Weekly Meeting - February 19: Michigan's Single Court of Justice

Speaker: Bridget McCormack was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in November, 2012, and took office in January, 2013. The justices select a member of the Court to serve as Chief Justice every two years. Her brother and sister justices chose her to succeed Stephen Markman in that position in January, 2019. Before her election to the Court, Chief Justice McCormack was Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs at the University of Michigan School of Law. She co-founded the Michigan Innocence Clinic with David Moran. In January of this year, he made a well-received presentation to our Club about that clinic’s representation of wrongfully convicted Michigan prisoners. Before joining the Law School faculty in 1998, Chief Justice McCormack was a Cover Fellow at Yale Law School and taught in its clinical programs. Her service at Yale from 1996 to 1998 followed time as a staff attorney with the Office of the Appellate Defender, and as a senior trial attorney with the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society, both in New York City. Chief Justice McCormack earned her J.D. degree from New York University School of Law in 1991, where she was a Root-Tilden Scholar, and her B.A. cum laude in political science and philosophy in 1988 from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Noah Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, hailed Bridget McCormack’s selection as Chief Justice as the harbinger of an era in which at least one institution of Michigan government would begin to function in bipartisan comity. What he published on January 9, 2019, is worth quoting at length:

“Something unusual happened in Lansing Wednesday. Four Republican members of the state Supreme Court cast their votes with the three Democratic members to elect Bridget McCormack, a Democrat, as chief justice. Then McCormack selected a Republican, David Viviano, to be her No. 2. He’ll serve as the court’s first chief justice pro-tem. And it’s the new chief justice’s hope that this will be the last time the partisan leanings of the justices make news.

” ‘In picking David as pro-tem, I wanted to send a message that this is truly a non-partisan court,’ McCormack says. ‘When people describe justices by the party that nominated them or the governor who appointed them, it undermines public confidence in the court’s work. The court is a non-partisan branch for an important reason; we need it to be able to make unpopular decisions.’

“That’s a remarkable thing to consider given the vast amount of money Republican and Democratic interests have spent over the years to gain control of the high court. The prevailing wisdom in Michigan politics is that holding a majority on the Supreme Court is as important, or more so, than winning a majority of the Legislature. A friendly court can help ensure a partisan agenda endures even after the party that enacted it is voted out of office.

“But the dynamic began to change in 2012 with McCormack’s election. She quickly formed a bond with then-Chief Justice Robert Young, a Republican, and the two made congeniality a hallmark of the court. Young, now retired, and McCormack came from different legal backgrounds, but they shared a commitment to reading the law as written. … If that [continues to prove] true, Michigan will have achieved something rare — a legitimately non-partisan Supreme Court influenced by nothing but the law. … ‘What that means [,’ Chief Justice McCormack observed, ‘]is the court doesn’t get to decide what the law should be. We interpret the laws that the Legislature decides upon, within the bounds of the constitution. Politics has no role in us doing our job well.’

This vision of justice in Michigan will be Bridget McCormack’s enduring legacy to the people of our state. In September, she gave a very well received presentation on initiatives recently undertaken by the Supreme Court to fine-tune the operation of the state court system. This afternoon she will bring us up to date on the recommendations just issued by its Jail Task Force.