News Story

Secret Democrat Supreme Court Plan: Run Irish Women Candidates

Behind-the-scenes presentation lays out the ground game: Reach out to unions, lawyers

In a behind-the-scenes memo, the Michigan Democratic Party laid out its plans to tilt the state Supreme Court to the left by nominating women — preferably Irish — candidates.

Titled "2012 Michigan Supreme Court Campaign Plan: The Last Chance to Restore the Michigan Supreme Court," the PowerPoint lays out specific plans. On one of the pages, "Male Justices: Incumbent Disadvantages in 2012," it says, "The last 3 incumbents to lose (1984, 2008, 2010) were all males who lost to Irish-surnamed females.”

State supreme court races are nonpartisan, but the candidates are nominated by the Republican and Democrat parties. The Democrat nominees are Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Connie Marie Kelley, Bridget Mary McCormack and 46th District Court Judge Sheila R. Johnson.

The Republican nominated candidates are incumbents, Justice Steve Markman and Justice Brian Zahra, and Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen A. O'Brien.

The Democrat's plan notes that 2016 will be a tough year for Republicans to pick off a justice because the Democrats will have an "Irish Female Incumbent" (Diane Hathaway) on the ballot.

How the Democrats intend to try and pull off the transition is also laid out in the PowerPoint.

The plan lists organized labor as "fully commited" and seeks "wider and deeper participation" from the state's pool of attorneys.

And despite public and repeated complaints from Democrats and liberal groups about too much "secret money" in politics, the Democrats will use a 527 committee (a tax-exempt group that can raise unlimited money) for the plan. That committee, the "Justice For All Fund," is maintained by the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee and the plan calls for its use because it allows for "contributor privacy" and the group is "able to accept full contribution." Using 527 of the Internal Revenue Service code is better than running individual campaigns, according to the document, because it protects against the disclosure of contributors and doesn't limit contributions.

The plan could work, said Inside Michigan Politics Editor Bill Ballenger.

"I think, generally speaking, women do have a little bit better success running in judicial races than men do," Ballenger said. "This year, two of the three Democrat-nominated candidates have Irish-sounding names — Connie Marie Kelley and Bridget Mary McCormack. The third Democratic candidate is, Shelia Johnson. I suppose some people might actually think that Sheila sounds Irish as well.

"That said, the one Republican-nominated candidate who isn't an incumbent is also a woman with an Irish name," Ballenger said. "That's Colleen A. O'Brien."

Three state Supreme Court seats are up for grabs this year and Michigan's voter turnout has leaned Democratic in every presidential election year since 1988.

Michigan's Supreme Court has the final say regarding interpretation of the state's constitution. Republican-nominated justices currently hold a 4-3 advantage on the high court.

While technically nonpartisan races, the endorsements for nominees on both sides split along traditional party lines. The three Republican-nominated candidates have received endorsements from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and Right to Life. Among the endorsements the three Democrat-nominated candidates have received are: AFL-CIO, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the UAW.

Incumbent justices get a special incumbency designation on the ballot. Traditionally this has been an advantage. If the two incumbents, Justice Markman and Justice Zahra, win their respective races, Republican-nominated justices will still control the court.

Justice Markman was appointed Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court on Oct. 1, 1999. Before his appointment, he served as Judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals from 1995-1999. Prior to this, he practiced law with the firm of Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone in Detroit.

From 1989-93, Justice Markman served as United States Attorney, or federal prosecutor, in Michigan, after having been nominated by President George H. W. Bush and confirmed by the United States Senate. From 1985-1989, he served as Assistant Attorney General of the United States, after having been nominated by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed by the United States Senate.

Colleen A. O’Brien has been a judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court since winning election in 1998. Following that election, she was appointed by former Gov. John Engler to take office to complete the term of her predecessor. She currently serves on the Circuit Court Criminal/Civil Division.

After graduating from law school, she went into private practice, both civil and criminal, for 17 years before becoming a judge.

The other Republican nominee is Justice Zahra, who was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court on January 14, 2011, by Gov. Rick Snyder. Justice Zahra served as law clerk to Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for two years before joining the law firm of Dickinson, Wright, Moon, Van Dusen & Freeman in 1989.

In 1994, former Gov. John Engler appointed him to the Wayne County Circuit Court; he was elected to a six-year term in 1996 and continued to serve on the circuit court until December 1998 when he was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals by Gov. Engler. He was elected to six-year terms in 2000 and 2006.

Democrat nominee Bridget Mary McCormack is a law professor and Dean for Clinical Affairs at the University of Michigan Law School. McCormack spent the first five years of her legal career trying cases in New York City’s trial courts with The Legal Aid Society.

During that time she argued in appellate courts with the Office of the Appellate Defender. In 1996, McCormack became a faculty fellow at the Yale Law School.

In 1998, she joined the University of Michigan Law School faculty. For the past 14 years, McCormack has conducted and supervised many types of civil and criminal litigation. She also created a Domestic Violence Clinic and a Pediatric Health Advocacy Clinic.

Democrat nominee Colleen Marie Kelley is a judge in Michigan's 3rd Circuit Court. She was elected to that position on Nov. 4, 2008 for a term that ends Jan. 1, 2015.

Judge Kelley began her career in 1981 working for the law firm of Milia & Curran P.C. She then joined Brian M. Smith & Associates, P.C. in 1985, where she worked as an associate until 1991. She then worked as a partner of the the firm Mallon & McNealy P.C. until 1996. That year, she joined the firm of Powers, Chapman, DeAgostino, Meyers & Milia P.C., where she worked as an Associate Attorney and Counsel. She served there until her judicial election, except for a two-year break from service. She became a partner of the firm in January 2007.

The third Democrat nominee is Judge Johnson.

Judge Johnson was elected in November 2002 and is the first African American to serve as Judge in the 46th District Court. In November 2008, she was re-elected for an unopposed second term. Prior to assuming the bench, Judge Johnson was an attorney with more than 18 years of legal experience in state and federal courts.

Mark Grebner, of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting, said that Supreme Court elections have changed over the last few election cycles.

“My sense is that there is a lot more money being spent in these races than there used to be and they're getting more negative,” Grebner said. “It used to be that when you had a candidate running for the Supreme Court, you'd show that they had a nice wife and kids and almost made the ultimate sacrifice when you were in the war. Now, you go out there and say your opponent ran over your neighbor's dog."

Other candidates for the State Supreme Court are Mindy Barry of the U.S. Taxpayer Party; Libertarian Party candidates, Bob Roddis and Kerry L. Morgan; and Natural Party candidate Doug Dem.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.