Republicans will hold on to their 4-3 majority on the Michigan Supreme Court after winning two of three up-for-grabs seats.
Voters selected GOP nominees Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra, both current justices who were backed by business groups, including farmers, bankers, doctors and insurers.
Democrat Bridget McCormack, a law professor best known for leading the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school, also won a seat in races for the state’s highest court that were too close to call until Nov. 7.
She is the first non-judge elected to the Supreme Court since 1986.
McCormack’s win staved off a potential Republican sweep that would have given the GOP a commanding 5-2 majority. Justice Marilyn Kelly, a 74-year-old Democratic nominee who’s been on the court since 1997, couldn’t run again because of age restrictions.
The conservative bloc typically sticks together in civil disputes involving contracts, insurance companies, medical malpractice and auto coverage.
McCormack said she was still letting her victory sink in. She drove her children to school Wednesday, taught a class and took a congratulations call from Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., who invited her to lunch with the rest of the court next week.
“He was very warm. He called me ‘Justice McCormack’ — wow, that’s weird,” she said.
Business interests put their campaign cash on Markman, Zahra and the third GOP nominee, Oakland County Judge Colleen O’Brien. Unions and trial lawyers donated to McCormack and the rest of the Democratic slate.
Markman and Zahra were identified on the ballot as justices, giving voters some additional identification. But voters looking for political affiliation didn’t find it for anybody. Supreme Court elections are considered nonpartisan, even though the candidates are nominated by political parties.
Zahra was elected to fill the remaining two years of the term that once belonged to Maura Corrigan, who left the court to become Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s head of the Department of Human Services. Markman and McCormack won eight-year terms.
Zahra, who was appointed by Snyder last year, defeated Southfield District Judge Shelia Johnson and a minor-party candidate, while Markman and McCormack beat O’Brien, Democratic nominee Connie Kelley and three others.
With no debates or forums among rival candidates, the Supreme Court races mostly emphasized name recognition and feel-good issues. No one talked about how they would rule in a certain case. Radio and TV ads instead focused on how the candidates would stand up for families and be tough on crime, positions that don’t really distinguish one candidate from another.
Supreme Court candidates appear near the end of a long ballot, and participation drops as voters move from the top of the ballot to nonpartisan contests and statewide referenda near the bottom. Still, some voters, such as James Redmann of Grand Traverse County’s Acme Township, did their homework on the race. The 70-year-old minister voted for the three GOP-backed candidates.
“They are good constitutionalists,” Redmann said. “They are not going to legislate from the bench, and that’s what I want.”
Zahra has been a reliable vote in the court’s conservative majority and wrote a key decision that denied a paraplegic’s request to be reimbursed by an insurance company for experimental surgery.
Markman, who has been on the court since 1999, said conservatives on the court follow the “rule of law” by taking facts and applying the law.
After a two-year break, conservatives were back in the court’s majority after the 2010 election and overturned key rulings made by liberal justices. The court, for example, erased a decision that had expanded the ability to sue in environmental disputes. It also said public schools cannot help unions by deducting political contributions from teachers’ paychecks.