Since entering the race for the Michigan Supreme Court, I have posted on my website judicial opinions that I have authored as a Judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals. In addition, I have written weekly essays posted on my website, email, and social media. I have received great feedback from voters, and I have heard from several who ask, “Why do you write these essays?” And my answer is simple. I am trying to fix the problem that I have heard from friends and family ever since I became a lawyer—“How do I decide which candidate to support in a judicial race?”
Before answering the second question, I want to thank the Michigan GOP for nominating me this weekend as a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court. As a country kid growing up in a small farm town in Calhoun County, I never dreamed I would someday be in a position to run for statewide office. I also want to congratulate the other candidates who were nominated by their respective parties: Mary Roy Kelly (GOP); Bridget Mary McCormack (Democrat); Elizabeth Welch (Democrat); Susan Hubbard (Green); Kerry Lee Morgan (Libertarian); and Katherine Mary Nepton (Libertarian).
Now, back to the question. Like many states that elect judges, Michigan requires that judges run as nonpartisans, which makes sense. A judge cannot be beholden to a particular political view; rather, a judge must be beholden to the Rule of Law. This is true even in the case of the Michigan Supreme Court, where political parties nominate candidates—we still run as nonpartisans, and the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct (applicable to judges and judicial candidates alike) reminds us that we must always be “unswayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism” when performing our professional duties.
So on the ballot, voters are not provided any party information about judicial candidates. The only real information that voters are given are for incumbents, who receive what is called an “incumbency designation.” This is helpful when someone is running for reelection, but what about when there is an open seat, like this year when Justice Stephen Markman retires?
In November, there will be just one incumbent on the ballot (Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack), so voters will see something like the following on their ballots (the order will change across ballots), and they can vote for 2:
Bridget Mary McCormack (Justice of Supreme Court)
Katherine Mary Nepton
Kerry Lee Morgan
Other than the incumbency designation for the Chief Justice, what additional information is provided on the ballot except for names? Simply put—None. How are voters supposed to make an educated choice when there aren’t even party designations listed by the candidates’ names? This is just a restatement of the original question that my friends and family ask me.
The answer is that judicial candidates need to explain themselves to voters during the campaign. Not with snappy slogans, not with words written by a campaign consultant or volunteer, not with cut-and-paste information from another website, not with empty platitudes that sound nice but provide no substance at all. We need to stake out our judicial philosophy, and we need to show our work. Yes, we are bound by the judicial canons that restrict what we can say about certain topics. Even within these canons, however, judicial candidates can say a lot—and we should.
This is why I write.
If you share my values of constitutional self-governance, respect for the Rule of Law, and limited government, I ask that you share this information with your friends and family so that we can all make informed decisions this November!