Court Fight in Michigan

“The court Ronald Reagan really wanted” is how conservatives in Michigan refer to their state Supreme Court.  Four of the seven justices are firmly-committed strict constructionists:  Chief Justice Cliff Taylor (two-time Republican U.S. House candidate and Federalist Society member), Maura Corrigan (boomed by the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and other conservatives for the Supreme Court seat that eventually went to Samuel Alito), Steve Markman (onetime assistant U.S. Attorney General under Reagan and professor at Hillsdale College), and Bob Young (former general counsel to AAA Michigan and the lone African American on the court).

Rounding out the court are two decidedly liberal, Democratic-named  justices — Marilyn Kelly and Michael Cavanagh, brother of the late Detroit Mayor (1961-69) Jerome Cavanagh — and Betty Weaver, a Republican appointee who almost always rules with Kelly and Cavanagh.

But the makeup of this court – really of the entire Michigan state government — is under an apparently well-coordinated attack by Democrats backed by labor dollars.

The usually mundane statewide election to reconfirm justices for an eight-year term has taken on major significance and may become the biggest battle in Michigan this year.  With Taylor the only justice on the ballot this fall, Democrats, organized labor, trial lawyers and left-of-center sources of money have been expected to make his defeat a top priority.  Were the chief justice to lose, the balance of the flagship court for constructionism would tilt toward judicial activism.

Their problem, however, has been finding a candidate.  Earlier this year, there were significant rumors of former Democratic Gov. (1982-90) James Blanchard making a comeback by running for the court against Taylor.  Blanchard finally decided against the race, as did fellow Democrat Marietta Robinson, who lost to Taylor in 2000 by a margin of 54% to 38% statewide.  That leaves Wayne County Circuit Judge Deborah Thomas, who raised only $28,000 in a losing bid for another Supreme Court seat in 2004.  Both Democratic Party elders and union leaders are reportedly skeptical of fielding Thomas as their standard-bearer against Taylor and, sources say, in a desperate search for another court candidate to nominate at their September convention.  (Under a unique statute of the Michigan Constitution, parties select candidates for the Supreme Court but voters elect the jurists on a non-partisan ballot).

So, one could now say that if you can’t beat ‘em, change ‘em.  That is the essence of the “Reform Michigan Government Now,” a constitutional change that the United Auto Workers sculpted and is now seeking signatures to place on the ballot this November.  Discovered by accident on the UAW’s website by an intern working for the conservative Mackinac Center in Midland, Michigan, the plan that conservatives are dubbing the “Destroy Michigan Government Now!” scheme would do nothing short of alter the structure of state government—with a strong emphasis on shrinking the highest court in the state.

Destroy Michigan Government Now!

Although no one can definitely prove that UAW President Ron Gettelfinger is personally behind it, the “Reform Michigan Government Now!”  has all the fingerprints of the heir to left-wing labor lords Walter Reuther and Leonard Woodcock.  The eleven-page plan, as the Grand Rapids Pundit notes, is spiced with popular-sounding items such as “strengthen the ban on illegal aliens’ ability to register and vote,” “require post-election audits of election procedures,” and “enact anti-fraud measures measures to protect the integrity of Michigan’s election process.”

“Those sound like reasonable reforms,” noted the Pundit, “and they are probably added into the proposal to make it easier to support.  However, when one starts looking at the other legislative and judicial reforms, one sees that governmental representation is dramatically decreased.”

The state Senate would be reduced from 38 members to 28 members and the state House of Representatives shrunk from 110 members to 82.  This is inarguably a move away from the idea of a “citizen legislature,” which would be larger and have districts representing  fewer constituents.  The proposal would also reduce legislators’ pay by 25%–a move sure to be popular with conservatives—and would remove redistricting from legislative hands.  Should the “Reform” package be enacted, redistricting would be in the hands of a nine-person non-partisan commission that would be required to “create [an] equal number of Democratic and Republican-leaning districts, while also creating swing districts.”  “No judicial appeals” of the final redistricting plan crafted by the commission would be permitted.

With Democrats still reeling from Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s hated tax increases last year, the odds are against them holding the governorship and both houses of the legislature after 2010 and thus controlling the redistricting process in 2011.  The “Reform” package would thus give them a better chance of coming out even or ahead in redistricting, regardless of whether Republicans controlled the governorship and legislature.

And the courts?  Under “Reform,” ten judges would be added to the lower courts, where Democrats have elected more judges.  However, the second-highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals, would be reduced from 28 to 20 judges. (Most of the present judges were appointed during the dozen years Republicans held the governorship before Granholm won in 2002).  The Supreme Court would be slashed from seven judges to five, with the two eliminated being the least senior members:  Young and Markman, both strict constructionists.  Young is African-American and Markman is Jewish.

State Democratic Party spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr had no immediate comment on the document or the role of the party in promoting the controversial package.  So far, 470,000 signatures have been submitted in an attempt to get it on the fall ballot.