By Lindsay VanHulle
TRAVERSE CITY -- The process of selecting Michigan Supreme Court justices is flawed, and reform is needed to change the way campaigns are financed and cases are decided.
That's the message delivered Thursday as part of a panel discussion, hosted in part by the League of Women Voters, on the problems facing the state's high court. Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson gave those assertions to the standing-room-only crowd, using examples from actual cases and campaign advertisements to support their claims.
In addition, Justice Elizabeth Weaver, of Glen Arbor, stressed the importance of a fair and independent court to protect the rights of the state's citizens.
Weaver frequently has spoken out against the court's Republican majority, of which she is part, criticizing them Thursday for what she termed an "abuse of the power of interpretation."
"That power should be used with the greatest restraint and with common sense," Weaver said, adding that the court needs justices who can tell their friends and supporters they are wrong if the law indicates as much.
But, she said, "It's very difficult to get elected to the Supreme Court if you're like that."
The problem with the election process is that campaigns are becoming expensive -- in the millions of dollars in some cases -- and contributions by special-interest groups to fund televised issue advertisements are not required to be reported, Robinson said.
He cited a study that showed campaign contributors to at least one justice were parties in 86 percent of the cases the court heard in the 1990s, and he questioned whether the justices involved should have removed themselves from hearing those cases.
"How does one evaluate whether there is a conflict of interest here?" Robinson said. "There needs to be some separation."
Dickerson noted three recent cases that reached the court, which ruled against the plaintiffs. One such case involved a recent lawsuit against Nestle Waters North America, which uses Mecosta County water in its Ice Mountain bottling facilities. In its decision, the court ruled individuals don't have legal standing to file claims of environmental abuse unless they can prove they were personally harmed by the defendant's actions.
Those decisions are the result of a court majority that doesn't use common sense when dealing with laws that might not make sense, Weaver said.
She added that it's difficult to get elected at all, because the election and appointment processes don't include checks and balances that would keep the court from becoming too powerful. Among those checks are setting one-term limits for justices to rotate the court's makeup every few years, increasing transparency in its operations and reducing the ease with which incumbents can hold onto their seats.
Part of that ease, Weaver said, comes because of the lack of accountability in campaign financing.
"There are 40,000 lawyers in Michigan," she said. "There are more than seven people who can do this job."
The Record-Eagle was among the sponsors of the panel, as well as the Michigan Campaign Finance Network and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.