Commentary: How to vote for judges

Sep 14, 2012

You probably haven’t thought much about this, but in addition to the candidates for President and Congress and everything else this  November, there are dozens who want to be elected judges.

Judicial races are usually more boring than other contests, because judges ethically can’t talk about how they might rule in hypothetical cases, though everyone frequently tries to figure that out. Nor do they normally criticize how past cases were decided.

So about all candidates for the court can do by way of a campaign is find some catchy slogan, like “Justice White is just right,” and hope the voters remember their names. 

But while most people don’t realize it, the Michigan Supreme Court is different in one way. Besides being the state’s top authority on the constitutionality of laws, Michigan’s highest court also regulates and supervises other courts and the legal profession in general. And this year, one of the Supreme Court candidates has put forth some compelling ideas about the legal profession.

Bridget Mary McCormack has been a law professor at the University of Michigan for fourteen years. She also oversees all of that law school’s clinical outreach programs, and says she’s spent a lot of time “educating a generation of Michigan lawyers about the importance of devoting their time and skills to serving those who otherwise can’t afford good lawyers,” as with the Innocence Project.

But she’s gradually noticed another problem in the way the public and the legal profession relate to each other: How does someone know who to call when they need a certain kind of lawyer?

She says, “other than catchy commercials featuring some famous names and faces, there are not many resources to direct people in the right direction.” Anyone driving around the Detroit area has seen innumerable billboards featuring a blond lawyer with way too much red lipstick.  But does that prove she’s qualified?

McCormack thinks what’s needed is a program where the state sets guidelines and certifies attorneys as specialists in one legal area or another. Texas, she told me, has a state board of legal specialization, as well as a requirement that lawyers take continuing legal education courses to stay up to speed in the field. California and Florida have similar programs. But Michigan has nothing of the kind.

McCormack would like to see Michigan’s highest court also set up a program to certify who is entitled to call themselves a specialist, and establish a central place online enabling the public to easily locate the official state record of any attorney.

“You know, people are very good at making the right decisions, as long as they are presented with full information,” she said.

“Compiling all information about licensing, certified specialization and any verified misconduct in one place is also a simple, common sense way to empower people to make good decisions about which attorneys to hire.”

Now I’m not in the business of endorsing candidates, and I’m not telling listeners they should necessarily elect McCormick to the Michigan Supreme Court. But her ideas on legal reform seem definitely worth considering. And I’d like to see a lot more candidates for all races show us similar detailed plans to make things better.
 Too often, all they do is tear the other side down.

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