DEFEATING AN INCUMBENT CHIEF JUSTICE: The 2008 Michigan Supreme Court Election

By Klemanski, John S.; Walters, Julie K. | Judicature, March/April 2011 | Go to article overview
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DEFEATING AN INCUMBENT CHIEF JUSTICE: The 2008 Michigan Supreme Court Election


Klemanski, John S., Walters, Julie K., Judicature


Although the 2008 Michigan election can be considered an example of the "new style" of judicial campaigns, factors and specific campaign effects combined to help defeat the incumbent chief justice.

For the first time in Michigan history, a sitting chief justice of the state's supreme court was defeated for re-election in 2008. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Diane Hathaway handily beat Chief Justice Clifford Taylor with 49.3 percent of the vote to Taylor's 39.5 percent. Libertarian Party-nominated candidate Robert Roddis finished with 1 1.2 percent.

Taylor's defeat was not expected at first, since most of the factors that would predict a victory favored the incumbent. For example, incumbency status itself typically is considered to be a major advantage injudicial elections, especially in races where a candidate is given incumbency status on the ballot.1 Moreover, Chief Justice Taylor's re-election campaign outspent his challenger by a 2-to-l margin, raising and spending more money in his 2008 re-election bid than any other supreme court candidate in Michigan's history. However, both contextual factors and specific campaign effects combined to help defeat the incumbent chief justice. While several of these factors were unique to the 2008 election, a number of other factors influencing the outcome are illustrative of larger trends in judicial elections being waged in many states.

Michigan's Supreme Court elections

The structure of the stale's supreme court elections comprises an important part of the context for the 2008 election. Michigan's seven supreme court justices serve eight-year terms. Two of the seven seats are up for election in a staggered format every two years, while candidates vie for a single seventh seat once every eight years. This arrangement can affect the strategies of candidates and their supporters, and in the case of 2008 (in which there was only one seat up for election), it is likely this election format helped influence the outcome.

In addition, Michigan selects its supreme court justices in a way different from virtually all other states. It holds nonpartisan general elections for these judges, but the candidates are nominated at state party conventions. Ohio's Supreme Court selection process is the closest to Michigan in that it also holds nonpartisan general elections and partisan nominations; however, Ohio holds party primary elections to nominate its supreme court candidates. This selection process has been called a "semi-partisan" system,2 and it has the potential to play a major role in influencing an election outcome because parties often play a larger role in the general election campaign compared to states with nonpartisan judicial elections.

Despite the fact that Michigan's Supreme Court general elections are officially nonpartisan, scholars over the years have noted the partisan nature of the Michigan Supreme Court,3 and state party organizations certainly are active in supporting their own candidates and opposing the other party's candidates. How incumbency, partisanship, and campaign-specific issues played out in 2008 is analyzed below.

The 2008 campaign

By early 2008, it was clear that the Michigan Democratic Party had made Chief Justice Taylor's defeat a top priority. The party began issuing press releases in the summer of 2008 criticizing Taylor for his pro-business, anti-average citizen positions. The campaign against Taylor had begun months before a Democratic nominee was chosen at the state convention. In part, this encourages more negativity in a campaign. Without a challenger, no positive ads can be done, nor can any contrast ads be created. Accordingly, this leaves only early campaign messages that focus on criticisms of the incumbent. But, all in all, when considering most of the factors that predict a victory, the incumbent held several advantages as the 2008 campaign began.

Incumbency advantages. Chief Justice Taylor's campaign committee held a 2-to-l fund-raising advantage over his challenger Diane Hathaway, and because of his incumbency status, his name would appear on the ballot as a "Justice of the Supreme Court.

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