(Posted March 31) Michigan voters won’t have as many Supreme Court justices to elect this year as was the case in 2012 and 2014, but November’s verdict could flip the partisan balance on the state’s high bench.
That’s because the court is now five Republicans as opposed to only two Democrats, but both seats on the Nov. 8 general election ballot are held by the GOP — incumbent David Viviano, who will be running for a full eight-year term, and Joan Larsen, who must run for the unexpired two-year portion of the term she was appointed to fill last year. Gov. Rick Snyder had to make the appointment because Justice Mary Beth Kelly, who had been elected in 2010, resigned before the end of her fifth year on the court to return to private practice.
In other words, if both Viviano and Larsen win, the court stays 5R/2D. If either (but not both) loses, the GOP’s majority will shrink to 4-3. If the Democrats sweep both contests, they will gain a 4-3 advantage, their first since a brief, five-month period in late 2010 and only the second time since 1998.
In both 2012 and 2014, there were three justiceships at stake in the general election, in each case with the same 5R/2D split in effect. In both elections, Democrats had to sweep all three contests to regain a majority on the court. All the Republicans had to do was win two of the three races to maintain their 5-2 edge, and that’s what they did.
In Michigan, It’s tough to beat a sitting Supreme Court justice running for election (or any judge at the appellate, circuit, district or probate levels) because of the so-called “incumbency” ballot designation, where the jurist’s office title appears beneath his or her name. The last time an incumbent was defeated was 2008, when Chief Justice Cliff Taylor was upset by challenger Diane Hathaway, who had been nominated by the Democrats.
Before Taylor, the last Supreme to be ousted in an election was Democrat Thomas Giles Kavanagh in 1984, by Republican Dorothy Comstock Riley
Who on the Democratic side might consider running this year? Supposedly 20th District Judge Mark Plawecki of Dearborn Heights, husband of state Rep. Julie Plawecki (D-Dearborn heights), may run against Larsen, but no challenger to Viviano for the full eight-year term has yet emerged.
Both Democrats and Republicans formally nominate their candidates at their fall state conventions later this year. Then, in another electoral quirk peculiar to Michigan, they run as non-partisans in the 11/8 finale.