Michigan Supreme Court race has 6 candidates for 2 seats
LIVONIA, Mich. (AP) — Megan Cavanagh recalls her father casually holding court at the family dinner table, even if he wasn’t wearing his robe as a Michigan Supreme Court justice.
“He would sit and listen to other peoples’ opinions and be the arbiter. He always tried to put himself in the shoes of the party or person in front of him,” Cavanagh said. “That was him as a judge and a dad.”
Cavanagh has an opportunity to make history and follow a parent to Michigan’s highest court. She’s among six candidates for two seats in the Nov. 6 election. Kurtis Wilder and Elizabeth Clement are running to keep their jobs after being appointed to vacancies by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Voters looking for party designations on the ballot won’t find them. The race is considered nonpartisan, even if candidates are nominated by political parties. Wilder and Clement, backed by the GOP, will have the advantage of “justice” next to their names.
A political consultant, Mark Grebner, said the label is “powerful,” especially if voters aren’t familiar with the candidates and there’s no scandal.
Justices endorsed by the Republican Party have a 5-2 majority on the court, although nearly 60 percent of opinions since the 2016-17 term have been unanimous. Besides Cavanagh, the Democratic Party has nominated law professor Sam Bagenstos.
Here are the major candidates:
— Wilder, 59, of Canton. Snyder appointed him to the court in 2017.
Wilder may be low in seniority, but no one at the court has more experience — 26 years — as a Michigan judge. He caught the eye of Republican Gov. John Engler, who appointed him to Washtenaw County Circuit Court in 1992 and promoted him to the state appeals court in 1998. Wilder won four subsequent elections.
He considers himself a “rule of law” judge like Robert Young Jr., the conservative justice whose resignation led to Wilder’s appointment.
“My job is interpreting statutes and applying past precedent. ... I’m fond of telling people, ‘I appreciate your support, but by supporting me what you’re getting is my promise to faithfully apply the law as written, which may mean I’m on the different side of the issue than you are,’” Wilder said. “I can’t promise outcomes to people.”
In his 17 months on the court, Wilder has written just a few majority opinions. His first opinion was the court’s only dissent in the case of a Genesee County man convicted of assaulting a teen boy who was caught in a bedroom with the man’s teen daughter. Wilder would not have granted him a new trial.
“No judge should give up their deeply held beliefs about what a statute or a constitutional provision provides. That’s extremely important,” he said.
— Bagenstos, 48, of Ann Arbor. He specializes in civil rights and employment law at University of Michigan law school.
Bagenstos for a time was the No. 2 civil rights official at the U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama. He said he “learned at the feet” of Ruth Bader Ginsburg earlier in his career, serving as a law clerk for the liberal U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“We want to fire Snyder’s judges,” Bagenstos recently told retired union members. “We need to have a Michigan Supreme Court that’s prepared to stand up and listen to workers and stand up for people’s rights.”
In an interview, Bagenstos said he doesn’t have a “punch list” of Supreme Court opinions that he disagrees with. He said he’s in the race because he believes state courts will be a crucial venue for civil rights. He said federal courts, a common place for civil-rights cases, are being stocked with conservative judges.
“Should the U.S. Supreme Court gut Roe versus Wade, the question is going to arise whether the state Constitution protects a woman’s right” to abortion, Bagenstos said.
While teaching law, he’s also found time to take cases. Bagenstos was on a team that won a U.S. Supreme Court case for a Jackson County girl who wanted to bring a service dog to school.
— Clement, 41, of East Lansing. She served as the governor’s legal counsel before Snyder put her on the court.
Clement has worked in government and politics, first in the Legislature and then in the executive branch. She joined Snyder’s staff in 2011 and was promoted to chief counsel in 2016.
She credits others with touting her as a possible successor to Joan Larsen, who resigned to become a federal judge. Snyder agreed and made her a Supreme Court justice about a year ago.
Clement has made an impact. She joined the majority in allowing school districts to ban gun possession by visitors. She also helped clear the way for a Nov. 6 ballot question that would significantly change how Michigan draws districts for Congress and the Legislature. Both opinions were 4-3.
Her vote in the gun case has led to support from the Michigan Education Association, a union that rarely favors Republicans. On the flip side, some Republican activists have refused to promote Clement, despite the party’s endorsement.
“Not everyone is going to be happy with the decisions I make,” Clement said.
“It is not my role to legislate from the bench, to second-guess whether a policy from another branch is a good policy or bad policy,” she said. “I believe judicial restraint is very important. I don’t say I’m conservative or liberal.”
— Cavanagh, 47, of Birmingham. She’s an appellate specialist at a Detroit-area law firm.
The family name has been on ballots for decades: Cavanagh’s father, Michael, was a Supreme Court justice until 2015, and an uncle, Jerome, was Detroit mayor in the 1960s.
Yet Cavanagh hopes voters aren’t confused. She tells audiences that she’s “Cavanagh with a C” — no connection to Brett Kavanaugh, the controversial new U.S. Supreme Court justice.
No son or daughter has followed a parent to the Michigan Supreme Court since 1857.
“I think it’s important to have justices who have spent time on the other side of the bench representing people. My opponents have not or it’s been a long time,” Cavanagh said of Wilder and Clement.
Cavanagh doesn’t have much experience with criminal law. Her clients have included local governments and insurance companies. She also serves on the Attorney Grievance Commission, which investigates misconduct by lawyers.
Cavanagh, no fan of President Donald Trump, said the 2016 election and the work of Trump’s administration inspired her to run for the Supreme Court.
“I have two daughters who are 12 and 9,” she said. “What I wanted to do was show them that rather than talk or complain about it I was going to do something. ... I want to show them that in the Michigan justice system, they’re going to get a fair shake and be treated with respect.”
Doug Dern and Kerry Lee Morgan are also on the Supreme Court ballot.
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