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Zahra for Justice

By Matthew Davis | MLive

If you can read this, then you’re at least as smart as an 8th grader.

I spent approximately 12 years as a newspaper reporter covering “hard news,” writing stories about crime, public policy, plane crashes, and other events that didn’t involve sports or leisure. It was common for my editors to insist that stories should be written so that someone with an 8th-grade education could understand them.

The problem, of course, was that stories had to be dumbed down to the point where news consumers with higher IQs got simplistic coverage of events that warranted more-intelligent reporting.

A perfect example of such unsophisticated media coverage involves the recent decision by the Michigan Supreme Court ordering that a referendum on PA 4 — commonly referred to as the Emergency Manager law — be placed on the November ballot.

In their coverage, Michigan’s mainstream news outlets were almost uniform in focusing on
Justice Mary Beth Kelly being a “Republican-backed” justice who had “sided with” three justices nominated for election by the state Democrat party.

One long-time Lansing talking head even went so far as to predict that Kelly would become persona non grata among Republicans for her decision. That’s nonsense.

Read the opinions in Stand Up for Democracy v Secretary of State. They’re all over the place and represent varying legal conclusions. Chief Justice Robert P. Young and Justice Brian K. Zahra agreed with the lead opinion (Kelly’s) in part, but would have remanded the case to the board for analysis under a higher standard.

Justice Steven J. Markman agreed in total with no one. Justices Marilyn Kelly, Michael F. Cavanagh and Diane Marie Hathaway agreed with Mary Beth Kelly in part, but not to the higher standard agreed to by Zahra, Markman, Young, and Mary Beth Kelly.

That legal jambalaya isn’t the stuff of simple politics, as the media coverage would lead one to believe; rather, it was an attempt by seven lawyers of varying backgrounds and legal training to reach a decision on an immensely important case.

The Stand Up case isn’t unique for such non-political decisions that have profound political implications.

In 2010, Cavanagh and former Justice Alton Davis joined Young, Markman, and former Justice Maura D. Corrigan and denied the infamous fake tea party’s application to appeal a lower court ruling that invalidated its petitions. Cavanagh is a Democrat-nominated justice, and Davis was appointed to the bench by former Democrat Gov. Jennifer Granholm — but that didn’t prevent them from “siding with” three “Republican-backed” justices to keep the Democrat-backed fake tea party off the ballot.

In 2011, the court reversed a lower court decision that would have ended the recall election against former state Rep. Paul Scott, a Republican. The court’s majority was either nominated by the Republican Party or, in Zahra’s case, appointed by a Republican governor (Rick Snyder). Yet that didn’t prevent the court from making what it believed to be a sound legal determination, irrespective of political affiliation.

Also in 2011, the same majority — with Hathaway signing the opinion as well — dismissed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette’s complaint against Ingham Circuit Judge Hugh Clarke. Schuette had sought to have Clarke removed from the bench, but the “Republican” majority “sided” with Clarke, not the state’s chief law enforcement officer who just also happens to be a Republican.

Nor has Gov. Rick Snyder been immune from the court’s decisiveness and non-partisan regard for its review of the law. In an advisory opinion regarding the constitutionality of 2011 PA 38, the court struck down a statute Snyder wanted that would, in the court’s opinion, create a constitutionally impermissible graduated income tax.

In one-high profile case after another, the court has sought to serve its only constituent — the law. Facile labels used by reporters and shallow analysis by pundits might make for compelling headlines and juicy intrigue, but they’re of little use to the intelligent voter who wants to understand more about an event than an 8th-grader should know.

Matthew G. Davis is a Lansing-based attorney whose practice focuses in the areas of civil rights, election law and campaign finance. He also directed communications for two state agencies and covered state politics for the Detroit Free Press.