23rd Circuit judicial ballot jousting continues

The on-the-ballot, off-the-ballot, back-on-the-ballot saga of Christopher Martin, a Tawas attorney who wants to bump either Judge Ronald M. Bergeron or Judge William F. Myles from the 23rd Circuit bench in November, has moved to the appellate arena.

The judges have been busy trying to bump Martin from the ballot.

Yesterday, the Michigan Supreme Court told the incumbent judges that the Michigan Court of Appeals gets first crack at deciding whether they can even complain about Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette’s decision to put Martin back on the ballot. The Secretary of State had removed Martin because his nominating petition was short on signatures.

The judges had sought a bypass appeal directly to the supreme court. Full text of the court’s order here.

It’s an unseemly situation.

According to some fine reporting by Holly Nelson in The Oscoda Press, when Martin decided to run, he checked with elections officials and was told, orally and in writing, that he needed between 100 and 200 signatures to get on the ballot. Martin says he was also told that if he submitted more than 200, it would be a criminal violation of state election laws.

Martin took the middling ground and submitted 158 signatures. Two days after the filing deadline, the incumbent judges claimed that wasn’t enough. From the Oscoda Press:

“Bergeron’s challenge noted that, in 2003, the counties of Alcona and Arenac were added to the 23rd Circuit, expanding it from Iosco and Oscoda counties and increasing the circuit’s population from 36,757 to 65,745. State law sets the signature requirement for non partisan petitions at 200 to 400 for districts with a population between 50,000-74,999.”

The elections officials confessed error, told Martin they were awfully sorry, and removed him from the ballot.

Martin didn’t take this lying down. After the state refused to take an additional 208 signatures from him, he sued to get back on the ballot.

The case landed in Collette’s courtroom. First, Collette denied Bergeron and Myles’ motion to intervene. One argument the two judges advanced was that they “have an obvious interest in whether an otherwise uncontested election becomes a contested election” and that they “have their own interests to protect that are not necessarily protected by the named defendants.”

The state’s attorneys, says Martin, argued that the law is the law, there weren’t enough signatures, and that Martin, as an attorney, should have been sophisticated enough not to rely upon the filing information the state provided to him.

Collette gave Martin everything he wanted. The Secretary of State was ordered to accept the late-submitted signatures, verify them, and if valid, to put Martin back on the ballot. And, from the Belt-and-Suspenders Department, Collette enjoined state officials from taking Martin off the ballot.

Up at the Court of Appeals, Bergeron and Myles weighed in with a 200-page brief arguing that they belonged in the case, and that Collette had it all wrong.

And what about the elections officials and the Secretary of State’s office? They declined to appeal Collette’s decision.

The Michigan Supreme Court, in yesterday’s order, instructed the Court of Appeals to issue a decision by Aug. 21. Court of Appeals Judges Patrick M. Meter, William C. Whitbeck and Stephen L. Borrello have asked Myles and Bergeron to address whether they are “aggrieved parties” within the meaning of MCR 7.203(A). The panel wants to know the judges’ thoughts about “whether unsuccessful intervenors can be considered aggrieved parties for purposes of an appeal, and if so, under what circumstances.”

So, there you have it. An attorney wants to make a judicial election competitive. The incumbents he’s running against have forthrightly stated they have an “obvious” interest in not having to bother with an actual campaign to keep their jobs. A circuit judge from another county has hit that notion broadside with a blunderbuss. The Secretary of State and the elections officials, who provided the misinformation that helped spawn the whole affair, have checked out and are standing on the sidelines.

And a Court of Appeals panel will decide whether two incumbent judges who thought they were shoo-ins can even bellyache about the fact that now they are not.

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