A lamentable state of affairs

When it comes to the workings and personnel of the third branch of government, the Michigan Supreme Court in particular, people who should have at least a rudimentary grasp of the subject don’t. And folks who attempt to keep up are frequently confused.

Three vignettes for your consideration:

Jack Lessenberry, a commentator for Michigan Public Radio, recounted this story last Friday:

Rick Snyder, the Republican nominee for governor, was asked on television if he knew who the chief justice [of the Michigan Supreme Court] was. He said he didn’t know how to pronounce their name.

Their name happens to be, by the way, Marilyn Kelly.

Absolutely unpronounceable.

Friday evening, I was at a neighborhood party. I was introduced to a Lansing City Council member. We exchanged pleasantries and discussed a recent brownfield development potboiler that’s received some play in the local media.

I was asked what I do. I explained in general and commented about the upcoming Michigan Supreme Court election and the irony of a constitutionally mandated nonpartisan judicial ballot and the highly charged political atmosphere that goes along with it.

My comment drew this response: “Election? Aren’t they [the MSC justices] appointed for life?” I explained that federal judges are appointed for life and that in Michigan, many judges start their judicial careers via gubernatorial appointment but then face election if they want to keep their seat on the bench.

“Oh, of course. Of course,” was the muted reply.

Of course.

Saturday afternoon, I and a family member took a break from household chores to catch some collegiate football on the tube. (How ’bout those 7-0 Spartans?)

During a break in the action, on came an ad touting Robert Young and Mary Beth Kelly for the Michigan Supreme Court. It featured sound bites from ordinary-looking folks explaining why the two will be getting their votes.

When it was over, I said, “We’ll be seeing a lot of that for the next two weeks.”

“Wait a minute. What’s she doing running with him?”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Well, Kelly’s a Democrat and Young’s a Republican. What’s going on here?”

Marilyn Kelly is a Democrat, and she’s already on the court. She’s the chief justice. She’s not up for election this time around. Mary Beth Kelly is a Wayne County judge. The Republicans nominated her.”

“Well, that’s pretty confusing.”

Just as intended.

Some years back when Michael Cavanagh was the MSC’s chief justice, he was fielding reporters’ questions following a budget presentation to the Legislature. Asked to justify his funding request, he replied with just the slightest tone of exasperation, “Look, we’re not talking about garbage collection. We’re talking about the third branch of government.”

It’s tough to fault someone for not knowing the names of the guys who pick up the trash, or exactly how the refuse truck works or where the landfill is located.

It’s less easy to forgive those in the political arena for not having at least a high school civics class understanding about the judiciary and who populates it at the highest level.

And pity the poor voter. Except for the most motivated, the average voter makes choices on the judicial ballot, if at all, armed with a fund of information gleaned from the media.

And, for the most part, what’s available are ads, commentary and editorials chock-full of banalities, sound bites and half-truths.

It’s tough to know whether to laugh or cry.

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