Michigan Supreme Court leaves Craig, Johnson, others off ballot

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday ended the chances of at least three Republican gubernatorial candidates to appear on the August primary ballot, siding with the state Bureau of Elections in ruling a deluge of forged signatures was enough to keep them from qualifying for the primary. 

The 6-1 decisions by the state's highest court mean that former Detroit police Chief James Craig, whom many viewed as the front runner for the GOP nomination, and businessman Perry Johnson, who poured millions of dollars into his campaign, are out of the race.

The decisions from the Supreme Court came as the Bureau of Elections on Friday sent out the official candidate list to local clerks, setting in motion the process of formatting and printing ballots for the Aug. 2 primary. The gubernatorial candidate list included only those candidates who were certified by the Board of State Canvassers last week, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office.

For Craig, the Supreme Court's decisive ruling was a stunning end to his campaign for the state's highest office.

Before Friday, the state had never seen someone lead a gubernatorial primary race for a year and then never make the ballot, Michigan political consultant John Sellek said of Craig.

"It’s just never happened before," said Sellek, founder of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, who described the disqualifications as a "historical collapse."

The ex-chief announced his retirement, which set up his campaign for governor, in May 2021.

James Craig, left, Perry Johnson

The justices said Craig's complaint, which was appealed up from a Court of Claims denial, would not be considered prior to a ruling from the Court of Appeals, where Johnson and Markey failed to garner favorable rulings earlier this week. Craig said last week he was weighing the possibility of a write-in campaign if ultimately determined ineligible for the August ballot. 

The Michigan Supreme Court's majority denied the appeals of Johnson and financial adviser Michael Markey of Grand Haven, arguing in Johnson's case that there was "nothing here meriting our further time or attention." 

Johnson's complaint lacked "merit because he cannot show that the Board of State Canvassers had a clear legal duty to certify his name to the ballot," wrote Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.

McCormack, a Democratic nominee, said the challenge by Johnson, a self-described quality guru, was a quarrel with the methodology of the Board of State Canvassers.

Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano, two Republican nominees, concurred with McCormack, but Zahra requested the Legislature move up the deadline for review of petitions by at least six weeks to allow the judicial branch more time to review challenges. 

Viviano disagreed with a lower court opinion stating there was no need to check each signature against the qualified voter file, but he acknowledged there was no guarantee doing so would result in Johnson's qualifying for the ballot. 

"Any remand to the board would likely be futile, rendering mandamus inappropriate," Viviano wrote. 

Justice Richard Bernstein, a Democratic nominee, dissented, arguing that there should be oral arguments in the case because it raised important concerns about ballot access.

"Because I believe this case presents significant legal issues worth further consideration, I would order full briefing in this case and hold oral argument next week to ensure that the interests of Michigan voters are fully considered," Bernstein wrote in his dissent.

The justices' statements in the Johnson case were referenced in their decisions on Craig and Markey as well. 

The situation with the candidates' signatures was historic in terms of the size of the petition fraud scandal and in terms of the political collapse, said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

The candidates and the consultants who worked for them had failed at the key task of getting on the ballot, Hemond said.

“This will live on as a cautionary tale for candidates on both sides of the aisle of how important it is to get the basics right," he added.

Between Wednesday night and Thursday evening, Johnson, Craig, Markey and Donna Brandenburg of Byron Center appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn lower court rulings and place them on the August primary ballot. The decision came as the Bureau of Elections was set to send a list of certified candidates to county clerks at 5 p.m. Friday. 

The Supreme Court didn't rule Friday on Brandenburg's appeal. 

The fifth candidate caught in the wave of alleged petition forgeries, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown, dropped out of the race after the Bureau of Elections revealed the forgeries.

Brown said the other candidates had accumulated "lots of legal bills" challenging the bureau's findings about their signatures.

"They all should've called me," Brown said on Friday.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections on May 23 released reports indicating the five candidates for governor hadn't submitted the required 15,000 valid petition signatures needed to appear on the August primary ballot because of a large swatch of the signatures appeared to be forged.

The Bureau of Elections said it believed 36 petition circulators "submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures." The bureau said it was "unaware of another election cycle in which this many circulators submitted such a substantial volume of fraudulent petition sheets consisting of invalid signatures."

The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked May 26 on whether the five GOP candidates should be on the ballot. The board's 2-2 votes meant the candidates' petitions could not be certified to appear on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. 

Republican candidates challenging the decision have argued that the bureau should have examined each and every signature for validity instead of relying on a spot check of about 7,000 of the 68,000 alleged forgeries. 

Lower courts so far have ruled the bureau had a duty to investigate the signatures but not to compare each one with signatures in Michigan's qualified voter file. 

The remaining five candidates for governor who secured the needed signatures to appear on the August primary ballot are pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills, chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan, businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township, real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale and conservative commentator and businesswoman Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.