More than 100 Mich. judges are unopposed

By Ed White

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Election Day won't turn into a sleepless night for more than 100 Michigan judges: With no opposition, they're guaranteed to keep their jobs, most for six years at annual pay of $138,000 to $151,000.

Those with a free pass Tuesday include eight incumbents on the state appeals court and dozens of circuit judges who handle the daily grind of trials, lawsuits and felony crimes.

From Menominee to Monroe, these judges decide who goes to prison and who gets probation. They determine if a conviction should be thrown out. They interpret laws and scrutinize contracts in disputes that can be worth a fortune.

So where are the challengers for these plum posts?

"It's an arduous endeavor," said William Giovan, who retired in 2008 as Wayne County's chief judge.

"If you're not relying entirely on the attraction of your name, you have to spend a lot of money," he said. "Lawyers don't run for judicial office to send a message. Lawyers are not going to challenge an incumbent judge unless they see some remote possibility of winning."

Sometimes there's fear of retribution.

Indeed, there's a belief that "if you take a shot at the king, you better damn well kill him," said Dennis Kolenda, who was a Kent County judge for 19 years. "I don't think so but lawyers worry about it."

In Wayne County, Michigan's most populous, 19 circuit judges are running for election. There's only one challenger, Wanda Evans, which means 18 incumbents are a lock to win. It's just a matter of who gets the votes.

Evans would have to finish 19th or higher to get a black robe. She narrowly lost a race for an open seat in 2006.

"The judges are not happy about it," Evans said of her candidacy. "It's very difficult to raise money. Most attorneys are afraid to show up on my campaign-finance statement. ... I might get blackballed if I don't win."

David Moffitt, a lawyer and former Oakland County commissioner, said voters tend to choose someone with a familiar name or a judicial candidate who carries the incumbent label.

"A countywide election is an expensive and difficult campaign to an electorate that's often indifferent to who's on the ballot. You can't go door to door," he said.

Muskegon County Judge Timothy Hicks is running unopposed, just as he did in 1998 and 2004. His only competition was in 1996, shortly after he was appointed to a vacancy, a common first path to the bench. He lists the obstacles in trying to unseat a judge.

"Number one, you have to be a lawyer. For state Rep. or Senate, anybody can run," Hicks said. "Number two, if you mount a serious challenge, you're going to lose money from your law practice. It takes a whole bunch of time to campaign. To challenge an incumbent really has its downside."

Unlike the lower courts, elections for the Michigan Supreme Court are highly partisan and contentious. Cliff Taylor's defeat while chief justice was the most surprising result in 2008, and this year's contest for two seats is intense, too.

Taylor said he sees nothing wrong with incumbents in "run of the mill, routine judgeships" getting another term with ease.

"That's a good thing," he said. "You have better judges as they get more experience. Everyone would rather see a dentist who has done a number of root canals than a dentist doing their first one."

Published: Mon, Nov 1, 2010