Traverse City Record-Eagle

Election 2010

October 14, 2010

Analysis: GOP TV ad gets a foul

Ad twists facts about Alton Davis into unsavory tale

Michigan Republican Party TV ad — "Alton the Deal Davis"

QUESTIONABLE STATEMENTS

"Michigan's Supreme Court is supposed to be nonpartisan."

That's true, but the process of getting elected to the court is highly partisan. Although candidates for the court are listed on the ballot as nonpartisan, they are nominated for election by the Republican and Democratic parties.

The Republicans long enjoyed a 4-3 majority, but the Democrats currently have a 4-3 advantage. There has been a great deal of partisan rancor on the court in recent years.

"But Governor Granholm just pulled off a sleazy, backroom political deal and appointed campaign donor Alton Davis to the court."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm named Davis to the court Aug. 26, just hours after the surprise resignation of Justice Elizabeth Weaver.

Weaver was first elected to the court in 1994 after being nominated by the Republican Party, but had feuded with other Republican justices in recent years and often aligned herself with Democratic justices in court rulings. She was planning to run for re-election this year as an independent before deciding to resign.

The events surrounding her resignation and the appointment of Davis to replace her were highly unusual. Weaver said she had been discussing her possible resignation with Granholm since June, but only agreed to resign after Granholm said she would replace Weaver with a judge from northern Michigan.

Weaver is from Glen Arbor and is a former Leelanau County probate judge. Davis, who had been serving on the state Court of Appeals, is from Grayling.

State campaign finance records show Davis gave Granholm the maximum $3,400 allowed in the 2006 election cycle.

"The same Alton Davis who sued taxpayers to force them to pay for gold-plated pension and benefit plans for court employees."

This refers to a 1998 lawsuit filed by the 46th Circuit Court, where Davis was serving as chief judge, against Crawford and Kalkaska counties. The lawsuit claimed the counties were refusing to fund increased pension and retiree health care benefits that had previously been agreed to by the counties.

Davis had negotiated the improved benefits in exchange for employees switching to a less-favorable health insurance and prescription drug plan and relinquishing longevity pay.

The changes came as a result of a consolidation of circuit, district and probate courts in those counties and the need to standardize wages and benefits of employees from the various courts. The trial court and Court of Appeals agreed the counties were contractually obligated to pay for the increased retirement benefits because they were "reasonable and necessary" for the operation of the court.

But the Supreme Court, on a 4-3 vote, disagreed in 2006, saying no contractual obligation existed because the improved benefits were not "reasonable and necessary" to the "serviceability" of the court.

The ruling, written by Justice Steven Markman, was joined by fellow Republican Justices Clifford Taylor, Maura Corrigan and Robert Young.

Weaver joined Democratic Justices Michael Cavanagh and Marilyn Kelly in a dissent.

"This mockery of justice has been called cynical and unseemly by a leading newspaper."

Granholm's appointment of Davis was criticized as a "disdainful ploy" by an Aug. 30 editorial in the Detroit News.

"The Granholm-Davis deal sounds an awful lot like another deal-cutting Democrat governor."

Photos of Granholm, Davis and disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich are shown as faces in a slot machine in the ad. This is an apparent reference to Blagojevich, who was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly trying to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Blagojevich was removed from office in 2009. In August, he was convicted of lying to the FBI.

There have been no allegations that Granholm tried to profit from naming a successor to Weaver on the state Supreme Court. And there are no legal actions pending or even expected in this matter.

"Don't let Jennifer Granholm and Alton 'The Deal' Davis stack the Michigan Supreme Court with big-spending partisan Democrats."

Supreme Court justices don't appropriate public money; they interpret the law. Spending money is the job of the Legislature.

Presumably, the Michigan Republican Party, which sponsored this ad, would have no problem stacking the state Supreme Court with its own candidates.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

This ad takes a number of facts surrounding Granholm's appointment of Davis and twists them into an unsavory tale.

But was Granholm's naming of Weaver's successor to the Supreme Court a "sleazy, backroom deal" or a deft political maneuver by the governor and Weaver, who had become estranged from fellow Republicans on the court?

Davis now has the label of an incumbent on the ballot, which is a significant advantage over his challengers. If the Democrats can hold on to their majority on the court, they can play a major role in the redrawing of the state's political boundaries.

Redistricting is the job of the Legislature, but the Supreme Court will have the final say if lawmakers can't agree on a new political map.

It's hard to imagine any governor would turn down the opportunity to shape the court at such a critical juncture.

Davis is criticized in the ad for suing Crawford and Kalkaska counties to get "gold-plated" retirement benefits for court employees while he was the chief judge of the 46th Circuit Court and for donating money to Granholm's 2006 campaign.

But court documents show Davis proposed what seemed like a reasonable solution to standardizing benefits for employees in a newly combined court system. The trial and appellate courts agreed with the plan, but the Supreme Court overturned it.

Allowing supposedly nonpartisan judges to contribute to political campaigns may be unseemly. But it is legal and many judges, including those on the Supreme Court, do it.

TRUTH SQUAD CALL

Foul for trying to tarnish Davis by unfairly portraying him as an accomplice in what the ad tries to suggest was an unsavory maneuver to put him on the Supreme Court — one that outrageously compares Granholm to Blagojevich.

The Center for Michigan is a centerist think-and-do tank founded by former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power.

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