Voting for state Supreme Court Justices is a complicated affair

Oct 21, 2012

This week on It’s Just Politics we take a look at Michigan’s Supreme Court races.

State Supreme Court candidates appear on the non-partisan part of the ballot with no hint of party-affiliation, except if a candidate is an incumbent. But these justices are initially nominated by political parties at conventions. It’s slightly bizarre. The idea was the political parties would do the initial vetting, but then the candidates – and the Supreme Court – would be independent of partisan influence. As a matter of fact, an incumbent Supreme Court justice can nominate himself or herself without having to win at a party convention. Justice Charles Levin used to do that that until he retired in 1996. However, this hasn’t happened since, largely because of money.

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta
It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

The Supreme Court nominees don’t get the benefit of straight-ticket voting. But they do get all the other benefits of major party nominations. The Republican and Democratic parties and their kindred interest groups spend millions of dollars to get their candidates elected to the Supreme Court. Those kindred interests are business groups, the insurance industry for Republicans; the trial bar for Democrats. The campaigns go largely unnoticed, but they’re fierce, even personal sometimes.

There was the “sleeping judge” ad in 2008 that depicted then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor as someone who slept through arguments (which wasn’t true). The ad helped make Taylor the first sitting justice to lose his job in an election in something like a quarter century. One year, Republicans ran an ad against a Democrat that showed this shady character’s shifty eyes and said as a judge, he favored lenient treatment for all kinds of horrid criminals. And, just this year, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer said Republican Justice Stephen Markman would be sympathetic as a judge to Jerry Sandusky, the assistant Penn State coach charged with child molestation.

All of this just goes to show that all’s fair in love and Supreme Court races. Subtlety never plays well in politics, and that’s even truer in these low-on-the-ballot non-partisan races. The candidates will do just about anything to stand out from the crowd.  But judicial candidates do have to get creative just to get people to stick with voting until they get to the non-partisan part of the ballot. When he was on the Supreme Court, Justice Conrad Mallet Jr.’s slogan was “You Haven’t Finished Your Ballot ‘Til You’ve voted for Mallett.” This year, fans of “West Wing” were treated to a cast re-union, courtesy of Michigan Supreme Court nominee Bridget Mary McCormack. Her sister acted in the show and the actors reunited to raise attention to the non-partisan part of the ballot.

It also doesn’t hurt to be a woman in Supreme Court races in Michigan. That conventional wisdom was supported this week by a public opinion survey released by the PR firm Lambert Edwards. Three quarters of the respondents were undecided for whom they would vote in the three separate state Supreme Court races. Which is not a surprise considering how crowded this year’s ballot is. But where voters did express a preference, the female candidate had the advantage. So, it’s no surprise that half the Supreme Court candidates this year are female. It’s pure political math. But, it raises the question: do people really know what and who they’re voting for when they’re choosing Supreme Court justices on the non-partisan ballot?