BY GEORGE WEEKS
Traverse City Record-Eagle
— Straight-talking retired Justices Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court and Elizabeth A. Weaver of the Michigan Supreme Court have much in common, most notably commendable efforts to reform state-level judicial selection, protect fair and impartial courts, and forge stronger campaign disclosure laws.
Before becoming justices, both were elected county judges and then state appeals court judges — O’Connor in Arizona before her 1981 appointment by President Ronald Reagan as the first woman named to the Supreme Court.
O’Connor retired in 2006; is honorary chair of Justice at Stake, which sounds alarms about threats to impartial justice; and recently was honorary chair of a task force formed to examine how Michigan chooses state justices and appeals judges.
A big difference — beyond the fact that the U.S. court functions far more smoothly than the state’s — is that ex-Chief Justice Weaver, who retired from Michigan’s high court in 2010 after nearly 16 years as an elected Republican member, is far more provocative than O’Connor.
Weaver asserts: “The Michigan Supreme Court was politicized, became at times disorderly, unjust, unprofessional, and like other branches, created its own expensive spin machine.”
Those views are underscored by the title of Weaver’s lengthy book (expected to exceed 800 pages when all photos are inserted) just now in pre-publication release — “Judicial Deceit: Tyranny and Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court.”
In her first paragraph, the former Leelanau County probate judge said the book is filled with examples representing “just a little more of what I have called the tip of the iceberg—a most dangerous iceberg of misuse and abuse of government power.”
The most important aspect of the book, beyond its interesting nuggets of news disclosures and rehashing of court in-fighting, is Weaver’s seven-point plan for reform.
I particularly like the proposed requirement for transparency and accountably in campaign finance reporting (“Allow no secret or unnamed contributors.”), and elimination of party nominations to get on the ballot (I have long lamented folly of having partisan nominations to get on the nonpartisan judicial ballot.).
Weaver’s co-author is David B. Schock, a former Hope College professor and multi-media talent who writes, films documentaries and conducts penetrating interviews. I found it interesting that Schock, a former associate of the late Russell Kirk, famed author of The Conservative Mind, had this concluding comment:
“The ongoing and pervasive deceits at the Michigan Supreme Court may leave one incredulous. Once you recognize the lies, you wonder how in the world the majority carried it off so long and with such impunity.
“I believe it comes to a matter of words. The Republican majority has repeatedly announced its dedication to conservative principles. But what kind of conservative would do what they have done? It really doesn’t take much to reveal their position.”
As I have noted here over the years, much of Weaver’s criticism was of Republicans appointed by ex-Gov. John Engler. To her credit, the book includes numerous quotes from them critical of her, including those in press accounts.
As the Detroit Free Press reported Jan. 10, 2007, Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, a longtime close Engler ally, called her “a capable lawyer. …But the current things she is doing are not the work of a lawyer. They’re sort of strange rantings that are difficult to stand back and appreciate.”
In the book, Weaver describes how, as 1999-2001 chief justice in dealing with four Republican colleagues, including Taylor, and two Democrats on the court, “it seemed like I was herding warring cats.”
The book is replete with news nuggets. Example: Justice Stephen J. Markman “unknown to most other justices…used to bring a handgun up from his car in the secure parking garage of the Hall of Justice into his office. “ The book headlines: “Mr. Justice Markman Packs Serious Heat. “
Another disclosure: Mecosta County Circuit Judge Lawrence Root, who presided over the celebrated 2003 trial that led to an injunction against tapping of 400 gallons a minute from the country’s aquifer by Nestle Waters’ Ice Mountain bottling operation, was fined $345 in a Traverse City District Court Nov. 11, 2004 for shoplifting four DVDs from a Meijer store.
Weaver writes her “understanding” is that his guilty plea “was taken, not just as usual, but at some odd time, when no one else was there. …And it never made the paper. “
What did make Root’s hometown paper in Big Rapids at the end of 2004 was that he planned to retire after 28 years on the bench and, that he “privately…says his reasons for stepping down are many.”
Weaver, noting that the shoplifting was referred by the district court to the Judicial Tenure Commission, suggests that by not commenting publicly on it, the JTC contributed to “this soft landing.”
Weaver said Root had “many good, courageous cases, but this is a serious problem.” Root’s 2004 ruling was overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court, with a dissent by Weaver, who said it thwarted the Environmental Protection’s provision to allow any citizen to file an environmental challenge.
Apart from the two Weaver proposals I cited above, she offers these in her book:
n “Achieve rotation in high office by limiting to only one term of a maximum of 14 years for any justice together with removing 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.”
n “Establish for the appointments process, a non-partisan advisory Qualifications Commision…”(details omitted).
n “Provide public funding. Use tax check-off money designated for gubernatorial campaigns for Supreme Court campaigns.”
n “Provide election by district. The state should be divided into seven…election districts with one justice coming from each district.”
n “Eliminate unnecessary secrecy and require transparency in the Supreme Court.” (This essentially would prohibit a forever muzzle on justices to keep them from telling the public “about the decisions, performance and operations of the Court,” as Weaver was inclined to do.)
George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist of The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.