The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 13, 2000

State Supreme Court supremely important this year - and this decade

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

So you've taken the time to vote, either by absentee ballot or at the polls.

You get down to the final portion of the ballot, which has the names of the candidates for Supreme Court. You may not know a thing about any of those people, so you ignore that section of the ballot, or vote for the candidate with the most interesting last name, and send it in.

Big mistake.

"As we say, 'finish the ballot, finish the job, it's about time Michigan workers got a break,' said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney.

The contest for the three seats up for election on the Michigan Supreme Court seats is huge - in fact, the results of the election will be felt for a decade. The Greater Detroit Building Trades Council and the state AFL-CIO are endorsing E. Thomas Fitzgerald, Marietta Robinson, and Edward Thomas for the three open seats. Republican-backed candidates currently enjoy a 5-2 majority on the court, and working people could do themselves a big favor by getting two of the three endorsees elected.

It will be an uphill struggle to get those candidates into office, because all are facing off against Republican-backed incumbents with name recognition. But the incumbents have a horrendous record against the state's working people: scores of their decisions over the past few years have gone in favor of insurance firms and other large companies and against working people.

The reason this part of the ballot has such far-reaching implications is a process called "gerrymandering." Every 10 years, after census results are tabulated, it is up to the state legislature to redraw district lines for Michigan's congressional delegation, as well as those for state senators and state representatives.

It is a sure bet that the process will have little to do with fairness and everything to do with political clout - the party in power will have the ability to re-draw district lines to favor the political prospects of that party.

Currently, Democrats have no clout in Lansing. Republicans control the state House, Senate, governor's seat, and the state Supreme Court. Democrats will have no say at all in the redistricting process if they don't regain a majority in the state House, and their fate will truly be sealed if they can't regain a majority on the state Supreme Court. Gerrymandered district boundaries are in effect for a decade.

Following are a few examples of a few anti-worker rulings that have been made over the last few years by the incumbent conservatives on the state Supreme Court:

*A woman running a screw machine in a Michigan plant got her hair tangled in an unguarded shaft. Her hair and scalp were torn from her head. Under state law, she received workers' compensation, but also exercised her right to file suit against the company who manufactured the unsafe machine.

The company had been purchased by another corporation. Although the second company continued to profit from the purchase of the first company, the Michigan Supreme Court Republican majority ruled that the second company was not obligated to pay damages to the injured woman even though the machine was defective.

*A man was killed when a truck struck his motorcycle. The truck was uninsured because the company that owned it had not paid the insurance premiums. The family of the deceased won a $1.2 million judgment in a lower court against the driver.

Even though the driver had his own insurance policy with a large insurance company, the Michigan Supreme Court Republican majority ruled that the driver's insurance company did not have to pay the judgment, leaving the driver personally responsible for the payment. The Court pitted two working families against each other and let the insurance company off free.

*An employee of the Livonia School District injured his back on the job. He retired with a disability pension and was qualified to receive workers' compensation. However, the Michigan Supreme Court Republican majority agreed with the insurance company and ruled that the comp benefits could be reduced by the amount of his pension.

Imagine having the pension you worked so many years to earn, to be counted against you and subtracted from the workers' compensation owed for an on the job injury.

Incumbent Republican Justices Cliff Taylor, Steven Markman and Robert Young, who were all appointed to the high court by John Engler, voted against citizens and families and in favor of powerful special interests. That's why it is time for a major change on the Michigan Supreme Court.