A Rare Bipartisan Success: A Blueprint for Better Judicial Elections in Michigan

In this era of political gridlock and unsolved problems, true bipartisan achievements are rare and warrant celebration. Which is why Michiganians should embrace the sweeping recommendations of the Judicial Selection Task Force.
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In this era of political gridlock and unsolved problems, true bipartisan achievements are rare and warrant celebration.

Which is why Michiganians should embrace the recently-released report and sweeping recommendations of the Judicial Selection Task Force, a commission charged with scrutinizing, and proposing reforms to, our state's system of electing judges. That report can be read here.

When the task force's formation was announced in December 2010, partisan warriors predictably whetted their spears and swords.

One critic tarred the task force as an anti-democratic assault on judicial elections by "liberal elites who think they should be the ones to decide who sits on the bench."

Others claimed that the panel would serve as a stalking horse for "merit selection," which favors contested judicial elections and instead requires governors to appoint judges from short lists of candidates vetted by nonpartisan commissions.

These attacks were wildly off-base.

The task force was the brainchild of the Hon. James Ryan, a senior judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and the Hon. Marilyn Kelly, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Judge Ryan and Justice Kelly occupy entirely different places on the ideological spectrum. They worked to populate the panel they co-chaired with a passel of community leaders defined by their partisan and professional diversity.

The eclectic task force has spoken in a single voice, one reflecting a shared belief that Michigan's system of electing justices must be reformed, that it threatens to sabotage the all-important perception that state Supreme Court justices are independent.

The judiciary could no longer function were we to view judges as beholden to vested interests.

Courts' "authority, consisting of neither the purse nor the sword," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once said, "rests ultimately on substantial public confidence in its moral sanction."

In Michigan, the public's faith that our judiciary is independent is challenged on many fronts. Candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court must win nominations from party convention delegates -- even though their names appear on the nonpartisan portion of the ballot.

And in recent years, spending on judicial campaigns by political parties and special interest groups has skyrocketed. In 2010, Supreme Court candidates and their supporters flooded the airwaves with almost $9 million in political ads, making Michigan's judicial races the most expensive in America.

Michigan's lax election laws often do not require disclosure of the names of the people who fund attack ads. Most spending in Michigan Supreme Court races is not publicly reported.

Voters lack access to reliable and informative information about judicial candidates, while shrinking news holes and budgets prevent the media from meaningfully covering judicial elections.

Most of us vote for judges in a state of ignorance. We pull levers for candidates whose names phonetically please us.

During our deliberations, the members of the task force did not shake fists. We did not accuse or talk over each other. And we did not engage in the gamesmanship now poisoning politics.

Instead, we arrived at our proposals by listening to each other and studying how other states successfully grapple with problems similar to ours.

Would that it were so in Lansing and Washington!

In the end, the task force issued a report from which no member dissented.

The report is a blueprint for better judicial elections.

It recommends, among other things: The public disclosure of all judicial campaign spending; the implementation of an open primary system (replacing Michigan's current practice of nominating justices at party conventions); the creation of two impartial citizen bodies -- one to monitor judicial campaign conduct and advertising, and another to screen candidates for interim appointment to fill Supreme Court vacancies; and the publication and dissemination of educational guides to help voters.

Because its decision-making process had integrity, because its report possesses the imprimatur of a group of ideologically unaligned leaders, we would be wise to listen to, and act on, the task force's recommendations.

Andrew S. Doctoroff is a member of the Judicial Selection Task Force. This opinion-editorial piece was originally published in the Detroit News on May 8, 2012.

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