Plan for reform

Justice Elizabeth A. Weaver, now retired from the Michigan Supreme Court, is nowhere near retired in her efforts to bring reform to the state’s highest court.  Below is her speech January 19, 2011, at the Berrien County Bar meeting held at Skip’s in Union Pier.

She began her portion of the evening with acknowledgment of the people she knows well in the audience.  (Berrien County has always supported her electoral efforts, either to the Court of Appeals or, later, to the Supreme Court.)  She acknowledged her gratitude.  Then she gave current and former judges in the audience their propers.  Then she outlined the problems with the current elective process and resulting problems at the court.  To remedy those ills she offers her six-point plan.  The piece runs almost 25 mintes.

And, in print, here’s her speech (and used with her permission): 

Speech to Berrien County Bar Association January 19, 2011

by

Michigan Supreme Court Justice (retired) Elizabeth A. “Betty” Weaver

Independent-thinking judges is what I wish to speak with you about this evening.

An independent-thinking judge should be the most highly valued member of any court.  An independent judge is not agenda-driven and does not hold to and promote political party lines, philosophies, or ideologies.  The independent judge is dedicated to the rule of law, impartial, exercises judicial restraint, applies common sense, and is wise, honest, orderly, fair, just, civil, professional, open—not secretive, and non-partisan.

Here in Berrien County, and throughout Michigan, among its 580 trial judges and 28 Court of Appeals judges, there are many independent-thinking judges.  We are blessed to have such Trial and Court of Appeals Judges.  We need to be alert so we will continue to have an outstanding group of independent judges who will carry on the work of serving the judicial needs of the people, fairly and justly.

Regretfully, the same cannot be said for our Michigan Supreme Court and its administration of the people’s judicial business.

Our deeply flawed dual system of election and appointment of justices allowing for political party nominations, millions of dollars spent on often deceitful campaigns, untimely reported or not reported at all, and ignoring geographic diversity, does not advance the election or appointment of INDEPENDENT-thinking justices.

Rather, the flawed system produces power blocks of justices usually joining together with a majority of four votes to promote agendas of:

         Political Parties and Special Interests

         Personal Interests, Philosophies and Ideologies

         Biases and Prejudices.

Nor does the present system value the diversity and independence of thought that comes from geographic separation.  As of January 14th, with Governor Snyder’s selection of Brian Zahra (to replace exited Justice Maura Corrigan) we continue with a Supreme Court, all of whose members live in only three (Wayne, Ingham, and Oakland – the “Detroit/Lansing beltway”) of Michigan’s diverse 83 counties. According to the 2009 Michigan Senate data, those three counties are home to 34% of the state’s population.  That means that 66% of us have no one from our immediate geographic area.  …That is NONE from Western Michigan, Central, or Northern Michigan.

While geography is one consideration, here’s another—so far it’s known that 9.5 million dollars was spent on the 2010 Supreme Court Justices campaigns.  Of that, the candidates raised and spent 2.4 million.   So at least 7.1 million was spent by outside groups including the political parties.  And much of it is untraceable, unidentifiable, unaccountable, deceitful spending.

Obviously there is a genuine need to reform how Supreme Court justices are elected and appointed in order to make more likely the selection of justices who are truly independent and not agenda-driven, not promoting agendas of political parties, special interests, their own interests, philosophies, ideologies, and biases and prejudices.

Equally important, but less obvious, there is a second need: that is to eliminate the unnecessary secrecy under which the Supreme Court operates. Unless unnecessary secrecy is eliminated, reform of the justice selection processes will be futile, as it alone will not solve the problems of and at the Michigan Supreme Court.

Unnecessary secrecy allows for the misuse and abuse of the court’s powers of interpretation and discretion in decision making and its power of administrating, too often unjustly and unfairly, the operations of the court itself and its offices (State Court Administrative Office), its Commissions (Judicial Tenure Commission and Attorney Grievance Commission) and its Boards.

During this most recent election I revealed some of the inner working at the court. It wasn’t a pleasing sight and the response from those so revealed was predictable. 

…Yes, there are certain things that must be done at the court in private (like employee issues), but in fact far fewer things than those currently in charge would like to keep concealed.

The Michigan Supreme Court does not deal with treason, sedition, or national defense.  Its docket covers people issues from A to Z (adoptions to zoning—such as crime, contracts, child and family issues, environmental, property, etc.)  This is, after all, the people’s business—our business—and each justice’s responsibility is to all people and not especially to the partisan or special interests forces of political parties (Democrat, Republican, etc.), labor unions, manufacturers, insurance companies, trial and appellate lawyers, doctors, chambers of commerce, civil liberty unions, prosecutors, or any other special interests groups or assemblies who seek to influence or control the law.

The need is for transparency and openness, not a secret club of seven justices from the Detroit-Lansing beltway joining together in voting blocks of at least four votes to promote agendas of partisan or special interests, personal agendas and bias and prejudices.

Unnecessary secrecy is the crux of the problem.

It allows to take root and grow the worst propensities in human nature—hatred, lust for power, revenge and deceit—rather than encouraging kindness, purity, charity and honesty.

Unnecessary secrecy facilitates good people doing bad things.

Clearly, Supreme Court justices, while collegial, orderly and professional, should not “go along to get along” when doing the people’s business.

Justices must be free to fulfill their duty to the people—to inform them of what they need to know—no more, no less—about not only what the Supreme Court decides, but how, when and where.

