Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

September 23, 2012

Not your traditional Supreme Court hopeful

Usually, judicial races make for pretty dull political contests. Ethically, would-be judges aren't supposed to take positions on hypothetical or real cases that might come before them.

They also aren't supposed to directly bash their opponents. Any grocer running for the state Legislature can rail against Supreme Court decisions on everything from campaign financing to abortion.

However, the standards are different — rightly so — for those who seek to sit on the bench. Citizens need to be assured that judges are impartial, and that, especially with Michigan's Supreme Court, that a justice will decide any case on whether a law or decision passes muster with both the state and federal constitutions.

So most of the time, judicial candidates have pretty much content-free campaigns, with slogans like "Jones for Justice." But though few voters realize it, Michigan's Supreme Court is different from other state courts. It doesn't just decide cases. It regulates and supervises all the lower courts, can discipline judges who behave badly, and sets standards for the legal profession.

And this year, one candidate for the state Supreme Court has some compelling ideas about judicial reform, ideas that, unlike individual cases, can be talked about in a campaign.

Bridget Mary McCormack is one of the nominees for the two eight-year terms being elected this year. While she was nominated by the Democrats, she wasn't an early favorite of party leaders. She did, however, powerfully impress former Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, who was unable to run again because she is over the 70-year-age limit.

Nor is she a traditional candidate. Most Supreme Court nominees have been former senators, governors, or appellate and circuit court judges. McCormack is a popular law professor at the University of Michigan and director of the school's legal clinics.

"I have always been concerned with the legal profession's impact on real people," said McCormack, a young-looking 46-year-old who her law school dean described as having, besides an infectious grin, "an infectious commitment to her craft, a subtle, powerful mind (and), an astonishing work ethic." Not to mention, time management skills; she and her husband, White House senior counsel Steven Croley, have a commuter marriage and a "blended family" of four teenagers.

Partly through working with various legal aid clinics, the candidate said she came to realize that the average person has little or no idea who to call when they need a certain kind of lawyer.

True, the legal profession does now engage in flamboyant and occasionally outrageous advertising, as the billboards on virtually any Detroit freeway make clear. But other than that, she says wryly, "there are not many resources to direct people in the right direction." What McCormack is proposing is that Michigan set guidelines and start to certify attorneys as specialists in various legal areas. Other states do this, she said, with considerable success.

We may not think of Texas as the capital of enlightened jurisprudence, but there, "for example, instead of having to wade through the names of the more than 70,000 licensed attorneys in the state, people can narrow their search "¦ to those who have been certified in various specific fields," by a state board.

The candidate also thinks that lawyers, like doctors, ought to be required to take continuing legal education courses throughout their careers. "The law is a fast-evolving field, and all attorneys, no matter how deeply experienced or accomplished, (could) benefit from having to learn the latest developments in the field." Hopefully, their clients would benefit even more.

McCormack also would like to establish an online directory of all Michigan attorneys that compiled "all information about licensing, certified specializations and verified misconduct in one place."

"Wouldn't that be a simple, common-sense way to improve public awareness and empower people to make good decisions about which attorneys to hire?" she asked. Actually, the real question may be why the state hasn't done anything like this before.

Whether McCormack gets to the court is far from clear; there are four major-party candidates for two seats, and Justice Stephen Markman, like most incumbents, is thought to have an edge.

If he is re-elected, that means no more than one of three other major party candidates can win; in addition to McCormack, they include Republican Colleen O'Brien and Democrat Connie Kelley, circuit court judges in Oakland and Wayne counties, respectively.

Minor party candidates will also be on the high court ballot, and there's a separate race for a two-year partial term between incumbent Republican Brian Zahra and Democrat Shiela Johnson.

"Sure, I want to win. But if I don't, I still have a job now in which I can make a positive impact," McCormack said. What she does want is for her proposals to be taken seriously.

"Everyday people are very good at making the right decisions, as long as they are presented with full information," she argues. It would be hard to argue that they should have anything less.

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