Michigan Supreme Court: Candidate Bagenstos comes to Marquette, emphasizes importance of November race

Samuel Bagenstos

MARQUETTE — Samuel Bagenstos, a Michigan Democratic Party-endorsed candidate for Michigan’s Supreme Court, visited Marquette and met with voters on Sunday and Monday during his campaign trail.

Bagenstos, who is currently a University of Michigan law professor, served as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. He was a law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the U.S. Supreme Court and has served as an attorney on civil rights cases across the nation, including four U.S. Supreme Court cases.

His extensive experience in litigating major civil rights cases surrounding environmental justice, rights for people with disabilities, women’s rights and voting rights has left him uniquely prepared to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court, Bagenstos said.

“I have been doing appellate litigation at the highest levels, learning from great judges like Justice Ginsberg, but also practicing law in appellate courts around the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court for 20-something years now,” he said. “So all of that work prepares me to do this.”

With a background based in civil-rights litigation rather than political or judicial positions, Bagenstos believes he is well-positioned to serve Michigan’s Supreme Court — it’s important to have justices who have spent “significant parts of their careers fighting for ordinary people’s rights,” he said.

“In the cases that get to a court like the Michigan Supreme Court, there are usually multiple reasonable readings of the law, so the background and experience and values of the judges matter,” he said.

Bagenstos says he’s demonstrated his background, experience and values through his track record as a litigator working on cases involving voting rights, equal rights for people with disabilities, women’s rights in the workplace and environmental justice in high-level courts around the nation.

“I’ve been really privileged in my career to have the opportunity to represent people who have been confronted with large institutions — whether they’re corporations or government entities — who have violated their rights,” he said.

One example of this is when Bagenstos fought for the residents of Flint to be heard in court after two cases regarding “one of the most significant environmental issues” of a generation were dismissed in the U.S. District Court, he said.

“I took the case on appeal to the 6th Circuit Federal Court Of Appeals in Cincinnati, we got that reversed,” he said. “And that was great because it gave the residents of Flint a chance to make their case in court.”

Bagenstos believes environmental justice cases surrounding issues such as the Flint water crisis, Enbridge’s Line 5, lead and polyfluoroalkyl substance, or PFAS, contamination in water across the state, as well as Nestle’s water operation, will be some of the “biggest issues that are going to be confronting the courts in terms of the kinds of cases they’re going to hear” in the next three to four years, he said.

To put the race in a larger context, Michigan’s Supreme Court is currently dominated by conservatives, as it has been for much of the past two decades, with five conservative justices and two liberal justices — with two of Gov. Rick Synder’s most recent appointees facing election this year, there is an opportunity for a shift in the majority in Michigan’s Supreme Court, Bagenstos said.

“If those two seats flip, then we have a four to three majority in the other direction,” Bagenstos said.

However, he feels there’s much more to the matter at hand than “just replacing a Republican-dominated court with a Democrat-dominated court,” saying that it’s about the way justices will interact with each other.

“No individual justice or even group of justices really gets much done without actually reaching out to and persuading other people, there are issues that cross party lines and divisions that cross party lines,” he said.

Should he be appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court, Bagenstos says he’s confident that he is prepared to work collegially with conservative justices, while standing up for what he believes in.

“In my career, I’ve been, for 25 years, a civil rights lawyer practicing in front of courts that tend to be quite conservative,” he said. “And so I’ve spent a lot of time in my life working on how to appeal to and make common ground with people who don’t come at the world from the same place I do.”

The composition of state supreme courts could be particularly pivotal In the coming decades, as these courts may be called upon to address many issues that federal courts have typically dealt with, he said.

“One of the things we’re going to see over the next 20 years, as (President) Donald Trump’s appointees control the federal courts, is we’re going to see a real resurgence of state constitutional law, all around the country,” he said. “We’re going to see the state courts deciding whether their state constituions provide these protections that the federal courts had provided under the federal constitution for a very long time and realistically — the federal courts are going to be out of the business of enforcing many basic rights for decades.”

Because of this, it will be particularly important to research Michigan Supreme Court justice candidates and place a vote this year — in a race that is often overlooked by voters due to its placement in the nonpartisan section of the ballot, Bagenstos said.

“I think this is a year when people really need to pay attention,” he said, noting that it’s important for voters to research Michigan Supreme Court candidates in advance of voting, as the ballot only provides names and information on incumbency, due to the nonpartisan nature of the Michigan Supreme Court election.