic nominee Judge Deborah Thomas and Wyandotte attorney Kerry Morgan, a nominee of the Libertarian Party.

Viviano, who is from Macomb County and was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013, said it’s time to discuss moving to a nonpartisan primary for Michigan Supreme Court elections, which would be similar to how judges of the Michigan Court of Appeals are elected.

“The partisan aspect of this is confusing to people,” and “I don’t think it’s fair to us as judges,” Viviano said. Although judges are nonpartisan, being nominated by political parties means “you end up getting kind of thrown into some of the partisan debates that are going on in other races.”

Thomas, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, said just as it’s important to have diverse juries, it’s important for the Michigan Supreme Court to have a diverse representation of judges.

“It would do us well for the court to have a member that can bring an urban perspective,” said Thomas, who was born and raised in Detroit. “We have people whose experiences are not reflective of mom and dad, 2½ kids and a white picket fence.”

Morgan said he wants to give voters a choice.

“There’s a sense in the other parties that Supreme Court seats are their exclusive property,” he said.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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