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Detroit News


Is Ballot Proposal Real Reform or Partisan Ploy?

July 23, 2008

By James R. Copland

The 19,000-word ballot proposition named Reform Michigan Government Now — which would radically transform all three branches of state government — is an effort to seize control of each of the branches of state government to gerrymander the next decade’s electoral maps.

The proposal would knock the two most junior justices off the state Supreme Court, both Republicans, as well as eight appeals judges, six of whom are Republicans. Lest anyone think the move is merely a cost-saving measure, realize the proposal also grants Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm the power to appoint 10 new trial judges for the state.

Upending the state Constitution on a single up-or-down vote is quite a scary proposition. Almost as scary is the reality that the key beneficiary of the proposed restructuring — in addition to the state Democratic Party — would be Michigan’s powerful trial-lawyer lobby. Michigan’s litigation industry, from Geoffrey Fieger on down, is working feverishly to reverse the state’s significant legal reforms passed in the 1980s and 1990s.

To that effect, the state Democratic Party announced this spring that it was making Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Cliff Taylor its “top target” in the fall election. Justice Taylor’s crime? He, along with all but one of his Supreme Court colleagues, refused to overrule a legislatively enacted tort reform law. It is ironic indeed that a party calling itself “democratic” is so enthusiastic about turning to the courts to upend laws enacted by democratically elected representatives.

The trial lawyers would have Michigan voters forget the significant legal crisis that precipitated those reforms. By the mid-1980s, the state government faced 1,400 lawsuits claiming $2.4 billion —about half of the general budget. Legal payouts by the state Transportation Department equaled 30 percent of its outlays on road building and improvement. Medical-malpractice lawsuit filings in the state jumped 150 percent in just six years.

The Michigan Legislature passed reform laws to stem these abuses in 1986, 1993 and 1995, and they have overwhelmingly succeded. Lawsuit filings and average verdicts have dropped, medical malpractice insurance rates have stabilized and recently come down, and the “life sciences corridor” has begun to diversify the state’s economy.

Unfortunately, the overall economy continues to struggle. The legal reforms have helped to mitigate the local economic difficulties, but they can only achieve so much when a state is buffeted by broader domestic and economic forces. With light-vehicle sales today 11.2 percent lower than they were a year ago — and indeed at their lowest point since August 1998 — a state as dependent on the automotive industry as Michigan is bound to suffer.

In light of these economic realities, the stakes for this fall’s election in Michigan could not be higher. In a year presumed to be favorable to the Democrats, the political left’s activists are looking not only to unseat the state’s chief justice but to restructure the government itself. If Michigan’s voters agree, they will have themselves to thank for the activist judiciary and even more buffeted economy that may result.



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