Shaking Up Michigan Courts

By on December 17th, 2010

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Shaking Up Michigan Courts

December 17, 2010

DETROIT — What’s wrong with this picture: in order to be elected or re-elected a judge in Michigan, candidates must raise vast sums of money, especially at the highest court levels.

Where do they go for it? To their fellow lawyers — and to well-heeled people whose cases might just end up in their courts.

Marilyn Kelly, the chief justice of Michigan’s Supreme Court, is troubled by that. She’s troubled even more by the huge barrage of negative TV advertising now common in judicial races.

“Over the last decade, millions of dollars have been spent to portray Michigan judicial candidates as being unfit for office,” she said in an interview Monday. “If you watch these ads, you get the impression we are choosing among scoundrels and incompetents.”

That bothers the chief justice, who has given her life to the law, and who is now in her last term on Michigan’s highest court.

So, she’s trying to do something about it. She and a senior federal appellate judge, James L. Ryan, have put together a Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force.

And they mean to shake up the system. They’ve persuaded two dozen of Michigan’s most distinguished citizens to serve on it, not all of whom are lawyers.

Though Kelly is a Democrat, she’s being supported by a most distinguished Republican jurist who has agreed to serve as the panel’s honorary chair: retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman member of the nation’s highest court.

“People see judges running for office and begin to think of them as just politicians in robes,” O’Connor said in a letter released Monday. “That perception degrades the courts as an institution,” she said.

That’s not the only issue the panel intends to look at. Not only are vast sums spent on judicial races (at least $8.2 million in this year’s state supreme court contests), but under Michigan law much of it is allowed to be spent anonymously.

This is something that Rich Robinson finds outrageous. He runs the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“Imagine if airlines sponsored anonymous advertisements saying their competitors are unsafe. It would destroy an industry in no time.” He fears that the barrage of negative judicial advertising “undermines public confidence in the impartiality of the court system.”

That, he added, is potentially very dangerous: “No trust in courts, no rule of law.” That’s one of the things the panel hopes to address, Justice Kelly said. They are giving themselves a deadline.

“We intend to produce a report by the end of 2011,“ she told me. “ We’ll have to see what we come up with, but I anticipate that some of what we recommend may require amending the state constitution. We may be able to accomplish other things through legislation.”

The recommendations may not all be unanimous.

“I imagine we’ll strive for consensus, but there’s nothing wrong with a good solid minority report,” she said. “Really, when you test ideas against each other it tends to make them stronger and better.”

Justice Kelly is more aware than most of the state’s judicial problems, since in Michigan the Supreme Court is in charge of overseeing, disciplining, and regulating all the other courts in the state. Her term in office lasts two more years, but she is likely soon to have a little more time on her hands.

The GOP won a majority on the state’s highest court in November. The new majority is likely to replace her as chief with Justice Robert P. Young, who was re-elected to the court in November.

While she’ll still be an active member of the high court, she intends to work diligently not only with her panel, but to do what she can to see that its eventual recommendations don’t just sit on a shelf.

This all means little, Judge Ryan noted, unless it leads to “practical ways to improve the process.” Based on a devastating recent ranking by the University of Chicago law school, Michigan’s judicial processes are indeed in need of improvement.

Question for Lansing. Few were surprised last week when a federal grand jury indicted former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his father Bernard, and several associates on multiple corruption charges. However, it was interesting that the indictment traced some of his crimes back a decade, to when he was in the state legislature.

Kwame Kilpatrick, then House minority floor leader, got the state to appropriating $800,000 to two nonprofits he said would help children and seniors. Instead, the indictment alleges, much of it went to “personal expenses” for Kwame and his wife, Carlita Kilpatrick.

According to the Gongwer News Service, officials had their suspicions at the time. Don Gilmer, who was then Gov. John Engler’s budget director, noticed that after half the grant had been spent, Kilpatrick had never provided any proper documentation for how it had been spent. When he failed to provide it, Gilmer refused to release the second half of the grant money.

But…why didn’t anyone ask more questions about this 10 years ago? That might have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache in the decade that followed.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a  consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.

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