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Kimberly Ann Thomas promises ‘new voice of fairness’ for Michigan Supreme Court

Kimberly Ann Thomas has been a journalist, attorney, and college professor. Now, she’s running to bring a “new voice of fairness and integrity” to the Michigan Supreme Court.

MICHIGAN—Kimberly Ann Thomas thinks many Michiganders are growing concerned over whether the legal system in the United States is capable of offering them a fair shake at justice.

And in Michigan, more transparency and ethical behavior among judges will be key to easing those concerns, she said. That’s why she’s running for Michigan Supreme Court this year. And in an exclusive interview with The ‘Gander, Thomas said voters can trust her to make sound legal decisions on the state’s highest court—entirely free of any public or political influence.

Thomas is a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic, where she and law students represent people who can’t afford lawyers. She also teaches students about legal ethics and helps to provide legal support for Michigan youth.

With Michigan Supreme Court Justice David Viviano leaving the bench next year, Thomas is vying for the Democratic nomination to fill his place. And in November, she’s expected to face off against a Republican challenger for a full, eight-year term on the state Supreme Court.

Thomas studied at the University of Maryland, worked as a reporter for the Detroit News, and earned her law degree from Harvard Law School. She has also taught law school in Ireland and, more recently, served on the state’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform—which was designed to take a data-driven approach to help improve the state’s juvenile justice system.

Thomas’ experience representing low-income Michiganders and teaching students legal ethics will help “bring a new voice of integrity and fairness” to the state Supreme Court and ensure “access to justice and that each litigant is heard and respected,” her campaign website states.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Can you explain why it’s critical for voters to pay attention to this election? Why does it matter who serves on the state Supreme Court?

The Michigan Supreme Court is the last court in our state. They are sort of the final word on questions of state law and state Constitution and state rules and regulations.

The court takes cases that are important legal questions for our state that have broad ranging impacts, then settles questions where there’s a disagreement about what something means in the law to try to make sure that the law is consistent across the state.

The other function of the Michigan Supreme Court is that it provides leadership to all the local county courts in terms of developing data systems and transparency across our court systems. That isn’t as glamorous, but it’s really important in the day-to-day work of the state courts.

You were a reporter. Why did you make the jump to law school?

I love people, research and writing. Those were the things that drew me to journalism, but I also felt like law had such an impact on people’s lives. That was really defined for me in a clear way given the reporting that I had done, and also the experience [of going on strike as a union worker at the Detroit News in 1995]. That’s what led me to law school. I felt passionately about people being heard in our legal system no matter where they came from or who they were.

What motivated you to pursue a seat on the state Supreme Court?

I have two halves of my career that make me really passionate about being on the Court. One is that I’ve worked with and represented people in our trial and appellate court system, hundreds and hundreds of clients. And so, I really understand how our court systems function, what that experience is like, what clients feel in that system, and how they want to be heard. They want to make sure their voices are respected. They worry about the quality of justice.

Also, because I teach at a law school and because I’ve had an opportunity to work for the governor’s task force to think about bigger picture ideas, I can think more holistically about our court systems, about what really matters fundamentally in our state Supreme Court.

It’s really the combination of those two things that makes me really excited.

What do you hope to achieve if elected to the Court?

There’s a real concern—not necessarily in our state courts specifically, but in people’s minds—about having judges and justices that are ethical, that are transparent, that are following the law, and engaging in a practice that is of following the highest standards of ethics possible.

We worry that people aren’t going to be respected, the quality of the courts might be undermined, or perception of the quality might be undermined by not having judges and justices who are high quality and who apply ethical standards to themselves in a very rigorous way.

On our state Supreme Court, there have been some really important decisions, but I’m thinking about how we can improve our state court systems and our local state courts as a whole.

Because of the work that I did on the governor’s task force, I’m incredibly interested in engaging in that work because when somebody has a small issue in court that really matters to them, their interface is going to be with those local systems. And so, being able to make those local systems work better for everyone across the state is something that I’m really passionate about.

Your campaign website says you’re going to bring a “new voice of integrity and fairness” to the court. What does that mean to you? And why do you think that’s something that’s needed on the Court?

There’s a general discourse and worry that our courts aren’t upholding standards of integrity and that we really need. If people are going to go to the courts and feel like they can go there and get a fair hearing, that’s a really important piece of how our court systems need to be reliable.

How would you describe your overarching judicial philosophy?

I don’t prescribe to a particular philosophy. I think we need our state court justices to get it right. We really need them to be careful. We need them to do all the work. We need them to listen, pay attention, and not think they know it all right away. They need to make decisions that are transparent and open, that explain the reasons, that aren’t these so-called shadow dockets.

How do you navigate the influence of politics and public opinion?

When I clerked for a judge who had a lifetime term, he was a great role model for me. I saw him treating all of his colleagues with incredible kindness and respect—regardless of how politically polarized their perspective on the world might be. He created a community that was collegial, that looked to get the best answer possible, bringing people into it. Obviously, I’m not sure you avoid politics, but you can really focus on the work of the court instead of focusing on politics.

What do you view as Michigan’s biggest upcoming legal challenges?

I don’t have a crystal ball. I think that that’s why it’s so important to have people on the court who can learn anything and tackle any problem, because we don’t know what will be important issues in eight years. Maybe it’ll be around artificial intelligence. Who knows? We can’t know. Having people who are flexible, can learn, listen, and be open to new ideas is really the key.

How do you view the role of the Michigan Supreme Court in protecting or restricting reproductive rights and access to abortion?

As a judicial candidate, we can’t actually take any positions on issues that might become before the court. I’ll decide those issues on the facts of the case and on the law that’s being applied.

Any guiding thoughts when it comes to how you might rule on reproductive rights issues, should they make their way to the Court?

The role of the court, generally, in protecting and restricting rights is that it is one of our branches of government. A court has to have respect for the work that’s done by the legislature. It has to have respect for our state Constitution. It has to have respect for provisions in that Constitution that were enacted by the people. It has to have respect for the administrative agencies and the executive branch. It only has cases that people are bringing before it, and so it has to respect all the other branches of government and the decisions and expertise that exists.

The Court may deal with other issues like election integrity, gun safety, and civil rights. Any guiding principles on those issues?

I know this is probably unsatisfying, but what guides my thought process is our law in Michigan.

Courts are bound to look at the pre-existing state laws. They’re bound to look at what the legislature has done and said. And so, to the extent there are laws that come into question, you have to look at those laws. You have to be aware of both our state and federal constitutions. As a judge, you’re bound to look at all of those sources of prior authority in making any decision.

We need people to know that when they come into the court, that no matter where you came from, what your prior life experience is, that you’re going to act in fairness, respect, and dignity for the litigants. That procedural fairness is incredibly important. And then, making decisions that are based in law, that are based in an understanding of the court’s role, is the way to maintain that impartiality to help people maintain their confidence in the impartiality of the court.

Can Michiganders really trust the Court to be fair and impartial?

I think they can. I think the court has been working to do that. I think that there is a real emphasis on it. I think that there’s a societal concern about having courts that can do that. And so, making sure that those decisions are not only fair and impartial—but that the process that’s used to make them is also fair and impartial, and that people can understand the process.

What can you do to build more public trust with the Court?

I wouldn’t say there’s a sea change that needs to happen.

There’s work underway that is trying to make our courts more understandable to litigants, at the Supreme Court level, but also across the state—to increase equity across the state and really make sure that people feel there’s predictability in those decisions, to make all litigants feel like they’re getting a fair shake in the courts. That work is underway, and there’s still work to do.

READ MORE: Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

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Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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