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Michigan Supreme Court: Forum Discussing Extreme Partisanship – 10/25/07

On Thursday October 25, 2007, from 7pm to 9 pm there will be an important forum addressing the extreme partisanship and politics of the Michigan Supreme Court. The legal forum will be held at the Oleson Center at Northwestern Michigan College. The legal forum is entitled “Courting Trouble: Threats to a Fair, Open, and Independent Michigan Supreme Court.” Organizers include the League of Women Voters, Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and other pro-consumer groups in Michigan. The Traverse City Record-Eagle is a sponsor of the event. Brian Dickerson, the award winning journalist who has covered many of this Court’s most controversial decisions, is going to present his insight on some of the cases this Court has decided. Another panelist, Rich Robinson, will identify the money trail and talk about the large campaign contributions being made to this extreme four justice majority by insurance companies and other groups trying to limit or deny access to courts for injury victims. Republican Justice Weaver, a former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and an outspoken critic of the “gang of four” will also address the forum.

Most lawyers in Michigan would say that the current four justice majority of the Michigan Supreme Court has been an unmitigated disaster for the people of this state.

After years of criticism, this and a growing number of public forums and grassroots movements are springing up across the state to address concerns about the Court. Michigan‘s highest Court has been widely criticized by Michigan lawyers, judges, and legal scholars across the United States for its partisanship and bias. Many of its decisions, and the impact, have been extensively discussed by auto accident attorneys within our Michigan Lawyers Resource Center. For example, in Kreiner v. Fischer, the controlling case regarding Michigan’s car accident law, a sharply divided Court again controlled by the current four Justice majority of Taylor, Corrigan, Young and Markman, took a clear and unambiguous statutory definition of serious impairment of body function that was carefully drafted by the Michigan Legislature, and added new and far more challenging restrictions to the rights of automobile accident victims in this state, such as “physician-imposed restrictions” and “course or trajectory” language that went far beyond what the Michigan Legislature had ever intended. The result has been thousands of people who have been seriously hurt in car accidents but who have been denied any compensation for pain and suffering. Since this four Justice majority significantly changed the automobile accident threshold law in Michigan, there have been 185 unpublished decisions, with 155 in favor of the insurance company defendants and only 30 in favor of people who were injured in auto accidents.

In 2005, I wrote the following about our Michigan Supreme Court:

Has the Michigan Supreme Court Lost Its Way?
Legal scholars around the United States have had harsh words about the integrity of the Michigan Supreme Court in recent years. Lawyers and judges around Michigan have blasted the perceived far-right wing tilt of the Michigan Court. Our Court has overturned existing Michigan law and reversed prior established cases at an alarming rate. These changes have been almost always in favor of insurance companies and big business and at the expense of consumers and injury victims. Entire areas of Michigan tort and personal injury law, such as product liability, premises liability and highway defect and design cases have been virtually eliminated. Almost all lawyers, including those who do personal injury plaintiff and personal injury defense work for insurance companies, agree the Supreme Court has gone too far.

This alarming rollback in Michigan tort law has not been widely reported, although with the “gag order” outrage that the four most conservative members have tried to enforce on Justice Weaver, a moderate Republican and former Chief Justice, it is getting more news coverage in the Michigan legal newspapers and press. However most Michigan citizens know nothing about how our Supreme Court is perceived by lawyers, judges and law professors. Most voters in Michigan cannot name even one sitting justice on the Michigan Supreme Court. This has allowed a block of 4 extreme Republican Justices (there are seven justices who sit on the Court) to impose their will without regard to the one moderate Republican and 2 Democratic justices. The role of established case law and carefully drafted wording of statutes enacted by the Michigan Legislature have been swept aside time and again.

How bad has it gotten?
Let’s look at the “who appealed” and “who won” statistics. From January 2004 to the present (date of this writing), the Michigan Supreme Court has found overwhelmingly in favor of insurance companies and businesses over citizens who suffered personal injury. Defendants successfully sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court 18 times. The Supreme Court reversed plaintiff verdicts for the injury victim in 17 of these 18 cases.In contrast, Plaintiffs (tort injury victims) successfully sought leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court only 5 times. A plaintiff verdict was upheld only once.The lone plaintiff verdict that was upheld was a white plaintiff asserting reverse race discrimination. Another way of looking at this is that at the lowest court level, the trial court in Michigan, the plaintiff personal injury tort victim prevailed in whole or part 12 of 22 times. When the case went up the Michigan Court of Appeals, which is the intermediate level above the trial court and the Michigan Supreme Court, the plaintiff injury victim prevailed 18 of 22 times. But after reaching the Michigan Supreme Court, the plaintiff prevailed only twice.This has nothing to do with being a plaintiff attorney or a defense attorney. It has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican. Our highest Court in Michigan has become a laughing stock around the nation. It has been the subject of law students writing law review articles, such as an expose by Albany Law Review in New York State. What is happening in Michigan is the consequence of Justices swearing allegiance to a political litmus test before they will be appointed. In our case, the pledge was made to former Governor Engler to follow a so called tort-reform, pro-insurance pledge.Sadly, most lawyers agree that this entire era of Michigan jurisprudence will be looked upon in future years as one where political motivations and extreme judicial activism overtook the rule of established law.

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Blog Author Steven M. Gursten
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