by Eric Rader
The U.S. Supreme Court has been in the news recently with Justice John Paul Stevens’ announcement that he will soon retire from active service. Over the next few months, the media will focus much attention on President Obama’s nominee to the high court (as yet unannounced), and the subsequent confirmation battle in the Senate. Certainly the U.S. Supreme Court has the final word on constitutional questions – including upcoming same-sex marriage battles – and it is important for all of us to stay engaged with the court’s decisions on important civil liberties and civil rights cases that affect the LGBT community. We will definitely need to stay connected and involved in the confirmation process as it unfolds this summer, and this will be discussed in a future column.
But there is another high court that has a more direct legal impact on our local community: the Michigan Supreme Court.
Unlike the federal judiciary, state judges in Michigan are chosen by the voters in non-partisan elections.
This coming fall, voters in our state will select two justices for the Michigan Supreme Court. These justices will serve for the next eight years and could decide the fate of important issues for the LGBT community in Michigan, including hate and bias crimes, second-parent adoption, workplace equality and discrimination and domestic partner benefits. As this year’s elections draw closer, it is important that we all stay informed about the state judicial races, especially the one for Michigan’s Supreme Court.
While the voters of Michigan decide who will sit on the Michigan Supreme Court, governors do possess the power to fill mid-term vacancies on the court. During his 12 years as our state’s chief executive, former Gov. John Engler used this power aggressively to install conservative judges on courts at all levels of our state’s judiciary. While Gov. Granholm has been able to put her own progressive stamp on lower level state courts during her seven years in office, there have been no vacancies for her to fill on the state’s highest court. The only way our state Supreme Court will move in a more progressive direction is through our own decisions at the ballot box.
Currently, four of the seven justices on the Michigan Supreme Court are considered to be conservative, while the other three are generally more liberal. In November, two of the conservative justices will appear on the ballot: Justice Robert Young and Justice Elizabeth Weaver.
While sitting justices are usually difficult to unseat in Michigan elections, defeating them is not impossible. We need only look back two years to see what power we the voters can have in determining the fate of our state Supreme Court.
In 2008, then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, a good friend and appointee of former Gov. Engler, looked unbeatable in his race for reelection to the court. A relatively unknown Michigan circuit court judge, Diane Marie Hathaway, took on the seemingly quixotic mission to unseat the so-called “sleeping judge.” Yet with the active support of the LGBT community in Michigan and other progressive people, Judge Hathaway won her race, and now serves on the Michigan Supreme Court.
Justice Hathaway’s election reduced the conservative majority, and now, just one progressive victory this year can swing the court to a more pro-equality stance. This would have far-reaching implications for the issues that are most important to our community.
Though judicial candidates in Michigan are officially non-partisan, the two major parties in the state do endorse candidates for office. The two incumbents running for reelection will be endorsed by the Republican Party at their convention this summer; the Democrats will make their own selections at the same time.
It is important to pay attention to these endorsements and remember the power of our advocacy as we prepare for the November elections. We helped reduce the conservative majority on the court in 2008, and can eliminate that majority this year by working hard for two progressive candidates in this fall’s election. Equality and fairness in Michigan can be guaranteed by our actions on behalf of a progressive judiciary in our state, providing a strong defense against reactionary forces in the political arena. This year, don’t forget that justice truly begins with us.
Check out the Triangle Pride-PAC website for updated endorsements in this year’s races in Michigan at http://www.trianglepridepac.org/guide/showall.php. The website will include judicial endorsements later this year.
Also, to see local candidates endorsed by the National Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, visit http://www.victoryfund.org.