Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

Gun Rights

Michiganders will soon decide who serves on the highest court in the state—and those two justices will have a hand in making some important decisions for the people of Michigan. 

MICHIGAN—Two seats on the state Supreme Court are up for grabs in this year’s elections, providing Michiganders a chance to decide the makeup of the most powerful court in the state—as well as who has the final say on some of the most important legal issues in Michigan.

Justice Kyra Harris Bolden, who was appointed to the bench in 2022 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, is running to finish the remainder of former Chief Justice Bridget McCormack’s term. And with Justice David Viviano leaving the bench, three other candidates have emerged to fill his place.

With crucial decisions involving reproductive rights, abortion bans, gun safety laws, and election integrity all making their way to state supreme courts across the country in recent years, whoever wins will likely have a hand in making some big decisions for the people of Michigan.

Here’s the deal:

The Michigan Supreme Court is the highest legal authority in the state, and it wields the power to decide whether laws are constitutional and whether voter ballot initiatives can move forward. Decisions from the Michigan Supreme Court can only be overturned by the US Supreme Court.

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In Michigan, the court consists of seven justices who are elected to eight-year terms. 

Unlike the US Supreme Court, where judges are appointed and (at least theoretically) expected to be non-partisan, state Supreme Court justices in Michigan are nominated by political parties and have a specific party affiliation—though that party affiliation is not displayed on the ballot. 

The Court currently leans Democratic, with four Democrats and three Republicans.

Here’s the make up: 

Democrat-Nominated Justices 

  • Richard Bernstein
  • Kyra Harris Bolden
  • Megan Cavanagh 
  • Elizabeth Welch 

Republican-Nominated Justices 

  • Elizabeth Clement 
  • David Viviano 
  • Brian Zahra

Why is the court so important?

The Michigan Supreme Court has the power to interpret state laws and how they apply to Michiganders. For example, in July 2022, the Court ruled that the state’s anti-discrimination law also applies to LGBTQ people. And after a ballot initiative to enshrine reproductive rights into the state Constitution was initially blocked by Republicans on the state Board of Canvassers, the Michigan Supreme Court stepped in and decided that the initiative should be left to a vote.

That decision was ultimately the only reason why Michiganders had the right to decide on issues like abortion access (and expanded voting accessibility) on the ballot in November 2022.

Last year, the Court also decided that ex-President Donald Trump should remain on the presidential election ballot this year, despite his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. And this year, the Court is set to weigh in on a legal battle over raising the state minimum wage.

Democrats and Republicans are likely to rule differently on different subjects. And recent decisions in other states have shown just how powerful a role state supreme courts play. 

In Arizona, for instance, the state Supreme Court recently upheld a 160-year-old law that banned all abortions unless the patient’s life was in danger. In Alabama, a decision from the state Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos were people (temporarily) caused IVF providers to stop offering services in the state. The Florida Supreme Court also recently decided to uphold a 15-week abortion ban, a decision that will also allow a six-week ban to go into effect on May 1.

As other lawsuits about abortion care in Michigan make their way through the court system, more questions of reproductive freedom may find their way in front of these seven justices. 

The elections could also impact presidential elections as Republicans continue to undermine the state’s election systems. In 2020, for instance, Michigan’s Democratic-leaning state Supreme Court decided not to hear a legal challenge to the state’s presidential election results—instead concluding based on a mountain of evidence that President Joe Biden had won Michigan.

Who is running this year?

So far, four candidates are seeking nominations for two seats on the state Supreme Court—and either party could take them. The candidate filing deadline is July 4. Absentee ballots will be available on Sept. 26 and early, in-person voting begins on Oct. 26. 

The general election is Nov. 5

Kyra Harris Bolden

Kyra Harris Bolden, a former state representative from Southfield and the first Black woman to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court, was appointed to replace McCormack in 2022 and is running as a Democrat to serve the remainder of McCormack’s term, which expires in 2029.

Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

She is currently serving in her second year on the court and “remains committed to ensuring equal access to justice, applying the law without fear or favor, and treating all who come before our state’s highest court with dignity and respect,” according to her campaign website

As a former member of the state House of Representatives, and the only justice with legislative experience, Bolden is openly pro-choice and pro-labor. She also crafted (and passed) five bipartisan bills focused on criminal justice reform and protecting survivors or sexual violence.

Bolden graduated from Grand Valley State University and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, has worked as an attorney in southeast Michigan, and was reportedly inspired to pursue law after she learned the story of her great-grandfather, who was lynched in Tenesee in 1939.

She’s also a member of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, the Wolverine, Straker , and Oakland County bar associations, and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Bolden has also received several awards—including the NAACP’s Ida B. Wells Freedom and Justice Award.

Kimberly Ann Thomas

Kimberly Ann Thomas is a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic, where she and law students represent people who can’t afford lawyers. She also teaches students about legal ethics and provides support for Michigan youth.

Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

In seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Viviano, Thomas plans to “bring a new voice of integrity and fairness” to the state Supreme Court—“grounded in her knowledge applying the law and dedication to equal justice for all Michiganders,” according to her campaign website.

Thomas was a Fulbright Scholar who studied at the University of Michigan. She later received her law degree from Harvard Law School and has also taught at the collegiate level in Ireland.

More recently, she also served on the state’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, which took a data-driven approach to recommend ways to help improve the state’s juvenile justice system.

Thomas’ experience representing low-income Michiganders and teaching students legal ethics will help her “bring a voice of integrity and knowledge” to the state Supreme Court and ensure “access to justice and that each litigant is heard and respected,” her campaign website states.

The Michigan Democratic Party has endorsed both Bolden and Thomas. 

Andrew Fink

State Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Adams Township) opted against running for a third term in the state Legislature this year to instead pursue a Republican nomination for the state Supreme Court. 

Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

He’s running “because our justice system needs to be focused on the law” and because he felt compelled by a “sacred duty” to uphold the Constitution, according to Fink’s campaign website.

His campaign website doesn’t mention any specific issues beyond a broad commitment to “defending our rights” and “to our constitutional freedoms and structure of government.”

“I am ready to take the oath of office and do justice under law,” his website states.

During his time in the Legislature, Fink sponsored legislation to ban abortion after fetal viability, reports the Coldwater Daily Reporter. The bill failed to advance under Democratic leadership.

He also sponsored legislation that would have reportedly created a legal loophole in the state’s newly expanded civil rights laws, namely by allowing for discrimination against LGBTQ people—just as long as that discrimination aligned with the practice of a religion

Fink is a member of the National Rifle Association, and a vocal election denier who reportedly attended a “Stop the Steal” rally at the Michigan state Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He also has a bachelor’s degree from Hillsdale College and a law degree from the University of Michigan. 

Mark Boonstra

Mark Boonstra, a Michigan Court of Appeals judge, is also vying for a Republican nomination.

Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

Boonstra grew up in West Michigan, received his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan. He has also worked as a private practice attorney, in addition to a two-year term on the Michigan Court of Claims.

According to his campaign website, Boonstra bills himself as a “Rule-of-Law Judge” who has authored “more than 1,000” judicial opinions that touch on “every area” of state law. During his tenure, he has also demonstrated conservative views, including opposition to LGBTQ rights.

In 2022, Boonstra drew the ire of nearly 20 organizations—including Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan—when he flatly refused to use a defendant’s preferred pronouns, writing in an opinion that he declined “to join in the insanity that has apparently now reached the courts,” according to reports from Michigan Advance

That incident reportedly became a catalyst for subsequent rule changes in Michigan courts preventing judges from purposely misgendering defendants, litigants, attorneys, and others.

Boonstra’s campaign website also promises voters more of the same: “He has a proven track record, not only of scholarship, but as a consistent and reliable Rule-of-Law judge, and you can count on him to continue to provide the same service on the Michigan Supreme Court.”

In 2020, Boonstra penned a fiery rant to Whitmer over the state’s pandemic-related safety measures. He has also reportedly authored several books lamenting the decline of Christianity.

READ MORE: What does the Michigan Supreme Court do?

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Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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