Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, unfazed by his party’s lack of a declared Michigan Supreme Court candidate for the November election, has rolled out a television ad aimed at achieving one of his stated goals for this election cycle: defeating Chief Justice Clifford Taylor.
The 30-second spot, “What Will Cliff Taylor Do?“, urges Taylor not to block a ballot proposal that, among other things, cuts salaries, limits retirement benefits and requires financial disclosures for elected officials of all three branches of government, including the presumably self-interested chief justice.
“Special interests are willing to go all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court to block your right to vote for change,” warns the ad’s voice-over announcer.
“Justice Taylor should let the voters decide,” she concludes.
Brewer is correctly anticipating legal challenges to the proposal, which amends the state constitution in dozens of ways and is being pushed by Reform Michigan Government Now! He’s hoping to hit a public relations home run every time a judge rules against letting the proposal on the ballot.
He’s touting the notion that there’s an ethics problem for any judge who tries to block the proposal, which, it’s been widely reported, Brewer has had a heavy hand in crafting.
But Brewer has a lot more on his mind than the situational ethics of those who might pass judgment on a plan that would let voters cut their pay.
The proposal contains the means for Brewer to accomplish his not-so-hidden agenda of shifting the high court’s balance of power. As Detroit Free Press Deputy Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson astutely observed in last Sunday’s editions, the proposal has “a kind of court-packing by reduction” feature.
If passed, the supreme court’s bench would shrink from seven justices to five. The court’s two most junior justices, Republican appointees Robert P. Young and Stephen J. Markman, would have to step down. That would leave the court with Taylor and Justice Maura Corrigan, who usually champion the Republican viewpoint. Justice Elizabeth A. Weaver has been in the Republicans’ corner in the past. But, to their great annoyance, she has been a vocal maverick ever since the other court Republicans refused to back her for a second two-year term as chief justice. The Democrats would have two justices they can usually count on, Michael F. Cavanagh and Marilyn Kelly.
If the proposal reaches the high court, if Taylor votes with a majority to keep the proposal off the ballot, and if Brewer successfully pins the blame on Taylor (the television ad lays the groundwork for that), then, the thinking goes, the Democrats can cast Taylor as the villain and capture his seat on the court in November. This would leave Weaver as a swing vote to be wooed by both sides of a seven-justice court. It wouldn’t be exactly the situation Brewer was looking for, but he’d be able to live with it.
And if the court unanimously rules against the proposal? This is not a good result for Brewer. Any criticism of Taylor can be applied with equal force to everyone on the court. But in similar situations in the past, Brewer has plowed right ahead. See, Case selection is important: Democratic Party chair slams chief justice for decisions joined by Dems, detractor”, Michigan Lawyers Weekly, June 16, 2008.
If Taylor votes with a minority to keep the proposal off the ballot, Brewer gets a chance at a five-justice court and a solid three-Democrat majority. If the voters approve the proposal and reject Taylor in favor of a yet-to-be-named Democratic player, then Brewer will accomplish something he and his team have been dreaming about for years – a major philosophical change in the high court’s makeup.
And he’ll have done it by convincing voters to downsize the court with a designer amendment to the Michigan Constitution.
Despite what the ad might lead voters to believe, this is about a lot more than just pay cuts.