Changes are coming to the Michigan Supreme Court. Voters elected West Michigan attorney Elizabeth Welch and reelected Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Both were Democratic Party nominees, and in the new term, the court will flip to a majority of justices backed by Democrats. The court will also have more women than men.
Changes might not mean change
Justices are listed as nonpartisan on the ballot in Michigan. McCormack believes it's critical to take a nonpartisan approach to the court's work. But the election does mark a shift, at least in the mind of the voters. With Republican Stephen Markman forced to retire because of age restrictions, voters chose to replace him with a Democratic Party nominee. McCormack doesn't think that shift will have an effect.
"I expect it not to have any change," McCormack told Michgian Radio's Morning Edition. "The oath we take is to the [U.S. and Michigan] constitutions and to the law. Elizabeth Welch is a talented, smart, hardworking, energetic lawyer, and I expect her to be a talented, hardworking, smart, energetic justice."
To McCormack's point about nonpartisan work, in recent years, the court has oftened deliver unanimous decisions and bipartisan rulings. But in a recent high-profile opinion and ruling related to Governor Gretchen Whitmer's executive powers, the court split 4-3 down the lines of the justice’s party nominations. The four Republican nominees voted unanimously and struck down Whitmer's authority to extend executive orders. McCormack dissented.
If it's not a political divide, that type of ruling seems like a philosophical split, at least. Asked if there are points in that case that speak to larger themes in the justices' mindsets, McCormack declined to elaborate.
"The judicial canons don't allow me to comment on the court's decisions. We speak through those decisions. I spoke in that case through my dissent," she said.
A female majority
When the new term begins next year, there will be four women on the court, including justices Elizabeth Clement and Megan Cavanagh. Michigan's first female-majority Supreme Court was in 1997. But it's not the norm in Michigan or across the U.S. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School reports 63% of state Supreme Court justices in the U.S. are men, most of them also white.
McCormack sees it as an honor to be part of a court with more women than men.
"I think it's significant for kids who are growing up and imagining themselves in different kinds of roles. I like to see our institutions of government reflect our communities. Women graduate from law school at a higher rate than men, and yet both in private practice and in government, women are not as often in leadership positions in law," she said.
"And on a personal note, it's kind of fun to have three women colleagues. I spend a lot of time with Justice Clement and Justice Cavanagh, and I expect Justice-elect Welch will enjoy our company as well."
Changing criminal justice in Michigan
McCormack co-chairs the governor's Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.
"The [task force] has made substantial progress on the recommendations that we delivered to the Legislature last January. Fourteen bills have passed unanimously out of the House and are over at the Senate. The bills that passed unanimously through the House concern decriminalization of a number of traffic offenses," McCormack said.
The chief justice also noted that other proposed legislation covers "disaggregating the penalty of suspending someone's driver's license for offenses that have nothing to do with driving safety."
Currently, drivers can have their licences suspended for failure to pay a fine, child support, or other violations. In turn, many of the Michganders hit with suspensions can't get to their jobs.
"That puts a lot of people into a spiral that makes it impossible for them to ever catch up on those outstanding fines and fees," she said.
A legal side project
McCormack is one of the hosts of a podcast called Lady Justice: Women of the Court. She and three justices from other states launched the podcast with the goal of educating the public about state courts.
"We actually met each other through Twitter and we've become friends and we have done a number of events together. And we thought that the differences in how our courts operate, and also the way each of our state courts fits into our state constitutional structure was kind of interesting," McCormack said. "The public talks all the time about the federal courts, and yet 95% of criminal cases and 95% of civil cases are adjudicated in state courts."