On a campaign stop July 3, Bridget McCormack stopped by the Ruth Ellis Center in Highalnd Park to tour the facilities with Executive Director Laura Hughes. She was accompanied by her sister, actress Mary McCormack. BTL photo: Andrew Potter.

Election 2012: A Supreme Run For Justice

Bridget McCormack Would Seek Reform

By Kate Opalewski

The campaign for Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court is being called the most important race for the people. Three of the seven seats are up for consideration and following the November election Bridget Mary McCormack is eager to fill one of them.

"I'm optimistic and also I believe in myself enough to know that I will be a breath of fresh air and a force for good," said McCormack, the Dean of Clinical Affairs at the University of Michigan Law School, who has already received the support of retiring Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and the endorsement of the Michigan Democratic Party for the non-partisan race.

The Thomas M. Cooley Law Review believes in her too, as they recently awarded McCormack with the Distinguished Brief Award presented annually in recognition of the most scholarly briefs filed before the Michigan Supreme Court.

McCormack was recognized for the brief filed in People v. Likine, which argued the Court should reaffirm that involuntary omissions may not be criminalized and that there must be an opportunity for a defendant to present evidence that an act was involuntary.

"It is an honor to be recognized for my work in the Michigan Supreme Court, especially given the important issues it decides that directly affect the citizens of our state, and my overriding interest in ensuring that everyone gets a fair shake in our courts," said McCormack.

This has been McCormack's mission since graduating with highest honors from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and New York University Law School, where she studied on a scholarship and won the school's top prize for clinical work. She started her career at The Legal Aid Society, where she worked side-by-side with people who needed someone to guide them through a complicated legal system, before taking a teaching fellowship at the Yale Law School.

In 1998, she joined the faculty at University of Michigan Law School where she is responsible for developing the school's practical education curriculum that gives law students "hands-on" experience helping clients in a courtroom as they did in the Likine case. Under her leadership, the program has expanded to include clinics dedicated to children's health, low-income taxpayers, the wrongfully accused and business entrepreneurs.

"These experiences have taught me what works in our legal system and what doesn't," said McCormack. "In my work, I've been representing different groups of people that otherwise don't have access to lawyers. I have yet to represent a client who has paid me. What they all have in common is a hard time and access to justice. We shine the light on places where the criminal justice system goes wrong and figure out what we can do about it."

Her experience as a wife and a mother lend to her ability too. McCormack is married to Steven Croley, who is currently on leave from Michigan law to serve as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Counsel to the President in the Office of White House Counsel. Together, they live in Ann Arbor with four children. "Raising a bunch of kids and managing a family is relevant. Being a partner really makes me a more effective lawyer and teacher. The perspective it gives me will also be useful when I'm deciding cases. I remember these are real people who have real experiences," said McCormack.

Top Priority

It's with that in mind that McCormack has determined and publicly stated that reform is a top priority. "I don't think it's a secret - because there have been a lot of studies by the Center for Public Integrity and the University of Chicago Law School - that our Supreme Court is extremely partisan and that partisanship results in low grades on rubrics that people care about, such as integrity and independence and the extent to which the court is followed and respected by other courts around the country."

McCormack has said she would also like to see a non-partisan nomination process, similar to how judges in lower courts and circuit courts make it onto the ballot. She feels that reforms would result in renewed respect and confidence in Michigan's supreme court. "I think that everyone understands in our other branches of government that people are paid to play, and that's too bad; but in our judiciary I feel that everyone wants better than that. We want our judiciary to be, if nothing else, about fairness," said McCormack, who said it would be "well worth it" to lose her autonomy, take a pay cut and give up her university tenure and job security if she wins the election.

"I feel good about it and I think if people get to know me a little bit, no matter what their background commitments are, they'll realize I'm a good candidate. I want to make sure people understand who I really am and what my core values are," said McCormack.

Moving Forward

A good candidate is needed to move the country forward on many LGBT issues such as marriage equality and second-parent adoption.

Many cases that impact LGBT equality have come before the Michigan Supreme Court, such as Van v. Zahorik in 1999, Mack v. Detroit in 2002, National Pride at Work v. Granholm et al in 2008, Giancaspro v. Congleton in 2009, and Harmon v. Davis in 2011. The Supreme Court is on hiatus now, but may have its docket full of LGBT-related cases come October, when it goes back into session.

"It's important to educate the community and take back our state. We need a justice who is fair-minded that recognizes the diversity of Michigan residents and families, and who is more favorable toward LGBT issues" said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Legal Project. "There is an out-of-date concept that a family should consist of a married man and woman with two kids. Voters have an opportunity to select a justice who may change the whole majority. There are two incumbents running again who have previously made bad decisions. If elected for another eight-year term, a lot of damage can be done during that time."

Over the past decade, movement on marriage equality has been in two opposing directions, with some states passing laws to allow same-sex marriage and others passing laws to prohibit such unions. In 2003, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning sodomy laws across the U.S., and reversing the court's 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

"Lawrence is the law of the land and like any other Supreme Court decision, it is the job of all justices to follow the Supreme Court Authority," said McCormack, adding that California's Proposition 8 could very likely be going to the Supreme Court next year, in addition to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

"You could write a million articles about the importance of these major issues. If the court takes either or both of them, it will resolve some major cases. A lot of people think the court might not take either of them. The court might wait a bit, perhaps when public opinion is more settled in one direction. Either way, they are still incredibly important issues for state courts, and for people and their friends who care about equality," said McCormack. "Whether it's family autonomy, how someone is treated in the workplace, in business, or in the housing market--what commitment the state has to equality is often worked out in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court gets to be the arbitrator if legislation coming out of Lansing is fair or not. The Supreme Court can be a leader in equality issues."

A code of ethics prohibits candidates for justice from participating in political activity or making statements to the press about their position regarding cases that may reach the Supreme Court. But McCormack said she believes in "equal justice for everybody," much like her younger sister, Mary, an actress best known for her role as Federal Marshal Mary Shannon in the USA Network's "In Plain Sight." As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which officially stands opposed to Prop 8, McCormack's sister has done some significant fundraising and donated money to defeat the ballot initiative.

McCormack's husband, Steve, co-directed a documentary "Everyday People," about Saugatuck and Douglas, two communities where LGBT people have been welcomed and embraced in what is seen as a largely conservative, heavily Christian region. The film investigates how gays and straights are closely integrated--politically, economically, socially and religiously.

During her campaign, McCormack looks forward to doing the job she may be elected to do and honoring the oath she takes to do it. "The beautiful thing about the proper role of the court is that you have the law, and your job is to apply the law. It's not supposed to matter what your politics are. The Supreme Court should be apolitical and straightforward. I think it's the way the job has to be done. Get politics out of the court," said McCormack. "As a law teacher, I teach how the Supreme Court is different from other branches of government where being right is more important than being powerful or popular. David is supposed to have a shot against Goliath in the court."

McCormack has good relationships and friendships with current justices in the Supreme Court. "I would have the respect of people on both sides. If I'm wrong, I'll eat my words."

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