3 seats at Michigan Supreme Court on ballot; GOP incumbents Zahra, Viviano try to keep jobs



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DETROIT — Knocked for years as deeply divided, the Michigan Supreme Court lately is shaping up as a court of comity with a majority of opinions this year drawing little or no public dissent among the seven justices.

Next on the docket: An election with three seats up for grabs.

Justices David Viviano and Brian Zahra, nominated by the Republican Party, want to keep their robes. They're joined on the GOP ticket by James Redford, a Kent County judge seeking a promotion to the state's highest court.

The Democratic Party has nominated appeals Judge William Murphy, Wayne County Judge Deborah Thomas and Detroit-area lawyer Richard Bernstein.

No party affiliations are on the ballot, although political parties pick the candidates. Viviano and Zahra will be labeled as current members of the court. Justices backed by the Republican Party currently have a 5-2 edge on the court.

"There is greater collegiality," said Zahra, who Gov. Rick Snyder appointed in 2011 and won election the following year.

"What we have are seven people who are incredibly passionate about the law, hard-working, bright and open," he said. "We start exchanging memos well before a case comes to conference. There's thoughtful consideration given to everyone."

Viviano and Zahra describe themselves as "rule of law" judges who don't make policy but strictly interpret laws approved by the Legislature.

"A rule of law judge isn't selling a message that benefits any particular group," Viviano said.

Murphy is chief judge at the Michigan appeals court and has served on that court since 1988. At age 69, he can serve only one term if elected to the Supreme Court.

"I have some gray in my hairs and my eyebrows but that comes with wisdom," Murphy said.

"With my background and experience ... I felt there was something I could add," he said of his decision to run. "I saw this as a final chapter" in a long public career.

The Grand Rapids area hasn't produced a Supreme Court justice in decades, but Murphy or Redford could break that streak. Both live in East Grand Rapids.

"What's important is we have the best possible justices on our court. What makes them the best might involve geographic diversity," said Redford, a former federal prosecutor and Navy judge.

Bernstein, who is blind, probably is best known for TV ads featuring his family's Detroit-area law firm. His campaign slogan: "Blind Justice."

"Blind justice means fairness for all people," Bernstein said. "The court should be blind to special interests, blind to partisan politics, blind to political ideology."

Bernstein declined to offer much criticism of the court, although he disagrees with a long line of opinions that makes it harder to win slip-and-fall lawsuits.

Thomas, a Wayne County judge for 20 years, said she would like to become a Supreme Court justice partly to promote local specialty courts for defendants who are veterans, addicted to drugs or mentally ill.

"I would like to expand those courts across the state," she said.

Doug Dern of the Natural Law Party, and Kerry Morgan of the Libertarian Party also are on the ballot.


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