McCormack, Welch flip control of Michigan Supreme Court

Control of the Michigan Supreme Court flipped in this week's election, with Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack and Grand Rapids lawyer Elizabeth Welch both winning seats to give Democratic-nominated justices a 4-3 majority, based on unofficial election results Wednesday afternoon. 

Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack

With 97% of votes counted, McCormack was first with 32.2% of the vote and Welch second with 20.1%. Welch was more than 220,000 votes ahead of her nearest rival, former St. Clair County assistant prosecutor Mary Kelly, who had 17.1%.

Following Kelly was Brock Swartzle, a state Court of Appeals judge, with 13.8% of the votes counted so far. Both were nominated by Republicans. 

The two winners will serve eight-year terms that end in 2028.

“My re-election to the Michigan Supreme Court is a victory for the people across the state who believe, as I do, that the courtroom is a place where being right is more important than being popular or powerful," McCormack, 54, said in a statement. "I’m proud that their votes are being counted and their voices are being heard.  

Elizabeth Welch

“In the coming term I will continue to fight for the court’s independence and for access to justice for all Michiganders," she said. "I will continue to work to make Michigan a national leader in ensuring transparency, fairness and efficiency in courthouses throughout the state where millions of people go for justice every year. 

Welch, 50, released a statement Wednesday afternoon regarding her presumptive win.

"After 25 years protecting Michigan small businesses, voters, students, and natural resources, I know the impact the courts can have on our great state," she said. "I am eager to join the chief justice and her colleagues in their important work of addressing challenges within our criminal justice system and their work toward ensuring everyone has equal access to our courts.

McCormack welcomed Welch to the court.

"Congratulations to Elizabeth Welch upon her election to the Michigan Supreme Court. With a 25-year career focusing on making our justice system work for people, I have no doubt she will be ready on day one to be a fair, independent, and accountable voice on the Court," McCormack wrote. 

Other candidates included Green Party nominee Susan Hubbard and Libertarian Party nominees Kerry Morgan and Katherine Nepton.

The stakes in the race were ratcheted up after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began promoting the candidacies of Democratic-nominated justices to take back control of the court controlled by Republican-nominated justices.

State of Michigan Supreme Court seal in The Hall of Justice in Lansing.

The Democratic governor attacked the court's 4-3 GOP majority after it ruled in early October that she violated a 1976 emergency management law and used a 1945 law to exercise her COVID-19 emergency executive orders, a law that was deemed unconstitutional by the state's high court.

The three Democratic-nominated justices and four GOP-nominated justice were unanimous in their finding that Whitmer violated the 1976 law, but split 4-3 on the constitutionality of the 1945 law.

McCormack wrote the dissent that included two other Democratic-nominated justices in the court's 4-3 ruling that found the law gave too much power to the executive branch.

Both rulings were written by Republican-nominated Justice Stephen Markman, who couldn't run for re-election this year because he is term-limited by age.

McCormack is a former University of Michigan faculty member and associate dean for clinical affairs who founded the Michigan Innocence Clinic in 2008. On the Supreme Court, she has been part of efforts to reform Michigan’s criminal justice system, most notably as a co-chair of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration. 

The group studied Michigan’s courts, jails and arrest records to determine why Michigan’s jail populations have grown. 

Welch has been practicing law for 25 years, largely working in employment law. She also has worked on advocacy issues at the Michigan Capitol, such as school funding, election law and conservation. 

Republican-nominated Kelly, 62,is a former 30-year assistant prosecutor in St. Clair County who now serves as guardian ad litem for foster care cases in the county. She said she defended the rule of law and her work gave her a close look at the “devastation crime has on victims, families and businesses.” 

Swartzle, 49, also nominated by the Republicans, has served on the state Court of Appeals since 2017, after he was appointed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. Before that, Swartzle clerked for several years in federal court and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. He worked as general counsel for the Republican-led House of Representatives from 2013 through 2016.

kbouffard@detroitnews.com