A Brief History of Judicial Election Nastiness in Michigan

In the latest subscription-only edition of IMP (Vol. XV, No. 41), we’ve started to break down competitive judicial races on the Aug. 2 ballot, as only we know how.

That’s right. You’ll get the inside scoop on three-dozen contested Court of Appeals, District, Circuit and Probate judgeships all across Michigan. And we’ll also go deep into the battle for two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court.

But as a bonus online, here’s a look at some of the bitterest judicial elections in Michigan’s history.

You may recall that a statewide poll commissioned by Inside Michigan Politics back in 1990 found that nearly four voters out of every five knew “very little” or “nothing at all” about who runs for the judiciary in any given election. Results of any survey taken today probably wouldn’t be very different.

However, the 1990 survey also revealed that two-thirds of all voters demanded that they continue to have the right to elect judges, rather than allow them to be appointed by a governor after fly-specking from some Missouri-style commission. That sentiment also probably hasn’t changed today.

So it’s important to keep in mind that in Michigan, anyway, judges and judicial candidates are, above all else, politicians.

The Bar of Michigan may try to police its own, but it’s a losing battle –– and a pair of state Supreme Court decisions in 2000-01 involving 37th District Court Judge John Chmura of Warren made it even tougher. Those who would join the berobed brethren --- or “sisterhood,” as the case may be --- can get downright nasty when they grapple for the gavel. And the high court and the Bar are virtually powerless to stop them.

Even those already on the bench are not exempt from paranoia, spite and petty vituperation. For example:

  • A decade ago, 19 sitting judges in Wayne County's 3rd Circuit Court went ballistic when they found out that a single African-American assistant prosecuting attorney, Kenneth King of Taylor, had the temerity to challenge their re-election bids. They felt especially aggrieved that King’s boss was Wayne Co. Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy, who had just been appointed to the job by these same judges. One of King’s prospective incumbent opponents actually barred him from her courtroom. In the end, King received a convenient “promotion” to the staff of then-Wayne Co. Executive Bob Ficano (who now wants to join the bench himself) and promptly withdrew from the race. Later, King was further rewarded with an appointment to Detroit's 36th District Court by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

  • Even when a judge emerges victorious from a nasty campaign, s/he can be termed a “sore winner.” In 2004, Clarkston candidate Kelly Kostin was smeared by the judge who had beaten her two years earlier for a seat on the 52nd District/2nd Division bench in northern Oakland County –– Dana Fortinberry. Kostin won her second bid for the bench anyway, and Fortinberry was officially censured by the state Supreme Court in 2006 for her injudicious behavior. In 2008, Fortinberry stumbled again when she was caught on video uprooting one of her opponents’ yard signs during her re-election bid. The voters had had enough –– they ousted her in the general election.

  • 23rd Circuit Judge Ronald Bergeron of Arenac Co. carefully waited until after the April 29, 2008, filing deadline to get a challenger who would have beaten him –– East Tawas attorney Christopher P. Martin --- thrown off the ballot for filing an insufficient number of signatures. Martin had relied on erroneous information posted on the Secretary of State’s website, which got him disqualified. Even the SOS admitted it had screwed up, and two courts agreed Martin should be allowed on the ballot. But Bergeron pursued it all the way up to the Michigan Supreme Court, where the Cliff Taylor-led “Gang of Four” shockingly overturned the other rulings on a 4-3 vote and kicked Martin to the curb. Martin mounted a write-in campaign and set a record under the current Constitution for write-in votes in a general election –– but he still fell 989 votes short in the four-county circuit. Taylor got his comeuppance two months later, becoming the first chief justice in Michigan history ever to be voted out of office (he was wiped out in the 23rd Circuit). Martin finally got justice in 2012, when Bergeron's seat on the circuit bench was eliminated by attrition and Martin himself was elected unopposed to the Iosco Co. Probate Court.