I have never been able to decide exactly how I feel about the way we choose judges in this state, which is by electing them.
The average person doesn’t know what skills are needed on the bench. More importantly, most people don’t have the time needed to sort through the resumes and the qualifications of judicial candidates. A candidate for mayor can say, “vote for me and I’ll fix the streets.” Judicial candidates ethically can’t do that. So they are forced to use meaningless slogans like “Vote Jones for justice,” or “Judge White is just right.”
Yet here’s the strongest argument for electing them: They may at some point be called on to judge … us. If I am going to be sent to the big house for a few years, I think my sentence should be passed by someone I had an opportunity to vote for – or against.
That seems more democratic than being sentenced by someone appointed by a politician. If we have the right to face our accusers, we should also have a say in selecting those who might send us to jail.
But I can say that I totally oppose the way we select the justices for the Michigan Supreme Court, the highest court in our state.
Under the current rules, they are nominated by the political parties and are listed on the ballot as Republicans or Democrats.
That’s bad for a number of reasons. First of all, the Supreme Court is charged with supervising the entire state court system, as well as interpreting the laws in light of the Michigan Constitution.
Do you believe we should think in terms of partisan justice? I don’t, and I don’t think the framers of the current Michigan Constitution did either. But that document was written in 1961 and 1962, in an era before the country was as ideologically divided as it is now.
We now have a state supreme court that is more polarized than the U.S. Supreme Court – something that stands out constantly in their decisions and dissents. We have four partisan Republican justices and two Democrats. A seventh justice, Elizabeth Weaver, is also a Republican, but more independent.
And there is another problem. I also don’t think the framers realized that the political parties would use the state’s highest court as a retirement home for their washed-up politicians.
The Republicans put Robert Griffin on the state’s highest court after he was defeated for the U.S. Senate, and Jim Brickley after he lost a nomination for governor. Democrats did the same with Soapy Williams, after he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate, and with John Swainson, after he was defeated for re-election as governor.
We need two reforms. To start with, take the political party designation off judges’ names. And second, nominate only candidates who are judges, not politicians. If we are going to have a supreme court at all, we deserve to have one where justice really is supreme.