September 17, 2010 at 10:32 am

High court race showing signs of being costly, nasty

Detroit -- The race for two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court is shaping up to be a nasty, high-spending affair with battles waged over majority control, judicial records and the ideological soul of the court.

The political bomb drops have begun: Radio ads excoriating newly appointed Justice Alton T. Davis, endorsed by the Democrats, have hit the airwaves in the past few days.

It's among the first salvos in what campaign finance expert Rich Robinson predicts will be at least $10 million spent by the political parties and interest groups on this race, eclipsing the $7.5 million spent on one race in 2008 that toppled a sitting chief justice.

"The tone of the campaigns in the past when it has been a competitive situation has been very negative," said Robinson, the director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network that analyzes campaign spending trends in the state.

"The easiest emotions to evoke in a voter are fear and anger, and so there's a lot of effort made to evoke fear and anger," he said. "So I wouldn't wish these campaigns on somebody that I didn't like."

Much is at stake. Democrats, with the departure of controversial Justice Elizabeth Weaver, a Republican who was accused of siding on key rulings with liberal justices, would like to keep control of the seven-member court with hot-button issues on the horizon such as redistricting that determines representation in the House and Senate in Lansing and Washington.

Republican and Democratic justices say they are ready for attacks.

"I'm not lobbing any bombs at anybody," said Davis, who recently served on the Michigan Court of Appeals. "If somebody does, shame on them. And I think, frankly, the public's had enough of it. And they may regret doing that."

Other candidates running are Justice Robert Young and Wayne Circuit Judge Mary Beth Kelly, who are backed by the GOP, and Oakland Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris, supported by the Democrats.

For his part, Young expects Democrats to target him as aggressively as they did former Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, who the GOP says was falsely accused in commercials of sleeping during court proceedings. The Michigan Democratic Party recently took aim at Young, an incumbent, by launching a website devoted to criticizing him.

Young said he was "unprepared for the attacks and vitriol" in previous campaigns.

"You have to understand why the Supreme Court is important," he said. "There's a war between those of us who believe there is an important but limited judicial role in interpreting the law according to its plain, ordinary meaning vs. those who believe that judges have a broader role."

Although candidates for the Supreme Court appear as nonpartisans on the ballot, each is nominated at political party conventions, and both parties spend lavishly and solicit outside funds to get them elected -- or to hurt opponents' chances.

"It's interesting to me as an observer how much effort and energy and attention the parties pay to the Supreme Court when at the end of the day if you stopped someone at the supermarket and said, 'How do you vote for a judge?' you're going to get a blank stare back," said Jeff Williams, senior vice president of the Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants. "My sense is that voters care more in a negative way how politicized judicial races, especially at the highest level, have become."

Ideological shift

For the past 11 years, the GOP held sway over the court after decades of Democratic control.

Both sides on the court blame the other for blistering dissents and an ideological rift; Republicans saying judges should be conservative by nature and follow the Constitution closely, while Democrats argue judges should be fair and not consistently favor big business interests.

Weaver's resignation last month allowed Gov. Jennifer Granholm to place Davis on the court in what Republicans called a backroom deal.

Weaver, once a chief justice, split with her Republican colleagues after years of what they saw as her ideological shift toward judges in the minority. Weaver had criticized fellow justices for unprofessional and partisan behavior.

The Davis ad that first aired last Friday took the "sleazy deal" to task and called on Davis to resign. It was paid for by American Justice Partnership in Lansing, a legal reform group supporting a conservative majority on the court.

"Can we trust a judge like Alton Davis who cuts backroom deals who benefit himself and his political party?" the ad asked.

Dan Pero, the group's president, said the ad tells the truth about Davis rather than the "outright lie" about Taylor sleeping on the bench. "It's to let people of Michigan know of a deal to pack the court with a Democrat majority before an election," he said.

Candidates want civility

That's the kind of rhetoric Morris, who has been on the Oakland circuit bench for 18 years, abhors and believes voters will reject.

"It's kind of a travesty because it is such an important race for the citizens of Michigan," Morris said. "I don't think that a judge should have a particular persuasion. You should be open to looking at the arguments."

Kelly, who once served as chief judge of the Wayne Circuit Court, said voters will place a lot of emphasis on the quality and experience of the candidates.

"I think voters do not want partisan judges," Kelly said. "I think that voters want judges who are fair and who are conservative but have high emphasis on principles of civility."

Kelly said as a justice she would work to stop the changing of legal precedents that have "led to an uncertainty in the law."

Lawrence Dubin, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School, said the Supreme Court "has taken certain political positions" with some legal issues that arise before the court -- and the financial support of the candidates shows that.

"The more conservative justices have with greater consistency held for business interests," he said. "The more liberal justices have consistently held for the rights of individuals and more in accord with the interests of trial lawyers. Therefore, each and every person running in this election has the financial backing based upon the political divide that has been reflected by the court's recent decisions over the last decade."

lfleming@detnews.com">lfleming@detnews.com (313) 222-2072

See Also