LIVONIA, Mich. (AP) — One of Michigan's newest justices knocks down the belief that there's something wrong with having sharp differences at the state Supreme Court.
Brian Zahra, who was appointed to the court in 2011 and wants to keep his job in next week's election, is part of the Republican coalition that holds a 4-3 edge over liberal Democratic justices. The conservative bloc typically sticks together in civil disputes involving contracts, insurance companies, medical malpractice and auto coverage.
"I take great issue with people who say the 4-3 split is a partisan split or is something bad," Zahra said. "If everything came out 7-0 or 6-1, then the Supreme Court is not taking the right cases. ... It represents a philosophical divide. There should be a different philosophy in the judiciary, and that should be the choice that people make at election time."
Three seats are up for grabs Tuesday, which means voters will maintain or expand the conservative majority or switch control of the court, likely to Democratic nominees.
The GOP nominated Zahra, incumbent Justice Stephen Markman and Oakland County Judge Colleen O'Brien. Democrats nominated law professor Bridget McCormack, Southfield District Judge Shelia Johnson and Wayne County Judge Connie Kelley. Minor parties also are fielding candidates.
Although the candidates have the blessing of political parties, Supreme Court races are on the nonpartisan end of the ballot. There is no political label next to a candidate's name.
With no debates or forums among rival candidates, Supreme Court races mostly emphasize name recognition and feel-good issues. No one talks about how they would rule in a certain case. Radio and TV ads talk about how they'll stand up for families and be tough on crime, positions that don't really distinguish one candidate from another.
Business groups — farmers, bankers, doctors, insurers — are putting their campaign cash on Markman, Zahra and O'Brien, while unions and trial lawyers are donating to the Democratic slate.
The court under GOP control is "results-driven and on a mission to do whatever's possible to take a claim away from a plaintiff in favor of an insurance company," said Detroit attorney Brian McKeen, who specializes in medical malpractice. "What happened to independence? What happened to impartiality?"
Markman, however, said conservatives on the court follow the "rule of law" by taking facts and applying the law, which was overhauled in many key areas when Republican John Engler was governor, from 1991 to 2003, and Republicans controlled the Legislature.
After a two-year break, conservatives were back in the court's majority after the 2010 election and overturned key rulings made by liberal justices. The court, for example, erased a decision that had expanded the ability to sue in environmental disputes. It also said public schools cannot help unions by deducting political contributions from the paychecks of teachers.
"We thought the previous interpretation was a clear breach of the law," Markman said.
The Supreme Court has taken a strict view of deadlines. A Detroit-area man who suffered severe head injuries couldn't collect benefits from his insurer because the notice was two months late. The man was in intensive care part of that time.
"When 30 days means 30 days, all of us — you, me, ordinary citizens — can look at the law and understand their responsibilities. It's not because we want to be harsh," Markman said.
McCormack is an unconventional candidate: If she wins, she would be the first non-judge elected to the Supreme Court since 1986. She is best known for leading the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school, which has won the release of prisoners who insisted they were wrongly convicted.
"I would be a diverse voice at the table," McCormack said.
"The court's 4-3 cases, over and over and over again, are part of the public's confidence problem," she said. "There should be a way to have fewer of those. Reasonable, smart people who maybe have different partisan affiliations would still come to the same conclusion on a state Supreme Court if they're doing the job that was intended for them to do."
Kelley, a judge in the family division of Wayne County Circuit Court, said people aren't getting their day in courts around the state because fewer lawsuits are going to trial. Too many judges, she said, are pointing to Supreme Court precedent in certain areas of law and dismissing cases.
Johnson, who is running against Zahra for a two-year seat, handles misdemeanors and small civil disputes in District Court. She decides whether there's enough evidence to send felonies to Oakland County Circuit Court.
"I don't see it as a huge leap," she said of moving to the Supreme Court. "I didn't start doing this yesterday. I've been a judge for 10 years and a lawyer for 20."
O'Brien, a Republican nominee, said she couldn't think of any Supreme Court cases in the last two years that she would have decided differently.
"The majority is doing an excellent job in following the rule of law," she said. "What that means to me is they decide cases not based on what they personally wish the law was but what the law actually is."
Other candidates are Bob Roddis, Kerry Morgan of the Libertarian Party, Mindy Barry of the U.S. Taxpayer Party and Doug Dern of the Natural Law Party.
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