A New Dawn of Justice in Michigan

For those of you interested in following the events and activities in and around the way elected officials make law in Lansing, the most interesting spot to watch isn’t the executive or legislative branches in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is going to bring an innovative spirit and knowledge of state government to the office for the first time in nearly a decade. Newly minted Attorney General Dana Nessel is going to surprise a lot of people as she becomes the attorney general we haven’t really seen since Frank Kelley – putting the people rather than corporations and special interests first. And Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is finally going to get the chance to run the office she’s wanted to be in charge of for most of her adult life.

With new legislators on both sides of the aisle, we can expect brand new fireworks over brand new issues. The honeymoon between the GOP (really controlled at the moment after being cowed in November’s election by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey) and Gov. Whitmer will last until her first budget hits the table sometime in February.

Then, we will be off to the races with divided government, despite current evidence to the contrary.

No, the change I’m addressing is the remarkable landscape shift that has happened in our state’s judicial branch. Last week, Justice Bridget McCormack became the first Democratic chief justice of the court in decades. Justice McCormack will bring sweeping changes to what will come to be called The McCormack Court, focused on problem-solving courts, doing the people’s business independently and basing much of its work on – wait for it – evidence.

We arrived at this point via one of the most tumultuous judicial elections in quite some time, which started when conservatives attempted to distance themselves from Justice Elizabeth Clement, seeking a full-term on the court after being nominated to the bench by Gov. Rick Snyder. Clement’s rulings on two important cases (the constitutionality of Proposal 2, which brought much needed reform to our state’s process of reapportionment thanks to Michigan voters, and guns in Michigan schools) gave GOP activists heartburn, so much so that they didn’t even embrace Clement at convention in August.

Clement’s flash of natural independence, intelligence and streak of every-woman paid dividends for her in the 2018 election, as voters preferred her no-nonsense stance on issues and her penchant to play above the traditional partisan box that has generally defined past Court races.

The election of Chief Justice McCormack (who was nominated by Democrats in 2012) on a court seemingly controlled by Republicans on a 4-3 margin is a clarion call for those individuals looking for a positive change in the way our courts and our government does business. If anything, the Court is better defined as 2-4-1, with conservative Justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra holding right, Justice Richard Bernstein holding down the left and an independent block of four justices (McCormack, Clement, Justice David Vivano, a moderate Republican from Macomb County, and newly elected Justice Megan Cavanagh, nominated from this year’s Democratic convention). The relationship between these justices is best defined as cordial, cooperative and collegial. Further, Clement and Cavanagh went to the same East Lansing grade school and have a good personal relationship from before their time on the Court. Those four justices, with the occasional assist from Bernstein, will set a new tone for the Michigan Supreme Court for years to come.

As the owner of a firm that works in electoral politics (and in full disclosure, Vanguard has worked with many of the justices currently on the bench), I’ve already been asked by many parties in Lansing how to navigate the politics of the new Supreme Court. My answer is simple: partisan politics on the Court will soon become a relic of the past. If you want to get a favorable ruling from the McCormack Court, my advice is bring your legal A-game, because these justices are coming to play, and I’ll guarantee the new majority is going to weigh every case on its merits, and only its merits – something we should all expect and welcome from our Supreme Court.

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