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Bill Schuette shows he's using his position as a political stepping stone

Sep 12, 2016

I was a little surprised when Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed the decision striking down the ban on straight-ticket voting to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I knew, of course, that the attorney general wanted straight-ticket voting outlawed.

He is a fiercely partisan Republican, and the GOP thinks with some reason that allowing straight-ticket voting hurts their candidates.

Not for governor, U.S. senator or president, but for lesser-known positions like state board of education.

That’s because the vast majority of African Americans vote the straight Democratic ticket. Both sides have totally partisan motives in this fight.

But spending state time, resources, and money appealing this to the Supreme Court made no sense at all.

I am not a lawyer, but I do teach media law. And historically, the nation’s highest court only takes a case when there have been differing rulings by the lower courts.

However, in this case, there were no contradictory rulings. In July, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain ruled Michigan’s 2015 law banning straight-ticket voting was unconstitutional, because it made it harder for African-Americans to vote. 

Schuette predictably and properly appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, but he lost again in August, when a three-judge panel refused to overturn Judge Drain’s decision.

Schuette then asked for another hearing.

This time he wanted all 15 appellate judges to hear his appeal on an emergency basis, since the deadline for printing ballots was fast approaching. But on September 1, a substantial majority of those judges declined to take his case.

That should have been that.

But instead, Schuette charged on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Three days ago, they flatly refused to take his case. But before they ruled, I went to see Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University who has argued civil rights cases before the nation’s highest court.

What am I missing here? I asked. “Nothing,” he told me. “There’s no chance in the world that the Supreme Court will take this case,” he said.

Then why did Schuette go to them?

“He is just trying to appease the extreme conservatives in the Republican Party” to help him win the nomination for governor in two years,” Sedler said.

Former Attorney General Frank Kelley agreed.

Kelley, a Democrat, was state attorney general for a record 37 years, but said he always tried to keep partisanship from interfering in the work of the office, much less what cases he took.

Kelley has been reluctant to criticize his successors. But he did say “this is all Schuette’s campaign strategy. He’s appealing to the hard right to sew up the Republican nomination (for governor) and after he wins the primary, he’ll turn more liberal for the general election.”

What’s even more discouraging is that all three attorney generals since Kelley, one Democrat and two Republicans, were clearly fixated on running for governor. Kelley made a career out of the office. But in a way, you can’t blame his successors. Thanks to term limits, nobody can spend more than eight years in our state’s top legal job.

I just wish we could find an attorney general who’d devote themselves fully to justice for those years instead of treating the job as a political stepping stone.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.