Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Photo via Michigan Courts.
Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Photo via Michigan Courts.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack told The ‘Gander what judges do, and why voting for them matters.

LANSING, MI—If you get a parking ticket, divorce, or legal dispute of any kind, you probably will interact with a state judge. The same is true if you’re a witness to parking tickets, divorces or disputes. And if you’ve ever been summoned for jury duty, you have definitely interacted with a judge. 

In Michigan, judges are elected. Unlike federal judges who are appointed by the president and serve for life, most states elect their judges often for a fixed number of years. And in Michigan, as well as 20 other states, these judges are elected from a nonpartisan section on the ballot. 

The Nonpartisan Section of the Ballot

But Bridget Mary McCormack, Chief Justice of Michigan’s Supreme Court, explained that it can be an uphill battle getting information to voters on the nonpartisan section of the ballot. 

“It feels pretty important that people be engaged and have their voices heard in selecting who the folks are who sit in the third branch of government,” she told The ‘Gander. “Figuring out how to make sure people understand that they have to specifically vote in the nonpartisan section is always a big lift any election cycle, we’ve never been able to quite break through.”

That’s because voting straight-ticket for a particular party doesn’t cast a vote for anyone in the ballot’s nonpartisan section. Judges are also elected deep in the ballot, forcing them to contend with ballot drop-off, the tendency for fewer people to vote for things the farther down the ballot they are. 

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In 2012 when McCormack was elected to the court, nearly 5 million Michiganders voted for president, but just over 3 million voted for the state’s Supreme Court.

But she’s optimistic that this year there’s a chance to get higher voter engagement because of attention on the federal Supreme Court with the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the controversial rush to appoint her replacement. And that came on the heels of a national conversation on race and the justice system, which has marked 2020. 

“I think people are very focused on the justice system from lots of different angles,” she said. “So I’m hoping this is the year when people are really focused on the justice system generally and therefore the people who sit in their courts.”

McCormack also highlighted the advantage many Michigan voters found in being able to look up candidates when voting from home. 

“Especially given all of the options now for voting at home, I would hope people would take some time to do their homework and learn about whose running on the nonpartisan section ‘cause it makes such a difference in so many of our lives.”

What a State Chief Justice’s Job Is Like

Judges, McCormack explained, are somewhat different from county clerks or school board members. While they are ultimately accountable to voters, a judge can’t let that influence the way they do their jobs. 

“On the Supreme Court it doesn’t matter if you’re the Chief Justice or an Associate Justice, there’s always a contested race, and that just kind of comes with the territory. Frankly, I think your job when you’re a judge is to ignore it. To be able to be honest and uphold your oath you have to be willing to lose friends and lose elections. That’s the only way to do this job.”

Michigan Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack

That’s because, she explained, judges have to strictly adhere to facts and laws regardless of what is popular with voters. Ultimately, the intention of a nonpartisan race is to place judges outside of the system of normal politics and allow them to be focused on the right outcome, and not necessarily any particular ideological outcome. 

But McCormack’s job extends far beyond trials. As the state’s Chief Justice, she also acts as the administrator for state courts, and that role is influential on its own. The ‘Gander reported on her efforts to modernize the courts and increase both transparency and the role of technology in the courtroom. In three months during the pandemic, Michigan held 350,000 hours of online court proceedings. 

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Beyond just preventing the spread of the coronavirus, McCormack said those online proceedings made it possible for litigants in both civil and criminal cases to have their day in court without worrying as heavily about transportation, parking, disabilities, child care, and job responsibilities.

And for those who go to trial without a lawyer, McCormack testified the online hearings have proven less intimidating.

“The pandemic obviously required us to do everything differently and almost overnight,” she told The ‘Gander. “But we have viewed that as a tremendous opportunity to modernize what we do in ways that make it more accessible, more transparent and more efficient.”