Gizzi on Politics: Oct. 29-Nov.2

Here Comes the Judge

Next to discussion of the maneuvering by Republican presidential hopefuls over the Michigan primary next year, much of the political talk I heard during the Republican conference at Mackinac Island, Mich., last month (See “Politics” October 1.) concerned a campaign for an office that is almost always low-profile in most election years and in most states: state supreme court.

Voters in 38 states now elect the judges for their state’s highest court either directly or through a “yes” or “no” vote on the retention of a sitting jurist. Because of the affect of state court decisions on so many issues, the business community and trial lawyers increasingly get involved in judicial contests. In 1994, for example, a pitched battle for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court—long regarded as a wholly owned subsidiary of the trial lawyers—resulted in a razor-thin lead for the Republican candidate that was hotly disputed by state Democrats. The fight over who was elected to the top judicial spot in Alabama raged for months, was featured in the Wall Street Journal and eventually ended with conservative stalwart Perry O. Hooper’s becoming the first Republican chief justice of Alabama since Reconstruction. Republicans soon won a majority on the Alabama Supreme Court itself.

The current seven-member Michigan Supreme Court comprises five Republican justices and two Democrats. Four of the five Republicans on the panel have been hailed by conservative court-watchers nationwide as “the gold standard” of state judges: Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, a familiar fixture in the Federalist Society, and Justices Steve Markman, a onetime U.S. attorney and assistant U.S. attorney general under Ronald Reagan, Robert Young, Jr., a former state court of appeals judge and the lone African-American on the Michigan high court, and Maura Corrigan, a former prosecutor who received national press attention in ’05 when she was widely mentioned for the U.S. Supreme Court appointment that went to Samuel Alito.

The fifth Republican on the panel is, court-watchers often say, unpredictable. Justice Betty Weaver is a Republican, but many of her decisions and her strained relations with the four other GOP-appointed jurists have led conservatives to conclude without hesitation that she is “not one of us.”

That explains, in a nutshell, why so many at Mackinac were talking about the court race next year, when the 65-year-old Taylor faces the voters in a state that has not gone Republican for President since 1988. His defeat by a Democrat backed by trial lawyers and labor unions would tip control of the court to the three Democrats and Weaver—dramatically tarnishing the conservative “gold standard” of courts.

Will History Repeat Itself?

Older Human Events readers will recall now-Chief Justice Taylor as a 32-year-old firebrand making his first-ever run for office in 1974, when veteran Republican Rep. (1956-74) Charles Chamberlain retired from his Lansing-area seat. Billed as an “anti-government lawyer” by Congressional Quarterly (“I guess they were referring to a speech I made calling for competition in the U.S. Postal Service”), Taylor electrified conservatives with his speeches and soon had working for him an enthusiastic cadre of young volunteers under the aegis of campaign manager and Republican Sen.-to-be Spencer Abraham. Taylor stunned pundits and pols by winning the primary over a better-funded, more moderate state senator.

“And we were leading [Democratic Rep.] Bob Carr by as much as 20 points in one poll that summer,” recalled Taylor, “But then Jerry Ford, a Michiganian, pardoned Richard Nixon.” In November, Carr edged Taylor by 541 votes, or just half-a-percent of the total votes cast.

Taylor practiced law, was active in Lansing community projects and ran for state attorney general in 1994. His appointment to the high court in 1997 to fill a vacancy was widely hailed by members of the Federalist Society and other conservative legal activists.
Normally, sitting Michigan justices are routinely retained by voters. However, in 1970, Democrats shattered years of GOP control of the bench when they ran two former governors—G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams (1948-60) and John Swainson (1960-62)—for slots on the Supreme Court, one open and one held by incumbent Justice John Dethmers. The former governors won, with one-termer Swainson placing first and six-termer Williams second.

Based on that history, there is some speculation that Democrats will try to recruit former Gov. (1982-90) James Blanchard to take on Taylor, especially since the most recent MRG poll shows Blanchard defeating Taylor by 30% to 15% statewide, with more than half the voters undecided.

Now 63 and lobbying in Washington, Blanchard lost his third-term bid in 1990 and a comeback bid to present Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in ’02. However, Democrats also like to point out that prior to their elections to the bench, Williams had lost a race for the Senate in 1966 and Swainson had been defeated for re-election in 1962.
Whoever carries the Democratic banner against Taylor is a virtual cinch to be well-funded by the left, further evidence that the race for the supreme court will be pivotal in Michigan next year. During a visit to my office last week, Michigan State GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis underscored the importance of the contest: “We are talking about control of a conservative court in one of the most litigious states in the country. So the fight to retain Cliff Taylor is not only one of the most important races here, but in the entire country.”

Bobby’s Job

No sooner had Louisiana GOP Rep. Bobby Jindal won his state’s governorship resoundingly last week (See page 5.) than the maneuvering for his 1st District (suburban New Orleans) House seat began. Jindal has not resigned from Congress and won’t take office as governor until January, so no date has been set for a special election.

However, in a district that has been firmly in GOP hands since 1979, Republicans of all shapes, offices and ages have already started to plan for the race to succeed Jindal. State Rep. Steve Scalise, who had deferred to Jindal when the seat was last open in ’04, has more than $100,000 in an account he started for the congressional race he never made. Now, even though Scalise won an open state senate seat last week, he is sending out strong signals he will start running for Congress.

One well-known, but surprising name in the 1st District mix is that of Dave Treen, the Pelican State’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction (1979-83). Treen, now 79, told reporters he is definitely interested in running for the open House seat. He’s been there before. After Republican Rep. (1978-98) Bob Livingston resigned the seat in 1998, Treen lost the run-off to fellow Republican and present Sen. David Vitter.

Slidell’s GOP Mayor Ben Morris has a stellar résumé as a past chief of police and Drug Enforcement Administration officer, who has done military service in the Middle East. According to The Hill newspaper in Washington, Morris told reporters: “I am interested, and I am going to run.”

Other Republicans being mentioned include: state Senators Tom Schedler and Jim Lentini, St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, state Rep. Tim Burns, Jefferson Parish Council members John Young and Tom Capella, and Kyle Ruckert, top aide to Vitter.

Two things appear almost certain in the eventual succession to Jindal in Congress: First the contest will go to a run-off, and second, that the successor will be a conservative Republican in the mold of Jindal (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 97%).