August 21, 2014 at 9:06 am

THE MICHIGAN SUPREME COURT

Court deal may take heat out of election

The Michigan Supreme Court has begun a new tradition of collegiality. Will that maintain with a new court in 2015? (Doug Elbinger / Elbinger Studios)

For the first time in 16 years, the state Supreme Court races on Michigan’s fall ballot may be lightly battled, low-key affairs.

After a string of bitterly contested and hugely expensive court campaigns, Republicans and Democrats are calling a truce this go-round.

The two parties have forged a deal to assure their favored candidates make it through the election unscathed. Three seats are on the ballot — one open spot to replace retiring Justice Michael Cavanagh, who had been nominated by Democrats, and the two held by incumbents David Viviano and Brian Zahra, Republican-selected justices who are seeking re-election.

Viviano is running in a special election to fill out the term he was appointed to when former Justice Diane Hathaway went to the pokey for fraud. He’ll face Judge Deborah Thomas of Wayne County, who is the Democratic choice. Both parties will formally select their candidates for the nonpartisan races at conventions this weekend.

In the other election, the top two finishers of four nominees will win seats on the bench. Republicans want to protect Zahra in that race, and Democrats want to secure a place on the court for Richard Bernstein, of “Call Sam” fame, and whose family is a major bankroller of Democratic court nominees.

So the two parties cooked a bargain. Democrats agreed to nominate a weak candidate against Viviano, a role Thomas fills nicely, and limit their support in the other election to Bernstein. Republicans agreed to select a nominal candidate to run with Zahra for the open spot.

That means no women with Irish last names will be on the Supreme Court ballot.

The GOP has recruited Judge James Robert Redford of Grand Rapids as their third contender — a decent candidate, but not likely to win without a big infusion of cash. Democrats are still locked in an all-out battle between William Murphy, an appeals court judge from west Michigan, and Carl Marlinga, the former Macomb County prosecutor.

Trial lawyers want Murphy, a longtime ally, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer signed off on the pick. But he overlooked a key detail: Murphy is anti-abortion. Selling an anti-abortion candidate — particularly a Supreme Court nominee — to a Democratic convention won’t be easy. Schauer’s put himself in a tough spot — alienating his party’s women’s caucus while trying to forge a campaign based on appealing to women voters.

Whichever one is the nominee, he’s not likely to get much money from the trial lawyers or anyone else.

Republicans dread having Bernstein, anticipating he’ll be a noisy irritant on a bench that is gaining a reputation for collegiality. But they feel the risk of losing one of their incumbent justices makes the deal with the devil necessary.

Democrats care only about Bernstein. So the thinking by Republicans is they can afford to give up on the seat Democrats already hold in exchange for saving their current 5-2 edge.

Now both parties just need voters to follow the script.

nfinley@detroitnews.com
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