If you are injured and forced to go to court, the justice you receive may often depend upon the judge who or appellate court panel that presides over the case.
Many of my readers are familiar with the story of former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, a distinguished jurist who was appointed to the high court by then Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Diaz ran for election a short time later and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce decided that their interests would be better served by electing someone else. The Chamber came into Mississippi pouring millions into a deceptive campaign to defeat Diaz who could not financially compete. Diaz’s campaign borrowed the money and the loan was co-signed by Diaz’s close friend, Paul Minor. This fact was disclosed in all required campaign disclosures and, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, Diaz had proactively recused himself from any case that remotely involved Minor.
Diaz won the election, but the Chamber’s war against him was just beginning. The U.S. Attorney for Mississippi, a George W. Bush appointee, decided to “investigate” Democratic donors to Mississippi judicial races and to prosecute Diaz for bribery, based upon the Minor co-signed loan. Since Diaz had never voted on a single case that involved Minor, the government didn’t have a case. But that didn’t matter to the forces of evil; the U.S. Attorney decided to proceed anyway and in the process, wasted millions in taxpayer dollars. The indictment took Diaz off the bench for three years. With his reputation tarnished, he was defeated in the next election even though he was found not guilty on all counts. His brand of jurisprudence was rendered almost completely moot in Mississippi.
In Michigan, it is common knowledge (and studies have concluded) that there is incredible partisan influence on our courts. That means decisions are not made based on fact and law, but appear to be made to favor political supporters, and to hurt political opponents, rather than based on following the law.
Michigan’s Supreme Court, in particular, has been plagued with scandals. Justices stand accused of sleeping on the bench, committing real estate fraud, using official court Opinions to insult and bicker with one another, changing internal rules to give themselves more power, hiding public proceedings, and publicly declaring their biases toward one side or another in making legal decisions.
The general public cannot rely on a fair and independent hearing of their grievances, thus, severe injustices are occurring all over the state. Michigan judges and Justices seemingly decide which side to favor, which laws to ignore and which to uphold in order to get their pre-determined result. They add or subtract plain legislative language to suit their purpose. In Michigan, it seems that judicial decisions no longer depend on the law, but rather on which political party holds power in any court on any given day. How did this happen?
In Michigan, judges are elected on the “non-partisan” section of our election ballots. That means there are no “Republican” or Democrat” or “Green Party” or “Tea Party” labels to help guide us. Good idea? After all, aren't judges supposed to be fair and neutral?
Not so fast. Fairness and neutrality may be a foreign language in Michigan. Judges are supported, funded and nominated, by political parties; worse, the very rich special interests fill their campaign coffers. In the past dozen years, Michigan's judicial elections have become some of the most expensive in the world, costing tens of millions of dollars to elect a Supreme Court Justice.
All of that money comes from political special interests who obviously feel this is a good investment. Corporations and lobbies don't spend this kind of money on a whim; they expect their investments will pay off. And in Michigan, they seem to be correct. This is what I and others have called “the hidden tort reform”. If wealthy corporations can’t legislate citizen injustice through dishonest rhetorical campaigns (“lawsuit abuse”, “legal reform”, “jackpot justice”, “frivolous lawsuits”, “damages caps”), why not simply “buy” the justice you want?
And the average citizen is duped into malaise because the ballot says that these judicial candidates (nominated by political parties and political conventions) are “non-partisan”. The public has no idea that rich, partisan, special interests gave a judge (or judges) tons of money. Regardless of a judge’s pre-campaign legal leanings, an eight figure campaign contribution must go a long way in determining how that judge will decide a case. Its simple human nature, isn’t it? And, a re-election campaign is just a few short years away.
Unless and until this system is fixed, Michigan's judicial system (and other state systems like it) will continue to sell justice to the highest bidder. Is that the system you want? Should justice be for sale?
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.