WSW: Michigan's Unique State Supreme Court Elections
Two Republicans and one Democrat won seats on the Michigan Supreme Court last month. But voters didn't know that looking at the ballot.
That led the Detroit Free Press in a post-election editorial to call for, among other things, eliminating elections for state Supreme Court. For decades there have been calls for Michigan to have judges appointed by the governor or the Legislature, but the basic system has been in place for over 70 years. Western Michigan University Political Science Professor Mark Hurwitz says Michigan's system is unique. He says other states elect judges on the "non-partisan" portion of the ballot. But Hurwitz says only Michigan has "non-partisan" elections where judges are nominated at state party conventions.
Hurwitz studied the history of Michigan Supreme Court elections and wrote on the issue with a grant from the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society. He says the argument for appointing justices is that it will take politics out of the process. But Hurwitz says politics is part of any process of selecting judges. He says there's a lot of research showing that elections are a very efficient way to put them on the bench.
However, Hurwitz says it would probably help voters to put the candidates' party affiliations on the ballot. He says if political parties are going to nominate candidates for state Supreme Court, it might as well be on the ballot. Hurwitz says partisan cues (political party affiliation) are an important tool for voters.
There have been many efforts over the years to change Michigan's system and have state Supreme Court Justices appointed, rather than elected. Hurwitz says resistance to change may help explain why none of those efforts have ever gained traction. He says a change also requires politicians to give up the power of nominating the candidates and then convincing voters to give up their vote for justices on the state Supreme Court.
In the web version of the interview, Hurwitz discusses the financing of judicial campaigns and why "dark money" has more influence in campaigns for the court. He analyzes how the Supreme Court's "Citizen's United" decision brought more money from undisclosed donors into campaigns.