Election Rules Are Stricter For Judicial Candidates

May 3, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — A dozen hopefuls dropped off their ballot petitions in Lansing last week for the election that will add two judges to the 17th Circuit Court in Grand Rapids this fall.

But only 11 will vie for the seats, as Kent County Commission Chairman Steven Heacock officially withdrew his nomination last week.

According to the state Bureau of Elections, the following area attorneys filed petitions for the two new judicial seats being added to the 17th Circuit Court.

Judy Baxter, Helen V. Brinkman, Kevin R. Floyd, Heacock and Deborah McNabb, all Kent County employees; Curt Benson, solo practitioner; Robert A. Buchanan, of Law,Weathers & Richardson; Bruce A. Courtade, of Rhoades, McKee, Boer, Goodrich & Titta; Joy Fosse, of Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett; James Robert Redford, of Plunkett & Cooney; Mark Trusock, of Lannen & Trusock, and Daniel V. Zemaitis, of the 59th District Court, Grandville& Walker; 62A District Court, Wyoming

The crowded field for the newly created judicial posts will be reduced even more this summer, as only the top four vote getters will survive the Aug. 6 primary. Then voters will chose just two from that field of four in the Nov. 5 general election.

One winner will be rewarded with a six-year term on the court, while the other will serve for eight years. And like their partisan brethren, the bench winners will be sworn in next January.

But unlike their partisan brethren, whoever wears the robes next January will have gone through a tougher set of election rules than those who win Senate and House races. Part of that is because of Michigan law. Another reason comes from the State Bar Association, which requires judicial candidates to follow a stricter code of conduct than other candidates.

For instance, state law mandates that judicial candidates file a nominating petition just to get on the ballot. But those who run for partisan Michigan offices, such as representative or senator, aren’t required to do so. The 17th Circuit Court petitions must have at least 2,000 valid signatures of registered Kent County voters, and no more than 4,000. A candidate who turns in a petition with more than 4,000 signatures violates state law.

In contrast, partisan candidates can skip the petition work by paying a $100 filing fee.

Simply filing the petition by the required deadline, however, doesn’t mean a candidate will make the primary ballot. If the validation process finds that a sheet isn’t properly filled out, a petition could be declared invalid and a candidate could be scratched from the race. Simple miscues such as not listing the county on a petition or writing the wrong date on a sheet are only two of the mistakes that can get a petition thrown out.

In addition, petitions can be challenged.

Who will make the primary ballot will be decided by the Board of State Canvassers, which will take into consideration any input that comes from the election bureau. Canvassers have from May 14 to June 7 to meet and solidify the entire state primary ballot. The board will then tell the Kent County election commission who will be running in the August election.

Act 116 of Michigan law regulates the nominating petition process, a statue that was passed in 1954.

The State Bar Association also weighs in on the election process through its ethics and campaign practices.

For example, unlike partisan candidates, those seeking a judicial seat can’t personally solicit or accept campaign funds. That means a judicial candidate may not ask for money at a breakfast rally or list where to send money in a campaign brochure.

All campaign contributions must be made to the candidate’s committee.

But a committee may not accept a cash contribution over $20.01, and must record the occupation, employer, principle place of business and name of every contributor who donates more than $100.01 to a campaign. A committee is limited to collecting $100 from each attorney it solicits, and all anonymous contributions must be given to the client protection fund of the state bar.

The maximum amount any person can contribute to a candidate in the 17th Circuit Court race is $1,000, a total set by state statute based on the county’s population.

Also unlike candidates in legislative races, those running for judge can’t make campaign promises.

That means candidates can’t pledge to sentence every convicted felon to the maximum in order to attract the tough-on-crime voter, or promise to work for the removal of a statute.

Nor can a judicial candidate publicly endorse someone running for a partisan post like a partisan candidate can.

That means a judicial candidate can’t appear on the same side of an issue at a debate, allow the use of his or her home for receptions, make speeches on behalf of a candidate, or take out ads that support a candidate.

A 17th Circuit Court candidate must be a qualified voter in Kent County, have a license to actively practice law in Michigan, be less than 70 years old on election day, not hold office in a political party and have practiced law for at least five years. BJ

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