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Former justice expose: Michigan Supreme Court is beholden to secretive special interests

July 2, 2013 by Steven M. Gursten

Ex Justice Elizabeth Weaver says current Court is guilty of partisanship in her new book, Judicial Deceit: Tyranny and Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court

Elizabeth Weaver, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice
Elizabeth Weaver, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice

For the past decade, the Michigan Supreme Court has devastated the rights of car accident victims. I’ve written at length about legal decisions such as Kreiner, Cameron and Devillers — and recently a slew of decisions that decimate an injury victim’s access to life-saving No Fault insurance benefits — that are destroying the fundamental principles underlying our No Fault law.

The notorious Engler “Gang of Four” led by then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, and new current Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. in its current make-up, have devastated consumers and injury victims. The Court has literally wiped out entire areas of law  – such as premises liability, medical malpractice,  and product liability law.  The blind, the sexually assaulted, victims of drunk driving, and those hurt by professional negligence have all borne the scars inflicted by this activist court. For more information, read our blog on the 38 Worst Judicial Travesties of the Michigan Supreme Court.

But is there more to the story? Was there even more to these activist rulings that altered long-standing Michigan law and stare decisis than we have thought?

In 2007, Justice Elizabeth Weaver — the only Republican justice then who didn’t owe her seat to former Gov. John Engler — began contending that Justice Robert Young Jr. and three other Republican justices had secretly made many court rulings beholden to auto insurance companies and deep-pocketed special interest groups.

Now Weaver has come out with a 750-page book alleging corruption on the Court, called  “Judicial Deceit: Tyranny and Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court.”

In the book, Weaver and co-author David Schock allege that Weaver’s previous Republican colleagues, including Young and Justice Stephen Markman, who still sit on the Court today, conspired to rule on cases for years based on the requests of secret campaign donors.

Weaver’s book discusses examples of deep, behind the scenes corruption on the Michigan Court. It also outlines a 7-point plan Michigan Supreme Court reform plan:

  1. End political party nomination of justices. Michigan Supreme Court candidates would earn a spot on the ballot by petition, the same way trial and Court of Appeals judge candidates do.
  2. Limit justices to a single 14-year term. Also remove the upper-70 age limit as a qualification for running for the office of justice, and a justice never would be eligible for reelection or appointment.
  3. Establish a non-partisan nominating process. With a non-partisan advisory Qualifications Commission composed of 15 voting members and the chief justice as the non-voting chair.
  4. No secret or unnamed campaign finance contributors. To require transparency and accountability in campaign finance reporting requirements.
  5. Provide public funding for campaigns. Use tax check-off money designated for gubernatorial campaigns for Supreme Court campaigns.
  6. Elect justices by district. The state should be divided into seven Supreme Court election districts with one justice coming from each district.
  7. Eliminate unnecessary secrecy and require transparency in the Supreme Court.

Weaver’s call for reform falls in line with a report that was released last summer, urging Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature to change the way justices are selected and calling attention to negative public perceptions of the Court’s partisanship.  The report is called Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force – Report and Recommendations (April 2012). It was produced by a bipartisan commission co-chaired by retiring state Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jim Ryan.

For instance, the report urged lawmakers to replace the current method in which justices are selected. Currently, they are nominated (read, largely funded) by the political parties, with a nonpartisan primary.

Weaver is not letting this report or the issue of corruption in the Michigan Supreme Court fly by the wayside.

I strongly support any reform of how we elect our judges in this state.  The influence of money on both sides is corrupting and toxic, and we can and need to do better. I’ve now practiced my entire legal career in a state where so much of the bench and bar have lost respect for those who wear the robes on our highest court.  It is incredibly corrosive to those lawyers who must have faith in our legal system when this cynicism exists among lawyers and judges regarding the motivations of those who sit on the Michigan Supreme Court.

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