The Michigan Supreme Court is in the spotlight for striking down Whitmer’s emergency powers. The balance of power will be decided Nov. 3.

By: - October 17, 2020 5:18 am

Clockwise: Elizabeth Welch, Mary Kelly, Judge Brock Swartzle and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack

Voters on Nov. 3 will select two candidates to fill two seats on Michigan’s seven-member court of last resort.

This nonpartisan race is farther down on the ballot, but don’t be mistaken: The court wields major influence as the state’s top judicial body. Most recently, it had the final word in striking down a decades-old statute Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to issue states of emergency and executive orders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Nov. 3 election has the potential to dramatically change the lean of the court. In an interesting quirk, candidates’ party affiliation doesn’t appear on Michigan’s ballot — although the incumbent designation does — but political parties do nominate candidates at their August conventions.

Currently, the court has a majority of four justices nominated by Republicans and three nominated by Democrats. Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack was nominated by Democrats in 2012, but was elected chief justice this term, as the court has been more collegial in recent years. While some Republicans were critical of that choice, the GOP majority has remained firm on cases like the emergency powers decision.

Justices serve eight-year terms. McCormack’s current term will end Jan. 1 and she is running for reelection. Democrats also nominated attorney Elizabeth Welch. Justice Stephen Markman, who was nominated by Republicans, will step down due to the court’s age restriction, which says those 70 or older can’t run again, leaving an open seat. Republicans have nominated Judge Brock Swartzle an attorney Mary Kelly.

GOP lawmakers file lawsuit to gut Whitmer’s emergency powers

Here’s a look at the major party contenders for the two seats:

Bridget Mary McCormack

Party nomination: Democrat

Law degree: New York University Law School

McCormack, 54, is seeking a second term. She was first elected to the court in November 2012 and was perhaps best known for enlisting cast members of “The West Wing” — including her sister, Mary McCormack — to campaign for her. She was elected chief justice in January 2019. Chief justices are chosen by their peers every two years.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack | Laina G. Stebbins

Before 2012, McCormack spent a portion of her legal career in New York, then joined the University of Michigan’s law school faculty as a dean and professor.

McCormack, alongside Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, co-chaired the state’s Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, which aims at improving the state’s judicial sentencing parameters plus reducing incarceration for minor offenses. 

The task force, created through a 2019 executive order by Whitmer, was given the directive to make recommendations for reducing imprisonment rates and safeguarding civil rights. 

The task force fulfilled some of its goals just this week, when Whitmer signed a “Clean Slate” criminal justice reform bill package wiping some offenses off criminal records that received bipartisan support in the state Legislature.

McCormack dissented in part to the court majority’s Oct. 2 ruling that struck down the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act (EPGA) invoked by Whitmer to issue emergency orders.

McCormack has spoken in support of making courtrooms virtually accessible. The state Supreme Court’s team equipped Michigan courtrooms with video teleconferencing and issued Zoom licenses to judges prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

McCormack’s major endorsements include: 

  • Whitmer
  • Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan
  • Women Lawyers Association of Michigan
  • Michigan Chamber of Commerce
  • United Auto Workers (UAW)
  • Michigan AFL-CIO
  • Michigan LiUNA!
  • Human Rights Campaign
  • Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV)
  • Michigan Education Association (MEA)
  • Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM)
  • Michigan Realtors PAC

Brock Swartzle

Party nomination: Republican 

Law degree: George Mason University School of Law

Swartzle was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2017 by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. Prior to that, he was chief of staff for former state House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) and general counsel for the House. 

Brock Swartzle

Swartzle previously worked as an attorney for the law practice Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP in its Detroit office. Per his website, he practiced in antitrust, healthcare fraud, white-collar crime and securities. 

He has a history of judicial clerking: three years with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, three years with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan and four years with Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David McKeague.

Like McCormack, he has a considerable amount of experience in judicial office. He bills himself as a “proven rule-of-law conservative.” At his 2017 Court of Appeals swearing-in, he said he intended to be a judge who “focuses solely on the facts and the law” and is “blind” to the parties before him.

Swartzle has received the endorsements of several law enforcement groups. 

Major endorsements include: 

Elizabeth Welch

Party nomination: Democrat

Law degree: Ohio State University

Welch has worked as an attorney for 25 years. She practices labor and employment law at her firm in Grand Rapids, specifically engaging in issues related to hiring and firing practices and wage and hour compliance. She has not held judicial office before. 

Elizabeth Welch

Welch is involved in environmental activism. She previously served as board president of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV). She has openly spoken about a court’s role in conservation and preserving natural resources. 

She is a trustee for East Grand Rapids Public Schools and for the Steelcase Foundation, a social justice organization that says its primary focus is to “cultivate quality, accessible public education and communities” for school children.

Welch and McCormack have campaigned together in the months leading up to the general election. Welch has joined McCormack in supporting reforms to the state’s criminal justice system and increasing access to courtrooms. Whitmer has also spoken in support of Welch. 

The attorney has been endorsed by the Michigan Association for Justice, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and multiple labor unions. She is the only one of the four major candidates to not be endorsed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which traditionally endorses GOP candidates. 

Major endorsements include:

  • Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan
  • Michigan Association for Justice
  • Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV)
  • Michigan LiUNA!
  • SEIU Michigan State Council
  • Michigan Education Association (MEA)
  • U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing)
  • U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), Brenda Lawrence, (D-Southfield), Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit)
  • Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

Mary Kelly

Party nomination: Republican

Law degree: Detroit College of Law

Kelly works as St. Clair County’s guardian ad litem, or a court appointee tasked with figuring out solutions in the best interest of a child. Kelly specifically works with child neglect victims. 

Kelly is no stranger to St. Clair County — she worked there as a prosecutor for three decades. While she was senior assistant prosecutor, she led the county’s Criminal Sexual Conduct Unit.

Mary Kelly

She briefly came under scrutiny in 2019, when the St. Clair Board of Commissioners rejected a more than $291,000 contract to hire her as guardian ad litem. Commissioners wanted to figure out if Kelly — the spouse of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Daniel Kelly — benefited from nepotism.

After seeing a waiver from the State Court Administrative Office, commissioners ultimately decided the position was properly and openly filled based on Kelly’s qualifications. 

Like Welch, Kelly has not held a judicial position before. She did run a campaign for district court, which was unsuccessful.

Kelly’s law focuses include domestic and criminal matters and civil litigation. She has taken a stance on prosecuting individuals with substance abuse and traffic-related alcohol and drug offenses. She says she seeks “a more comprehensive approach” to curbing substance abuse and revictimization by the same person.

She believes judges should interpret laws “according to how they are written by the legislature, not according to how judges wish they were written,” according to her campaign website.

Major endorsements include: 

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C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.