The Michigan Supreme Court's Hall of Justice is seen, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Michigan Supreme Court's Hall of Justice is seen, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

MICHIGAN–A recent decision to put reproductive freedom on the ballot this November reminded Michiganders of the power of the Michigan Supreme Court. Two spots on the court are up for grabs on Nov. 8, and whoever wins will have a hand in making some big decisions for the people of Michigan.

How is the state Supreme Court different from the federal one?

 

The Michigan Supreme Court is the highest in the state. It consists of seven justices who are elected to eight-year terms. And, unlike the federal Supreme Court, where judges are appointed and expected to be non-partisan, state justices are nominated by political parties and have a specific party affiliation. 

Currently, the court leans Democratic, with four Democrats and three Republicans. 

Here’s the make up: 

Democrat-Nominated Justices 

  • Bridget Mary McCormack (chief justice)
  • Richard Bernstein
  • Megan Cavanagh 
  • Elizabeth Welch 

Republican-Nominated Justices 

  • Brian Zahra
  • David Viviano 
  • Elizabeth Clement 

Why are these races important?

The state Supreme Court has the power to interpret state law and how it applies to Michiganders. For example, in July, the court ruled that the state’s anti-discrimination law also applies to LGBTQ+ people. 

The Supreme Court also has the power to make decisions about other big issues—like what ends up on our ballot and what doesn’t. Recent examples: Two citizen initiatives that were blocked by Republicans on the Board of Canvassers. The groups behind these initiatives appealed to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that the initiatives should end up on the ballot, although not unanimously. 

Two of the three Republican justices disagreed with the decision. This implies that a different court makeup–perhaps with one with more Republican justice–could have led to a different decision. 

That decision from state Supreme Court is the only reason why Michiganders will have the right to decide on issues like abortion access and expanded voting accessibility on the ballot in November. 

As other lawsuits about abortion care in Michigan make their way through the court system, more questions of reproductive freedom may find their way in front of these seven justices. 

The outcome of these elections could also impact future presidential elections as Republicans continue to undermine the state’s election systems. In 2020, the Democratic-leaning Supreme Court chose not to hear a challenge to the state’s election results—concluding that President Joe Biden had won Michigan.

Who is running?

Two spots are up on the bench—those of Democratic nominee Richard Bernstein and Republican nominee Brian Zahra. There are four candidates running, and either party could take both seats.

Here are the four candidates:

Richard Bernstein (D)

Supreme Court Judge Robert Bernstein is the first blind justice, and is running for reelection this November. (Richard Bernstein Facebook)

Bernstein is the first blind justice, and previously worked in private practice, heading up the public service division of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm where he worked on numerous accessibility cases. 

Kyra Harris Bolden (D)

Kyra Bolden represents the 35th House District, which includes Southfield, Lathrup Village, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms and Franklin. (Michigan House Democrats)

As a member of the state House of Representatives, Bolden has been openly pro-choice and pro-labor. 

Brian Zahra (R)

Supreme Court judge Brian Zahra dissented on the decision to have the state’s anti-discrimination law apply to LGBTQ+ people. (Brian Zahra Facebook)

Zahra was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to fill a partial term, then elected in 2012. As a justice, Zahra dissented on the decision to apply the state’s anti-discrimination law to the LGBTQ+ community, as well as  the decision to put abortion access and expanded voting rights on the ballot in November. 

Paul Hudson (R)

Paul Hudson is a Republican nominee for Michigan’s Supreme Court who has previously worked in appeals. (Paul Hudson Facebook)

Hudson chairs the appeals group for the law firm Miller Canfield, and as an appellate lawyer, has represented large institutions and companies seeking to dismiss claims of fraud and malpractice. 

Bonus Seat: Whitmer’s Appointment

Chief Justice McCormack, a Democrat-nominated judge, announced in September that she will step down from the court sometime between Nov. 22 and Dec. 31—leaving Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pick a new justice to fill two of the six years that remain of McCormack’s term, regardless of the Nov 8 election.

McCormack has been on the court since 2013. The appointment will mark Whitmer’s first opportunity to select a Supreme Court justice. Whoever she selects will serve through 2024—but then be forced to run in the general election in 2024 in order to serve the last four years through 2028. The appointment process does not require Whitmer to first gain approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature.