Nearly all state and local judges across the country have to run for election. Federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Why the difference?
Author Jed Handelsman Shugerman, a professor at Harvard Law School, found the answer in a book he wrote about the history of the judicial selection process in the United States. In the beginning of the republic, most state and local judges were chosen the same way as federal judges.
It didn’t take long for reformers to recognize that process brought too much nastiness and politics into the process. State judges became beholden to the political machines that owned the statehouse.
By the 19th century, states had thrown out judicial appointment and turned to the ballot box.
Shugerman says the most successful selection process currently in use is a hybrid system. The governor’s office selects the judge. When the judge’s term ends, though, he must stand for election. Think of it as checks and balances.
About 20 states select judges that way. Shugerman says it does the best job of ensuring that judges are both capable on one hand and fair, independent and accountable on the other.
In Michigan, we elect our judges — even if it sometimes feels like voting on who will get to perform your next surgical procedure. We even vote for state Supreme Court justices while usually only vaguely aware of who they are. We call them nonpartisan even though we know they are selected by the political parties.
There are six candidates on the November ballot competing for two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court.
Kurtis Wilder and Elizabeth Clement have the advantage. They were appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to vacancies on the court, so they get the title “justice” next to their names on the ballot. Justices tend to retire when a political ally sits in the governor’s office. Wilder and Clement are part of the court’s 5-2 GOP majority.
On the Democratic side, Birmingham lawyer Megan Cavanagh continues a long and cynical court campaign tradition — name recognition. She’s part of a political dynasty that includes a past Supreme Court justice and former Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh. Campaigning on a name that is distinguished and easy to remember is pathetic.
Sam Bagenstos is the other Democratic pick. He was a high Justice Department official in the Obama administration and now teaches law at the University of Michigan.
Kerry Lee Morgan is the Libertarian Party’s pick. He is a civil rights lawyer who practices in Detroit. Doug Dern is the perennial nominee of the Natural Law Party. He is also the party’s Michigan chairman.
— TIMES HERALD (PORT HURON)