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Eight candidates are vying for three positions on the Michigan Supreme Court next month in a campaign that has featured “troubling” television ad spending, according to two national election watchdog groups.

There has been nearly $3 million spent on TV ads through Oct. 20, according to Justice at Stake, which monitors spending in state judicial elections. But the campaign so far has been free of ad attacks that have characterized past judicial elections and instead focused on positive promotions of certain candidates, said Susan Demas, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

But she warned there could be some negative ads in the waning days of the campaign.

“Michigan has become a national symbol of an arms race that is putting pressure on judges to answer to political pressure instead of the law and constitution,” said Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg.

There are two separate races for the officially non-partisan positions. One campaign is to fill the remaining two years of the term of former Justice Diane Hathaway, who was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

David Viviano, a former chief Macomb County Circuit judge appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013 to take over for Hathaway, is the Republican nominee who is being challenged by Democrat-nominated Wayne County Circuit Judge Debra A. Thomas and Kerry L. Morgan of Redford.

“Our court has been a leader in creating the proper balance between the judiciary, the Legislature and the people,” Viviano said. “Our role as judges is to interpret the laws, not to make them.”

Thomas, now in her 19th year on the Wayne circuit bench, wants to increase the number of specialty courts in Michigan, such as those for veterans, drug issues and mental health.

Morgan said his 30-year background in law has taught him “judges are reluctant to simply apply the law as written,” something they should be willing to do.

The other race will fill two eight-year slots on the court held by Justice Brian Zahra and a seat to be vacated by retiring Justice Michael Cavanagh, with the two candidates having the most votes taking the bench.

The candidates are Republican-nominated Zahra and Kent County Circuit Judge James Robert Redford; Democrat-nominated Bill Murphy, chief judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals; Farmington Hills attorney Richard Berstein; and Doug Dern of Highland.

The candidates bring a variety of legal experience. And their assessments of the Supreme Court, taken from their respective websites and responses to the League of Women Voters, have common themes.

Zahra, appointed by Snyder in 2011 and elected in 2012, also spent 12 years on the Michigan Court of Appeals. His top priority is “to ensure that the law is interpreted as it is written” for “equal justice under the law.”

Murphy is trumpeting his nearly 30 years on the state appeals court as making him the “most experienced candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court.” His top priority is “to walk into every case with an open mind.”

Redford, a Kent circuit judge for 11 years, spent 28 years in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, including five years as a military judge and federal prosecutor. He said he will “strive to help the judiciary improve our system of justice to make it more efficient and fair with greater access and transparency ... .”

Bernstein, a former chairman of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, has been involved in civil litigation for 15 years. His top priority is to promote justice and fairness for everyone.

Dern, a Cooley Law School graduate who describes himself as a self-employed “lawyer in the trenches,” wants to “bring a balance back to the halls of justice.”

In recent weeks, there has been a surge of joint TV ads by Zahra, Viviano and Redford along with stand-alone commercials by Bernstein, who in the past was regularly seen in commercials along with his lawyer siblings from the Sam Bernstein Law Firm, founded by their father. Bernstein — who is legally blind and has pledged “blind justice and an iron will” — also has peppered Metro Detroit billboards with his campaign message.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has run commercials for GOP-nominated candidates. “Viviano, Zahara and Redford are experienced and capable judges who believe in separation of powers and will not legislate from the bench,” chamber President and CEO Rich Studley said.

But the ad spending troubles a national group that advocates public financing for state justice elections.

“Michigan is again leading the charge on TV ad spending in judicial elections,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel for the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law. “...We need to insulate judges and candidates from election politics so people trust that Michigan's courts are fair and impartial.”

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