I have known Justice Kelly slightly for a long time, and have been very impressed by her intelligence, judicial temperament, and integrity. For years, both parties have used the court as a dumping ground for over-the-hill politicians. That’s not who she is.
She had been a brilliant young high school French teacher when she was unexpectedly elected to the state board of education at age 26. She told me she quickly learned that to really make a difference in this society, you need a law degree.
So, she went to Wayne State University and got one. She practiced law for a long time, spent six years on the Michigan Court of Appeals, and then was elected to the Supreme Court a dozen years ago. From time to time, I have talked to her about interesting past cases. She has never discussed with me any business then before the court, and I’ve never asked.
Michigan has just gone through a disgraceful period in which the court has been entirely dominated by a majority of four partisan ideologues, who were all too willing to endorse anything the Republican Party or the state Chamber of Commerce was for.
Their plan was to elect one of their number, Justice Robert Young, chief justice this year. But last fall, the leader of the gang of four, Justice Cliff Taylor was unexpectedly defeated for reelection.
That left the court with four Republican and three Democratic justices. But when the election for chief justice was held this month, the one independent-minded GOP justice, Elizabeth Weaver, crossed party lines to help elect Marilyn Kelly by a single vote.
That display of non partisanship was an encouraging sign. But unfortunately, that won’t be enough to fix one of the biggest problems affecting the court: Judicial elections, especially at the highest level, have become increasingly partisan and expensive. What‘s more, they are more and more subject to outside influences.
The American Justice Partnership, or AJP, is a conservative, pro-business interest group which, Bill Ballenger reported last week, funnels millions into high court races in various states, including Michigan. AJP failed last year in its main mission here, to re-elect then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, who lost in a landslide.
But by spending large amounts of money, AJP succeeded in ousting justices it didn’t like in Mississippi and even liberal Wisconsin. That’s not to say only conservatives are guilty of trying to influence judicial elections. Under Michigan law, a trial lawyer can contribute huge sums to finance Democratic ads without his - or her - identity being disclosed. Does that mean Geoffrey Fieger helped finance the famous sleeping-on-the-bench ad that did Cliff Taylor in?
What do you think? I think, as Chief Justice Kelly does, that citizens should have the right to elect their judges. But if what I just told you doesn’t bother you, I’d be surprised.