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Justice Elizabeth Welch on joining Michigan's Supreme Court, and its new majority

With the start of the new year comes the start of a new term for the Michigan Supreme Court. The court's newest member is Justice Elizabeth Welch.

Welch won one of two seats in November, along with Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who was reelected to her second eight-year term. Although candidates are listed as nonpartisan on the ballot, both were Democratic Party nominees, and that ended the court's Republican-backed majority.

In an interview with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition, Welch explained why she believes her joint campaign with McCormack was a success.

"We had incredible teams. We had incredible support all over the state. I think also our message resonated. I think our commitment to fairness and access to justice is one that the public does care about, particularly when you start talking about it more and speaking about the challenges and the improvements that can be made," Welch said. "Also, frankly, our chief justice has been absolutely amazing in leading on those sort of important changes."

A new majority may not mean major changes

Welch joins justices Richard Bernstein, Megan Cavanagh, and McCormack to form 4-3 majority of Democratic Party nominees. (The Repubican-backed justices are Brian Zahra, David Viviano, and Elizabeth Clement.) Welch doesn't think the shift will be dramatic.

"For the most part, I don't think it changes the court and the day-to-day of how it functions." -Justice Elizabeth Welch on the court's new majority

"Everybody obviously loves to speculate about that," she said. "Each case comes individually to the court and each one gets a hard, solid look individually. That particular case – and every one – has different facts, so you never, ever know how you would rule. And I do believe that the justices actually do approach that job with incredible seriousness, strip partisanship out of the equation, and really try to make the best decision based on the law."

Welch also thinks the court's recent history is an important indicator.

"The vast majority of decisions actually are not split [along party-nomination lines]. Of course, the cases that get the most coverage are often very big matters that are sort of steeped in controversy that land in the courts. And sometimes you'll see 4-3 decisions," Welch said. "I think in those cases, what you see is a difference in judicial philosophy. For the most part, I don't think [the new majority] changes the court and the day-to-day of how it functions."

After the presidential election, watching the legal system at work

Since the November presidential election, Michigan and other states have seen their election processes and results questioned in both state and federal courts by Republican Party attorneys – and others – hoping to overturn Democrat Joe Biden's victory.

"Every aspect of government has been implicated this past year. It's not unique to Michigan, sorting out some of the challenges between all of the different branches," Welch said.

"While [justices] certainly can't talk about how we would ever rule on any of those issues, what we do talk about is, it is an example of why the courts are so important. We know that if there is a disagreement between branches of government, the court is where that ultimately gets resolved." 

Looking ahead to COVID-19's legal fallout

The state's judicial canons lay out rules for newly elected justices in order to prevent conflicts of interest as they join the court. Under those rules, Welch had to wind down her legal practice in Grand Rapids by the end of 2020.

Welch has been an attorney for more than two decades. Much of her work has focused on employment law. She expects Michigan's court system will see a lot of employment cases tied to COVID-19. 

"The world of COVID has deeply impacted all of our lives, and that will enter the court system. It already has. Whether it's the employer-employee relationship, whether it's contract disputes because of COVID and shutdowns, it's going to be a lot of work for the courts to sort a lot of those issues out."

Advice from the chief justice

In November, after her reelection, Michigan Radio asked Chief Justice McCormack what advice she would give Welch as she joined the court. After saying she didn't think Welch needed her advice, McCormack did offer a thought.

"The most important thing is to show up to each conversation in each conference with your independent judgment about what the correct legal answer is and then be willing to have your mind changed," she said.

Welch said she would gladly take advice from the chief justice and agrees with that approach to the work of the court. 

"People who know me and served with me in various capacities over the years know that I certainly may come into a meeting or a collaborative group with my own thoughts. But I have always been willing to have my mind changed and work with others. I think that is perhaps one of the most essential skill sets for a Supreme Court justice," Welch said. "The goal is to, hopefully, have a great working relationship where everybody works well together, even if there's a difference of opinion on a particular case."

Welch and her colleagues will get to put the concept to the test this week. The court will hear oral arguments in a total of 11 cases on Wednesday and Thursday. 

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of the page. 

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