Finley: Put end to justice bullying

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Gov. Rick Snyder is greeted by State Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth T. Clement.

The shocking revelation from Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement that she was bullied and intimidated while deliberating whether to allow the redistricting proposal on the ballot should tick off every Michigan voter.

It should also cause us to reconsider how justices are placed on the state's highest court. 

Clement, appointed to the court by Gov. Rick Snyder last November and facing her first election this November, told The Detroit News editorial board last week that unnamed "special interests" attempted to coerce her into supporting the Republican-leaning business groups who brought the lawsuit challenging Proposal 2. 

Ultimately, she and fellow GOP Justice David Viviano sided with Democrats Bridget McCormick and Richard Bernstein to allow the Voters Not Politicians initiative to go to voters on Nov. 6.

I'm not a legal scholar, and have no clue whether the majority came to the right opinion.

But I'm damn sure justices ought to base their decisions on their interpretation of the state constitution, and not on lobbying from those who think members of the court should always stay in their partisan lanes.

Clement didn't cave. And she's paying a price. She lost the Republican firm that was helping her raise money, and was left off GOP campaign literature -- the only statewide candidate the party omitted. 

It may come out for the good. Since the story ran I've heard from a number of people -- Republicans and Democrats -- who say they are holding fundraisers for Clement, and many admit they don't even know her.

But like me, they can't stomach the idea of their Supreme Court justice being strong-armed.

The pretense that Republicans only want judges to stick to the rule of law, let the chips fall where they may, is exposed as bullwhacky by this episode. They want the justices whose campaigns they pay for to always carry their water.

To be fair, Democrats aren't any different. Democratic justices have also been targeted by that party's special interests for delivering unfavorable rulings.

Which brings us to rethinking judicial elections. 

In Michigan, judges and justices are elected to state courts. But Supreme Court justices are the only ones who are nominated by a political party.

That should stop. Justices should go on the ballot as truly non-partisans. 

And if any campaigns should entirely publicly funded, it should be those of  Supreme Court justices. Give each of them a set amount of money and let them have at it. And forbid outside groups from mounting surrogate campaigns. 

This would free the court from the sort of pressure Clement has endured. Those who hope to influence the court through their campaign donations would be out of luck.

Justices would owe allegiance to no one but the voters who elected them. 

It would also erase the suspicion that justices allow their political affiliation to determine how they rule. It's not been that predictable in Michigan, as witnessed by Clement's rebuff of her party in the Prop 2 case, yet justices are almost always identified by their partisan camp when decisions are parsed.

Justices should be immune from outside influences. Clearly, they aren't in Michigan. That should change.

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