Saturday, January 29, 2011


Used to be, judges were either Republicans or Democrats in Michigan.

Then along came 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States by a wide margin. Michigan went Democrat big time.

Not everyone was ready for it. A couple of old time Dems woke up to find that they had been elected to the office of State Representative and bought railroad tickets to Washington D.C. instead of Lansing.

One group that got a rude awakening was the judges. Michigan had been a Republican state and most of them were staunch members of the majority party. But in the 1932 landslide, a number of incumbents were ousted.

What to do?

Change the constitution. Make judges non partisan. Give incumbent judges the benefit of a designation on the ballot that would let the voters know who they were.

The system has worked pretty well. Incumbent judges and their challengers are welcome in the halls of both political parties, and while the “us and them” mentality of American politics is still at work, there is a certain aura of civility associated with non partisan elections which is suited to judicial office.

The one exception is the Michigan Supreme Court.

Unhappily, when the constitution was amended to make judicial elections non partisan, it left the matter of nominating candidates for the Supreme Court to the legislature.

And what did they do?

They did what legislatures do best. Nothing. They did nothing at all. They simply left the matter of nominating candidates for the Supreme Court the way it was under the old, party convention method.

So while candidates for the Supreme Court are rotated alphabetically on the non partisan ballot, they must first be nominated by the political parties.

And they never forget it.

Even when, as incumbents running for reelection, they are entitled to get on the ballot by a simple affidavit nominating themselves, they still go back to their party conventions. That’s where the money is.

As a result, justices of the Michigan Supreme Court are commonly regarded as Republicans and Democrats. And they tend to act that way.

Back in 1982, the court consisted of four Democrats, two Republicans, and a maverick.

The maverick was a man named Charles Levin.

His father had been a federal judge in Detroit. Two cousins, Sander and Carl were successful members of the United States Congress. Both Democrats.

But Charles never got into partisan politics. He wanted to be a judge like his father. So he ran for the Court of Appeals, where candidates are nominated by circulating petitions.

He was elected, served several years and then decided to run for the Supreme Court. He couldn’t get the nomination of the Democratic Party so he circulated petitions and started his own party, held a convention in his basement and got himself nominated.

And was elected.

The Democratic majority on the Supreme Court back in 1983 did what majorities always do. They elected their own guy as Chief Justice.

His name was G. Mennen Williams.

He would preside over the Supreme Court of Michigan on the darkest day in its history.

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