Gavel Grab

Gov. Snyder Makes Appointment to Fill High Court Vacancy

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed Joan Larsen, University of Michigan special counsel to the dean for student and graduate activities, to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court.

Larsen once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. She was deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush from January 2002 to May 2003, according to a Detroit Free Press article.

It was Snyder’s third appointment to the high court, and his first appointment of a woman to that court. She was named to fill a vacancy created by the recent resignation of Justice Mary Beth Kelly.

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Op-ed calls on Michigan to Reform Judicial Selection



Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly is returning to private practice less than five years after being elected to the Court. Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio’s political analyst, expressed concern over such resignations in a recent op-ed:

“To me, there’s something odd about that. Barring health or family reasons, I would think elected officials ought to feel an obligation to finish the term they asked the voters to give them. But resignations from the state’s highest court are fairly common, and what this means is that the governor will get to name a replacement for the third time in five years.”


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Justice Kelly of Michigan Supreme Court to Step Down

B9318485736Z.1_20150817102056_000_G6OBLBA0Q.1-0Justice Mary Beth Kelly, elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2010, has announced she will leave the bench Oct. 1 to return to private practice, according to The Detroit News.

Gov. Rick Snyder will appoint someone to fill the vacancy created by her retirement. Of a total of seven justices, the court currently has five justices who were elected after nomination by the GOP.

In November of 2016, voters will select a justice to serve out the remainder of Kelly’s term.

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Michigan Supreme Court Throws Out Mandatory Minimums

Michigan_quarter,_reverse_side,_2004The Michigan Supreme Court restructured criminal sentencing this week in a landmark 5-2 ruling, Michigan Live reports.

The opinion, written by Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, says that “mandatory minimum sentencing violates the Sixth Amendment” when it increases sentencing beyond that contained in a jury verdict. The article explains that the case upheld a lower court sentence, but ruled that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision “rendered parts of Michigan’s sentencing guidelines unconstitutional” because they infringe on the right to a trial by jury.

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Report Spotlights High Spending, ‘Dark Money’ in MI Court Elections

gavel_cash_20121102165220_320_240Total spending in the race for three seats on the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014 reached $10.4 million, including $4.66 million in “dark money” sponsored TV ads supporting the Republican nominees, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network said in a report on Wednesday.

The report documented heavy dark money expenditures in state Supreme Court campaigns since 2000, and it said “The undisclosed spending is a direct threat to impartial justice.” When big political donors are anonymous, it said, “We can’t know when ethical, even legal, lines have been crossed. Transparency is inoculation against corruption. Dark money conceals corruption.” The report also examined campaigns for other offices, including state attorney general. 

MCFN relied on semi-annual reports by Justice at Stake and partner groups in stating that Michigan saw the most expensive Supreme Court elections in 2010 and 2012, and it predicted that Michigan would hold the same rank when a report is completed on 2014. In tracing dark money in elections for seats on the Michigan high court, it said: Read more

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Blind Justice at MLK Celebration: ‘Celebrate our Differences’

Diversity and fellowship were themes at events across the Detroit Metro area on Monday, as hundreds gathered to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Detroit News reports that Justice Richard Bernstein gave the keynote address to the Macomb County Ministerial Alliance’s Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Fellowship Breakfast.

“Let us celebrate our differences, let us celebrate our difficulties, let us celebrate our purpose,” he said. Bernstein, Michigan’s first blind Supreme Court Justice, spoke of adversity he has experienced, such as competing in the 2008 Ironman Triathlon and recovering from injuries after being hit by a bicyclist in 2012. He remarked that his faith, like that of King, helped him achieve success against the odds.

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Editorials Scrutinize Big Spending in Judicial Elections

I-Am-a-Money-Magnet-the-secret-23316442-500-372Citing Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s $300,000 donation to a Washington, D.C. group that tried to defeat a local Missouri judge, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial asks Sinquefield for more transparency and less deceit.

In an editorial styled as a letter to Sinquefield, the editorial board asks, “Could you please instruct your vast army of political operatives to stop being deceitful about how they spend your money?” It acknowledges that on some issues it agrees philosophically with the activist donor, but “When you — or the people who work for you — secretly funnel money into Washington, D.C., political action committees to hide the source of the funds, it looks really sneaky and underhanded.”

The letter refers to money Sinquefield gave to the Republican State Leadership Committee and its spending that amount and more to defeat Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce, who ultimately won reelection in November (see Gavel Grab). It says “your spokespeople wouldn’t fess up. Neither would the RSLC.” Read more

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Justice McCormack Calls MI Court ‘Collegial and High-Functioning’

bildeJustice Bridget Mary McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court says that despite perceptions of an elected court riven by ideology, the bench is quite “collegial and high-functioning.”

Justice McCormack gave an interview to Michigan Radio. She  said the justices pay a price given a public perception that impartial decision-making is influenced by extensive undisclosed spending on judicial elections.

“I can tell you from my personal experience in the back room, it’s not how we work,” said Justice McCormack, who was elected in 2012. She also said partisanship does not drive the justices’ decision-making. Read more

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Judges Behaving Badly Are Disciplined in Michigan

A spate of high profile scandals involving sitting elected judges has resulted in cracking down by the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission. A Detroit Free Press article examines the misconduct and invites readers to reach their own conclusions.

“I think you can make the point that this is a troubled judiciary,” said Charles Gardner Geyh, a professor of law at Indiana University. “But there is a counterpoint to be made. Michigan is doing a fairly aggressive job of rooting out misconduct.”

The article recounts a rather sensational side to the scandals:

“They lied, stole, forged bank documents, padded expense accounts, drove drunk, slept with litigants and jailed innocent people. Michigan judges have been in big trouble in recent years. The number of judges disciplined — about 35 per year — has not gone up, but the level of chicanery has soared.”

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JAS Partner Spotlights ‘Dark Money’ in MI Judicial Election

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Justice at Stake partner organization, says unreported, unregulated “dark money” bankrolled the majority of costs for TV advertising in Michigan’s 2014 Supreme Court and attorney general campaigns.

iStock_000015670171Small1The Michigan Republican Party spent $4.2 million on ads about Supreme Court candidates “but reported no television advertising to the Michigan Bureau of Elections” due to a loophole in state law, MCFN said in a news release. It said the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia-based 501(c)(4) “social welfare” corporation, spent $468,000 for broadcast advertising supportive of the Republican nominees and the advertising was not reported to the Bureau of Elections.

“When such expenditures are not reported, the donors behind the spending are not reported either,” MCFN noted. Read more

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