As someone closely attuned to state politics and policy, I am often asked by friends and family for advice on votes for judges, who are chosen in nonpartisan elections (meaning there is no “R” or “D” after the person’s name on the ballot). Here is what I say:
Unless a judicial candidate has given you a good reason to support his or her election, don’t vote for any of them. If you guess and guess wrong, your choice may enhance the legitimacy of a judge who does not represent your values.
A flier with a long list of “community involvement” gigs, kind words from other lawyers and an attractive family portrait does not constitute a “good reason” to vote for a candidate. Much better (if not quite perfect) is an endorsement (or denunciation) by a political party.
The situation is a little better at the Michigan Supreme Court level, because even though this too is technically a “nonpartisan” election, the system provides one important clue — but then makes it hard to discover what that is. The clue is the partisan process by which candidates get on the ballot. Specifically, political parties nominate them at their state conventions.
However, nothing on the ballot itself reveals which party chose which candidate — it only shows which are incumbents — so citizens need to do some homework before entering the voting booth. Here are the names for 2012, and this question will be on Nov. 6 test:
This year, Republicans nominated incumbent Justice Steven Markman and Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen O’Brien for eight-year terms, and incumbent Justice Brian Zahra to complete a partial term ending Jan. 1, 2015.
Democrats nominated Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Connie Marie Kelley and University of Michigan law professor Bridget Mary McCormack for the two eight-year seats, and Oakland County District Court Judge Shelia Johnson for the partial term.
The Libertarian Party nominated Bob Roddis and Kerry L. Morgan. The Natural Law Party nominated Doug Dern.
Appeals Court judges can also be nominated by political parties, but it happens very rarely, and none were selected this year. Many are appointed by the governor to fill vacancies, and once on the bench they simply have to declare their candidacy to be placed on the ballot automatically. Their re-election is almost as automatic — since at least 1963 no Michigan Appellate Court judge with the “incumbent” ballot designation has ever been defeated.
People understandably decry the many dismal aspects of political parties and partisanship, but for all their vices party labels do convey critical information to voters. Their absence on judicial ballots makes these elections a “black box” process for most voters, whose choices are often based on random superficialities like the person’s name. There is no perfect method for selecting an independent judiciary, but one that encourages candidates to exploit voters' lack of knowledge seems unnecessarily remote from perfection.