Courting Favor

Dec 16, 1998 at 12:00 am

Not content with seeing just the Legislature and governor's office occupied with ideological allies, the state's big businesses also wanted like-minded friends holding a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Although officially nonpartisan, the elections deciding justices on Michigan's high court represent party politics to the core. For years the Democrats have been able to hold a majority with the backing of campaign contributions from the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association; association members regularly find themselves representing clients who claim to have been injured by a faulty product or negligence on the part of an employer.

Beginning in the 1990s, the corporate right began to wise up with heavy spending that broke records this year.

In the five-way race for two full-term high court seats, Democrat Michael Cavanagh was the top vote-getter after spending a modest $200,000. That augmented the incalculable advantage of incumbency in a race where voters frequently know very little about candidates.

But the other full-term seat went to Republican Maura Corrigan who spent $1 million, a record in the history of Michigan Supreme Court elections. She finished 100,000 votes ahead of Democrat Susan Borman, who trailed drastically in spending with a $600,000 campaign.

In the two-way race for the court's third open seat, to fill a vacancy, it was again the big-spending Repbulican candidate who rolled to victory. Like Corrigan, Clifford Taylor had the campaign clout that comes with nearly $1 million in contributions. According to the group Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, his rulings as an appellate court judge showed him to be the most "pro-business" of any candidate. That would help explain why the insurance industry, developers and manufacturers were among his biggest contributors. In a single week, for example, Chrysler executives pumped more than $15,000 into his campaign.

His opponent, Carole Youngblood, has yet to file her final campaign statements, but it is expected she spent less than $600,000.

As Royal Oak attorney Deborah Gordon points out, corporations will always be able to outspend the opposition. "What the trial lawyers can raise is just a drop in the bucket compared to what the business community can do when it marshals its forces."

Even before the election, concern was growing about the way Michigan's Supreme Court justices are selected. Last year, the State Bar of Michigan submitted a proposal calling upon the Legislature to create a bipartisan commission to study the issue.

According to Thomas Lenga, president of the state bar, before year's end there should be a formal announcement from the Legislature regarding the creation of such a commission.