Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered a keynote forum as honorary chair at Wayne State University Law School June 14 alongside Judicial Selection Task Force co-chairs Michigan Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly and Former Senior Judge James L. Ryan of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Several other speakers also spoke at the event to consider alternate ways of choosing Michigan Supreme Court justices.
The forum was sponsored by the Judicial Selection Task Force, a non-governmental, non-partisan initiative created to study alternate methods for selecting justices.
“What the Task Force is concerned with is studying how we do it now, how others do it and to answer the question for ourselves whether there is a better way to select Michigan’s Supreme Court justices than the way it is done now,” Ryan said in his greeting.
“I definitely believe there are deficiencies in the system. Either they need to be corrected or go to a different system,” Kelly said. “It seems so obvious that people would know and care yet too often they just don’t know.”
Michigan’s current system for electing justices is done by nominating candidates by political parties on a non-partisan ballot. O’Connor had stated that she supports merit selection. The merit selection process calls for an independent body called the nominating commission, composed of a diverse group of people from across the state and from law and non-law backgrounds.
The commission takes applications for judicial vacancies, interviews candidates and submits a recommendation to the governor.
O’Connor received her law degree from Stanford Law School, but after graduating, she had difficulty finding employment in the California job market; no law firm would hire her because of her gender. Eventually, she found a job as a legal secretary.
In 1957, she still could not find work at a law firm, so she decided to start her own with a single partner in Phoenix, Ariz., where she became very active in the community. She was a member of the state Senate for two terms and also served as assistant state attorney general in Arizona. She was nominated by President Ronald Reagan for the Supreme Court; she would be the first woman to serve that position. O’Connor served on the Supreme Court from 1981 to 2006.
“Justice O’Connor is a remarkable individual and a role model for women both inside and outside the legal profession,” Kris Zawisaza, project director for the League of Women Voters Michigan, said.
Following WSU President Allan Gilmour’s introduction, O’Connor spoke about merit selection.
“The best way to pick good judges is to pick good people,” she said.
She later jokingly said other methods aren’t necessarily bad because that was how she was elected. She also said that state judicial elections are of national concern; when the public hears these stories of so much money spent, many citizens tend to think all judges are the same.
“The future of our entire legal system, both state and federal, depends upon having confident judges working independently in making their decisions and the individual citizens have to interact with the court systems,” O’Connor said.
“Michigan is going to have a chance to consider whether it wants to make any changes in its system,” she said. “That, of course, is up to the people of Michigan.”
Wayne Law Dean Robert M. Ackerman spoke at the event and acknowledged the attendants who gave their alternative methods for consideration. Michigan Chamber of Commerce General Counsel Robert S. LaBrant and Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer also spoke.
In the discussion “The Right and the Wrong of the Status Quo,” LaBrant said the Chamber of Commerce had always taken part in selecting justices, but attention soon turned to criticizing Brewer’s methods of selecting individuals to Supreme Court, such as removing justices based on seniority.
He said he believed that people want to vote despite knowing very little about the judicial candidates. LaBrant then said, “Good luck getting voters to amend the Constitution to change the selection of judicial selection process from election to appointment.”
Brewer responded by criticizing LaBrant’s methods and stating that the present system of selecting justices is irretrievably broken. He said Michigan has one of the longest ballots in the country, and when voters get to the section of judicial candidates, they have no information about who they’re voting for. “You have to demonstrate to voters why change has to be made. I urge you not only change this system which is broken but consider doing it by a ballot proposal,” he concluded.
Former Chief Justice Clifford W. Taylor, who defended the Michigan system of selecting justices, advocated that selection by election is the way that is least compromised by potential problems. He said he was aware that elections can misfire and candidates’ records can be smeared and distorted, but, “elections are, in my view, still better than some of the other methods.”
Taylor said selecting merely based on merit “won’t get you very far because all the applicants have good credentials.” Taylor urged the audience to think about later generations and to be opposed “to courts out of the social policy business.”
The League of Women Voters Michigan, a non-partisan public policy awareness and education group, is concerned about the role of money and special interest groups in judicial elections, Zawisaza said.
“Judges are expected to be accountable to the law and the Constitution, not political interests,” she said. “But over the past decade, groups with a political agenda have spent heavily to elect Supreme Court justices, seeking to make the court more favorable to their political views. Because money plays such a significant role in judicial elections, the candidate with the most money almost always wins.”