Michigan justice faced 'bullying' over redistricting plan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Beth Clement won election, after being appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder on Nov. 17, 2017.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement said she faced "bullying and intimidation" while deliberating a case that paved the way for a redistricting proposal to go on the November ballot.

Clement, a Gov. Rick Snyder appointee up for election in November, made the comments to The Detroit News editorial board Monday, a few days after learning the Michigan Republican Party had left her name and photo off door hangers distributed by volunteers in “targeted areas.” 

She was one of two GOP-nominated justices who backed a 4-3 ruling that put the redistricting commission plan on the Nov. 6 ballot, a measure Republican officials have opposed. 

As she runs for election to the court for the first time, Clement said she encountered  pressure from "outside interests" — which she refused to identify — hoping to block the proposal from the ballot as she deliberated her decision.

It's unusual for such pressure to be applied in judicial cases and a breach of legal protocols, said Justice David Viviano, who told The News' editorial board he was aware of the pressure on Clement.

"Certainly, people are entitled to their own viewpoints on how a case should be decided,” Viviano said. “But it is inappropriate to direct those views at a member of the court while the case is being decided.”

The state’s highest court ruled that the redistricting voter-initiated proposal was allowed on the ballot because it did not “significantly alter or abolish the form or structure of our government, making it tantamount to creating a new constitution.”

If approved by voters, the ballot proposal would replace the current practice in which the majority party every 10 years redraws political boundaries — a process Republicans controlled when the lines were last redone in 2011.

Though the 40-year-old justice declined to identify the parties behind the pressure, Clement said there had “absolutely been an effort at bullying and intimidation.”

“I would hope that people would look at me as an example and have faith in the judicial system that we stand up to it,” Clement said. “I swore an oath to the people, not to special interests to do their will.

“People expect that we won’t be swayed or intimidated by outside groups.”

The door hangers distributed by the Michigan Republican Party encouraged residents to vote on Nov. 6 and listed every other statewide Republican candidate, including Justice Kurtis Wilder, but omitted Clement’s name and photo. Wilder joined the dissent in the redistricting case.

Clement said the decision to leave a candidate off the literature, let alone an incumbent candidate, “is unprecedented.”

 “I haven’t seen the party shunning or removing candidates from their literature because of disagreements with their views,” she told The News.

'Volunteers' requested snub

Clement was left off the door hanger at the request of volunteers who did not want to distribute literature with Clement’s photo on it due to a “multitude of rulings” the justice was part of, Michigan Republican Party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said.

The party’s field program is volunteer driven, Anderson said, and those volunteers “have to buy what they’re selling.”

The decision to allow volunteers some say in door-to-door operations is not completely unprecedented, Anderson said, as the party accommodated volunteers in 2016 who did not want to distribute literature promoting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. He ended up winning Michigan by 10,704 votes.

The Republican Party’s discomfort with Clement surfaced at the Michigan Republican Party convention in August, when convention chairman Jase Bolger essentially ignored the “nays” and “boos” to put Clement on the party ticket.

The dissent was in large part prompted by her legal support of the 4-3 ruling allowing an independent redistricting commission proposal on the November ballot. Clement also had ruled in favor of allowing schools to ban carrying guns on school property, a decision criticized by Republicans.

The lawsuit that sought to keep the redistricting proposal off the ballot was backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has played an active role in state redistricting efforts since 1989. The chamber had kicked in roughly $85,000 in in-kind legal fees by April to a ballot committee created to oppose the redistricting proposal.

The business group had donated $15,000 each to Wilder and Clement in February. The Michigan Chamber PAC also contributed $10,000 to Justice Brian Zahra and $37,000 to Viviano in 2014 and 2016, and $30,250 to now-Chief Justice Steven Markman’s campaign in 2004.

Michigan chamber President and CEO Rich Studley previously told The News that the group backs Supreme Court candidates based on the question, "do they believe and do they act to uphold the rule of law?"

The chamber’s board voted unanimously to oppose the ballot proposal because it is “bad public policy” that would diminish current powers for the legislative, gubernatorial and judicial branches, and prohibit citizen referendums on future political maps, he said.

On Monday, Studley directed questions regarding the door hangers to the Michigan Republican Party. He said the chamber continues to endorse the re-election of Wilder and Clement.

Heading into the Supreme Court case, Clement also disclosed potential conflicts stemming from her campaign treasurer, Mary Doster, who is married to Eric Doster, one of the main attorneys on the redistricting proposal and former general counsel for the Michigan Republican Party. The Voters Not Politicians ballot committee decided against asking Clement to recuse herself.

Clement 'asset' to court

Snyder's office said Clement, the governor's former chief legal counsel, is a "great asset to the Supreme Court" and brings "varied experience to the bench. 

"Gov. Snyder supports Justice Clement as much today as he did the day he appointed her, when he said she was 'someone who will faithfully adhere to the proper role of the judiciary,'" the statement said. 

Before a decision was rendered in the case, Clement faced backlash from some who had heard how she was going to vote, Viviano said, which “could only come from the internal deliberations of the court being leaked to the media.”

Days after her decision in the redistricting case, Clement's agreement with her fundraising firm, Sterling Corp., ended. The company said the redistricting vote was not the cause.

The firm entered a joint fundraising agreement with Wilder and Clement in February and notified them of its Aug. 9 conclusion at the end of June or early July, said Denise DeCook, a senior director at Sterling Corp. Wilder entered another individual agreement with Sterling Corp. later in August, DeCook said. 

Sterling Corp. decided to end the initial joint agreement "to consistently serve both our clients and their fundraising efforts for their re-election.

The Michigan Republican Party would not say whether Clement would be excluded from future literature. Though many Republicans may disagree with Clement’s redistricting decision, Anderson said, the party “would never encourage anybody to pressure a judge to vote one way or another.”

Nonetheless, decisions have consequences, she said.

“She’s doing what she believes is right,” Anderson said. “Our grassroots (volunteers) disagree. We’re sort of at an impasse with that.”


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