Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
One hundred years ago this week, on April 5, 1915, Justice Aaron V. McAlvay of Manistee was elected to his final term on the Michigan Supreme Court. Under Article VII of the Michigan Constitution of 1908, Justices of the Supreme Court were formerly chosen at the state’s regular spring elections, held on the first Monday of April in odd-numbered years. Although Justice McAlvay passed away shortly after being reelected, voters selected many other justices from across Michigan over the next several decades.
Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, Michiganians elected justices from Grand Rapids, Holland, Traverse City, Saginaw, Battle Creek, Hastings, Manistee, Glen Arbor, Adrian, Charlotte, Carson City, Lapeer, Bad Axe, and West Branch just to name a few. During this same period, several justices were elected from the upper peninsula, including famed trout fisherman and author Justice John D. Voelker of Ishpeming.
Justice Elizabeth Weaver of Glen Arbor retired in 2010, and was replaced by Justice Alton “Tom” Davis of Grayling. But Justice Davis’s tenure on the court was brief; he was defeated in November 2010 by Mary Beth Kelly of Wayne County. This trend has continued. At the end of 2014, Justice Michael Cavanagh of East Lansing was forced to retire due to age. Michigan voters selected Richard Bernstein of Oakland County as his replacement.
Today, six of the seven Michigan Supreme Court Justices live within the Detroit-Ann Arbor Combined Statistical Area. In fact, three of the seven justices live in Wayne County (at one point in 2009 and 2010, three of the seven justices lived in the city of Grosse Pointe Park alone). Only Justice Stephen Markman of Mason lives outside southeast Michigan. There are currently no Supreme Court Justices from west Michigan, northern lower Michigan, or the upper peninsula.
While it might not be self-evident, the actions of the Michigan Supreme Court affect our daily lives in countless ways. Michigan is a common-law jurisdiction. This means that a great deal of our law is made by the Supreme Court rather than by the Legislature. Don’t be fooled when you hear that judges don’t make the law but merely “apply it as written.” In many cases, this simply isn’t true. Contract law, tort law, and property law are all fundamentally based on judicial decisions rather than acts of the Legislature. Therefore, the Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court have the final say in these areas. For example, there is no state statute defining the elements of a contract. It is the Supreme Court Justices who ultimately decide what a contract is, when it has been breached, and whether the injured party may sue for damages.
In short, the Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court have extraordinary power but are virtually unknown to the majority of Michigan residents. Most of them live and spend their time in southeast Michigan. Their names mean little, if anything, to the average voter outside metropolitan Detroit or the halls of government in Lansing.
But what if Michigan’s seven justices were elected from individual districts rather than on a statewide basis? Here’s how it would work: The state would be divided into seven districts of equal population (roughly 1.4 million people per district), and each district would send one justice to Lansing to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court. Instead of electing seven unknown judges (most likely from southeast Michigan) on an at-large basis, Michigan voters would choose one justice from their own geographic area. This would not only ensure that a majority of the justices could no longer be from the same city or county, it would also increase the likelihood that voters would be familiar with the candidates and their backgrounds.
The Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court should be representative of Michigan’s population as a whole. Once they were. But we no longer elect justices from places like Manistee, West Branch, or Ishpeming; it just doesn’t happen. As Supreme Court campaigns become increasingly costly and complex—relying heavily on big-dollar contributors and expensive television advertising—candidates must spend more time raising money in Michigan’s wealthiest and most-populous areas. It necessarily follows that most candidates hail from Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb counties. Few out-state attorneys have the money or connections necessary to compete with these individuals.
With districts, however, Supreme Court candidates would only compete against individuals from their own area. No longer would Justice Davis of Grayling be forced to run against Justice Kelly of Wayne County. Instead, Justice Davis would run against candidates from his own region in one district. And Justice Kelly would run against candidates from her own region in a different district. The system would result in a more geographically diverse Supreme Court bench, consisting of seven different voices from all across Michigan. There is no way that the court’s decision-making process would not benefit from such a broadened representation.