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Judicial Election and Partisanship Problems in Michigan

In Michigan, many judges are elected, including those on the Supreme Court. When electing judges, many voters presume that the fact that judges must be nonpartisan also means they will be neutral. Unfortunately, this misconception can lead voters to believe that the selection of judges isn't as important as other elected positions.

Judges should be nonpartisan because their jobs are to apply the law, and they are not, in theory, involved in making political decisions. In reality, though, candidates for the judiciary are not interchangeable; judges with seemingly similar qualifications and experiences may interpret the laws in very different ways.

Although judicial candidates themselves are prohibited from associating with political parties, they might be supported through the election process in a partisan manner. For example, a judge supported by the Chamber of Commerce may be more likely to favor the interests of businesses over consumers. On the other hand, a candidate for judicial office who is endorsed by the Michigan Association for Justice or a specific union could lean more toward protecting individual concerns.

To address concerns related to the neutrality of judges and limit potential influence by campaign supporters, two legal bodies have recently taken action.

In November of last year, the Michigan Supreme Court instituted rules that give the members of the Court an opportunity to ask a fellow judge to step down in cases with potential conflicts of interest.

The Michigan legislature currently has two active bills also relating to the Supreme Court. The House resolution seeks to redraw more proportionate election districts along county boundaries and to limit terms of office. The Senate legislation wants to reconfigure voting districts and require candidates for the Supreme Court to be "registered and qualified" within the areas they would serve.

As a voter, there are things you can do to ensure that a judge is not elected solely by partisan and political affiliates.

It is very important to familiarize yourself with judicial candidates up for election. You should be aware of which groups or individuals are supporting them. Keeping track of who is behind a particular candidate may help to understand what that judge represents and how the candidate may interpret laws in certain circumstances if elected. You can also review the current legislation about changes to the Supreme Court election process and encourage your local legislators to vote for them.

If you have questions about who is supporting a particular judicial, legislative, gubernatorial or other candidate for state office, feel free to contact an attorney at Bredell and Bredell, and also visit the Michigan Association for Justice Web site at http://www.michiganjustice.org.

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