Like it or not, James Giddings will step down as an Ingham County Circuit judge at the end of the year. Under the state Constitution, he has no choice.

At a time when U.S. Justice John Paul Stevens is pushing 90 and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is blowing out 77 candles next month, Giddings is "aged out" of the state courts system at 70, denying him an opportunity to serve the two more years hed need to have been an Ingham County judge for 40 years … that is, if he had wanted to.

"Ive been doing this for a long time and, quite frankly, I may not have done this one more time anyway," Giddings told me.

Realistically, being 70 years old today isnt like being 70 years old back in the 1960s, when the latest draft of the Constitution was written, Giddings noted. People are living longer, more healthy lives. At age 70, Giddings said he could continue doing the job. Maybe at age 75,things would be different, he said. Hell never know.

But if voters this November vote "yes" on Proposal 1 and call for a new constitutional convention to re-write Michigans guiding document, Giddings would suggest that delegates lift the current cap to more accurately reflect the changing times, be it 75 or 80.

(Meanwhile, theres some question whether Giddings seat will be filled this year. The Ingham County Board of Commissioners is tossing around the idea of leaving the seat vacant for a few years as a way to save the cash-strapped county government. There has been no vote on the subject, and Commissioner Rebecca Bahar-Cook is further exploring the idea through the lens of a law passed last year that allows Oakland and Macomb counties to suspend the filling of two upcoming vacant judgeships.)

Giddings was appointed to the bench in 1972 at age 32 by then-Gov. Bill Milliken after having served as the Lansing city attorney. He became part of what was known at the time as the "Kiddie Court" with now- Michigan Justice Michael Cavanaugh, who was elected to the Lansing District Court in the same year; Lansing District Judge Charles Filice, who ascended to the bench the year prior; and former Ingham County Judge James J. Wood.

Filice was one of the youngest judges in state history when he assumed his duties. Only a couple years later, Cavanaugh became the youngest member of the Michigan Appeals Court.

Over the years, Giddings said hes seen his profession evolve and a lot of good judges and attorneys come and go. Now, its his turn.

One person not shedding a tear over the forced retirement is former Republican Gov. John Engler, who often clashed with Giddings on Department of Corrections issues, among many other things.

Once, when Giddings threw up a legal roadblock to prevent Englers Liquor Control Commission from advancing a privatization plan, Engler proclaimed, "I just keep saying my prayers that in 1998 someone from Ingham County will challenge and defeat this person."

Giddings blew off Englers criticism as an attempt to score political points.

"If anyone examined the rulings, theyd know I followed the law," Giddings said. "Give him credit, John Engler was effective. But he used things I ruled on to give him stature with some constituencies."

Engler claimed at the time that Giddings was a "judicial activist." Now, Giddings accurately pointed out, Englers own judicial appointees, especially at the Supreme Court level, are being painted with the same brush.

Giddings seat already has drawn the attention of at least one candidate, Okemos attorney Clinton Canady III, the founder of the Canady Law Offices, with more interest likely to follow. Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk also will be up for re-election this fall. Shell be seeking her second six-year term on the bench.

Skies opening up for Virg?

First, Lt. Gov. John Cherry drops out of the Democratic gubernatorial sweepstakes. Then, last week, University of Michigan Trustee Denise Ilitch said no thanks. On Monday, former state Treasurer Bob Bowman took a pass.

Now, it appears former Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee will follow suit.

Suddenly, the field for governor on the Democratic side has cleared up. The obvious benefactor? Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, which is one of the reasons Kildee is deciding against making a run, a source told me Monday.

The thinking from the Kildee camp is that if the race included Kildee, Bernero, Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith and socially conservative House Speaker Andy Dillon, its likely Kildee and Bernero would appeal to the same traditional Democrat and take votes away from each other.

Smith, Kildee and Bernero are all on the liberal side of the political spectrum. All of them have friends among organized labor, pro-choicers, enviros, etc. The fear is that Kildee would play spoiler and open the door for the deep-pocketed, anti-choice Dillon. True blue Democrats are shuddering at that prospect.

With Kildee out, the UAW and other nonbuilding trades unions are free to put their resources behind Bernero, whose fire for the gubernatorial run is unquenchable.

The Bernero team did suffer a setback last week, when their contracted fundraiser, Kris Caswell took a job as the finance director for the Michigan House Democrats campaign shop, the leader of whom is Dillon.

The decision wasnt an easy one for Caswell, seeing that shes been friends with Virg for years and was happy to help Bernero get his campaign off the ground. But the position with the House Democrats is more stable, which was important to her and her young family.

Contrary to the popular rumor in town, Dillon didnt plunder Berneros staff. Dillon was part of the hiring process. But after having been aboard Cherrys campaign crash, Caswell was gun-shy about signing up for another gubernatorial ride when a longerterm option was out there.

Whitmer offers donors refund

State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, who stunned Lansing last month when she pulled the plug on an attorney general run due to family concerns, made it clear to donors shortly afterward that they could receive a refund on their campaign contributions, if they wanted one.

In a letter, she wrote, in part, "I also understand that when you contributed to this movement it was with the understanding that I may be your nominee for Attorney General. Integrity is not a word I use lightly, and in that spirit, I feel it important to offer you the opportunity to request the return of your donation."

Given that Whitmer is (in my opinion) the frontrunner to be the Senates Democratic leader next year, and, at age 39, has a potentially long political career ahead of her, its hard to imagine many taking her up on the offer.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. E-mail