column: Before making choice for circuit court judge, voters must consider abortion stance
On Nov. 6, Washtenaw County voters will fill the first vacant circuit court judge position in nearly two decades. With your vote, you may help to decide the futures of dozens, if not hundreds, of young women dealing with unwanted pregnancies, even those resulting from rape or incest. How can this be? Aren’t these matters determined by the Michigan Legislature and federal and state appellate courts?
In fact, whether a minor obtains an abortion may be determined by the decision of a single judge, acting under a state law that gives virtually total discretion to the judge. There is a stark difference on this issue between the two candidates for the open judge position, attorneys Carol Kuhnke and James Fink.
Fink, who identifies himself as a Republican and has contributed money to many GOP candidates, is endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan. To obtain that endorsement, a candidate must oppose abortion in all cases, except to protect the life of the mother. The candidate must also support a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing legal “personhood” from the moment of conception.
The two candidates are seeking to replace Judge Melinda Morris, the only woman to ever serve as a Washtenaw County Circuit Judge, who is retiring.
The power of a single judge to make reproductive choice decisions for young women is part of a 1991 law which resulted from an initiative petition drive by Right to Life and other anti-choice forces.The law requires any young woman under the age of 18 to have the permission of a parent or a legal guardian to obtain an abortion, in any circumstances. If the young woman is unable to obtain that permission, or is afraid or unwilling to seek it, she can petition a court for a waiver of the parental consent requirement.
Any one of the five Washtenaw Circuit Court and two Probate Court judges may be assigned to hear these cases. During the last four years, there have been more than 125 of them.
It is impossible to know which judge or judges will be assigned to hear these cases in the future, but it certainly is possible that the newly-elected judge will decide some portion of them.
The statute says a waiver of parental consent should be granted if the court finds either of the following: 1) The minor is “sufficiently mature and well-enough informed” to make the decision independently of her parents or legal guardian, or 2) The waiver would be “in the best interests of the minor.” This language is broad and loose enough for the most pro-choice or anti-choice judge to find justification within in it for any decision.
The Right to Life position is to legally deny to every woman, no matter her age or maturity, the right to make a decision about whether to end a pregnancy, except when her life is endangered. The Human Life Amendment it supports would, essentially, make abortion a murder of a “person.” It is difficult to see how any judge who subscribes to the Right to Life position would ever find that a teenage girl should be given the option of deciding, on her own, whether to have an abortion, or would find that “murdering” her “unborn child” would be in her best interest.
Conversely, a pro-choice judge can't require a minor to have an abortion. The judge only rules on whether the young woman may make the decision.
In an ideal world, judges wouldn’t be involved in these matters, at all. Every teen dealing with an unwanted pregnancy would feel safe in discussing the matter with her parents, and they would reach a mutually acceptable decision. Unfortunately, that’s often not what happens.
In the worst cases, the pregnancy may result from rape by the young woman’s father or stepfather or her mother’s boyfriend. It is in these horrible situations where compassionate parental consideration is most likely to be absent, and a judge may be making the decision.
Before you make your choice for judge on Nov. 6, decide which candidate you think should be given the responsibility for these decisions.
Tom Wieder is a 44-year resident of Ann Arbor and retired attorney who has been active in Democratic Party organizations and campaigns for most of that time. He has History, Public Policy and Law Degrees from The University of Michigan.