There is a popular saying in Michigan that state supreme court elections are usually decided based on the Irish-ness of the candidates' last names. Unfortunately, that's about all that many Michigan citizens know about their highest court. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, can have a significant impact on the land, air and water that defines our state.
With that in mind, the organization that I work for – the Michigan League of Conservation Voters
(LCV) – partnered with the Environmental Law & Policy Center at the University of Michigan Law School
to help Michiganders make sense out of the legalese and understand how their elected justices affect their environment.
Law students have researched and summarized cases dating back to 1982, and Michigan LCV applied an analysis to the summaries to help readers quickly understand the impact that the Court can have on Michigan's natural resources.
The finished tool is called Green Gavels and is hosted on the Michigan LCV website. It informs conservation-minded citizens on issues about which they care deeply. By going back 30 years, it surveys every conservation decision made by every sitting Michigan Supreme Court justice. Green Gavels shows the impact the Court can have on conservation. Justices have individual profile pages which list how they ruled in each case, and a scoreboard which shows all of their ratings together.
So that citizens need not be legal scholars to understand Green Gavels, Michigan LCV provided ratings and analyses on cases and judicial decisions, as well as a glossary of any legal terms used.
Aldo Leopold once wrote, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
While it was tempting to apply that standard to the cases, we recognized that many of them will be decided on legal issues which sometimes have little to do with their ultimate environmental impact. Therefore, we gathered an advisory panel of experienced Michigan attorneys - including a retired Michigan Supreme Court justice - to review our ratings and analyses to ensure that they are fair and objective.
Michigan courts often decide cases with conservation impacts. Few go before the Michigan Supreme Court each year, but those that do have significant impacts. Their decisions guide how all lower courts decide conservation cases, too.
Unfortunately, many Michigan residents know very little about our Supreme Court. Green Gavels bridges that information gap by providing citizens across the state with an objective tool to gauge the impact of sitting Supreme Court justices, helping Michiganders make sense out of the "green-alese."
It's easy to get turned off from politics during election season, unless you're a political junkie or policy wonk like me. Ads turn negative, rhetoric gets ridiculous, and candidates talk past each other with contradictory claims about what their platforms will or won't do. We can't afford to disengage, though; the action that happens in between elections is too important.
I track and analyze environmental legislation for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters
, the Ann Arbor-based statewide political voice for protecting Michigan's environment. It's a perfect fit for a lawyer and outdoor enthusiast, because I can use my training to benefit the places I love. It is this first-hand look at how legislation proposes to affect those places, though, that makes me realize just how important elections are.
You see, very little of the legislation that gets introduced – or even passed – makes the news. Some of it wreaks absolute havoc on Michigan's environment. For instance, bills were passed this year to allow expanded development on sensitive sand dunes and limit the amount of land the state can own and protect. Just this past week, a bill was introduced to eliminate the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
' ability to protect biological diversity and a new bill is expected to force land conservancies to allow motorized access, or else force them to pay property taxes.
You probably won't hear a lot about these issues between now and November, unless you subscribe to Michigan LCV's newsletter, of course. You'll hear about election shenanigans and accusations about candidates, but don't let that dissuade you from looking underneath the politics to look at how your candidates' policies will affect your favorite places.
Underneath all the mud-slinging, the ads and the rhetoric, there are real issues at stake which deserve your attention and your vote. After all, your ability to walk a quiet trail in a nearby nature preserve without diving out of the way of a four-wheeler might depend on it.