The Michigan Supreme Court should not be a Secret Club, but should instead act in a transparent, open, and accountable manner.  It should be the supreme example of conducting government business publicly, openly, fairly, orderly, professionally and justly.

An uninformed and misinformed public cannot make wise decisions on the suitability and performance of justices and the court.  Ask yourself—under our present selection process, who really knows anything or enough true about justice candidates, elected or appointed?

Tonight, I will not reveal more instances of the unjust and unfair misuses and abuses of Supreme Court power to citizens, witnesses, employees, and judges over the past 10 years.  I’ll leave that to other occasions in 2011, if necessary.  I simply refer you to my website Justice Weaver.com and to the website mymicourt.com.  

Also, I refer you to talk to District Judge Steven Servaas of Western Michigan’s Kent County here tonight (at my invitation) about the unfair and unjust treatment he received.  Go on the Internet and listen to the unannounced, ambush visit from the Judicial Tenure Commission director and a State Trooper that Judge Servaas experienced (as recorded by the State Trooper).   It is a study in TYRANNY.  You can listen to it at www.mymicourt.com.  (Since last year it’s also cited on my website in footnote 3 in my statement in Brady et al v. Attorney Grievance Commission.)     

But PLEASE KNOW, to me what are most important are not examples of the problems and misuses and abuses of the powers of interpretation, discretion and administrations at the Supreme Court, but the Solutions to solving and preventing them through reform and transparency.  

So, here are some solutions.

For the needed reform of our dual system of selecting Supreme Court Justices, on my website—Justice Weaver.com—are my six specific proposals for reform, a “six-point plan”—not eliminating our dual system of electing and appointing Supreme Court justices, but reforming it.  Four of these proposals require legislature action and only two constitutional amendments.  They are:

Concerning elections and appointments I recommend we provide:

1. No political party nominations. Supreme Court candidates would earn a spot on the ballot by petition—the same way trial and Court of Appeals judge candidates do.

2. Election by district. The state should be divided into seven (7) Supreme Court election districts with one justice coming from each district. That will allow the geographic diversity in representation now so clearly absent.  (And note, I specify ELECTIONS, NOT APPOINTMENTS. Primarily, there is no reason to assume that only appointments would be any less political than the current elections. Then too, why should we modify the State Constitution in order to give us citizens less direct say in our government? There is nothing inherently wrong with elections; it’s our selection process of party nominees and unregulated, untraceable, unaccountable, unidentifiable, deceitful spending that’s doing us in.)

Remember three counties with 34% of the state’s population have all the justices leaving the 66% of the rest of the 83 counties with NO JUSTICES from our areas.

3. Public funding.  Use tax check-off money designated for gubernatorial campaigns for Supreme Court campaigns.

4. Require transparency and accountability in campaign finance reporting requirements.  Allow no secret or unnamed contributors.  This would involve real-time reporting (within 48 hours for all elections).

5. Achieve rotation in high office by a limit to only one term of a maximum of 14 years, and a justice never would be eligible for reelection or appointment.

6. For the appointment process, establish a Qualifications Commission composed of all stakeholders in the justice system. For example, representatives from labor, business, law enforcement, doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, defense, environmental groups, corrections, education, insurance, local government, and the like. Each organization would choose its own representative.

The Commission would be composed of 30 to 40 members. The process for appointment would require:

(A) The commission will meet and publicly provide in writing to the governor two nonbinding recommendations within 60 days of a vacancy.  Those written recommendations are to include why those two candidates are best qualified for a position on the Michigan Supreme Court.


(B) The governor then can choose one of the two candidates recommended by the Qualifications Commission, or choose someone not recommended by the Qualifications Commission.

If the governor chooses someone not recommended by the Qualifications Commission, the governor must give public, written reasons why her or his appointee is the best choice before or at the time of submitting an appointee’s name to the Senate.  The governor must submit the appointee’s name to the Senate within 60 days of receipt of names from Qualifications Commission or lose the right to make an appointment.  In such a case, the Senate must appoint one of the Qualifications Commission’s recommended candidates.


(C) The state Senate must hold at least one public hearing on the governor’s appointee within 60 days of the governor’s appointment. The Senate has the right to confirm or reject the appointment by majority vote.  If the Senate does not vote to confirm or reject the appointee within 60 days of the governor’s submission of the appointee, the governor’s appointment takes effect.  If the Senate rejects the appointee by majority vote, the Senate must publish promptly its reasons in writing whereupon the Qualifications Commission will have 30 days to reconvene and begin the process anew.  If the Qualifications Commission fails to timely reconvene, the vacancy shall be filled at the next general election for the remainder of the term.

(D) If both the Qualifications Commission and the governor fail to timely and properly perform, the vacancy shall be filled at the next general election for the remainder of the term.

(E) The appointed or elected justice only serves for the remainder of the vacant term and shall not serve an additional term or partial term.

So, there for your consideration are some solutions for judicial reform.  If you want a copy of them and or this speech, check my website: http://www.justiceweaver.com or the website: www.mymicourt.com.

Now– here’s some GOOD NEWS concerning for judicial reform.

1. Last month the former Chief Justice Kelly unexpectedly appointed a Task Force on Judicial Reform including the judicial selection process.

The Task Force can potentially be useful to educate the public about the problems and solutions and push for action on this by the legislature and by Governor Snyder. (Thus far, his judicial and legal appointments are of much concern to many including myself. I hope he’ll learn from experience and events, and broaden his circle of advisors in the judicial/legal area.

2. More good news—Since late last month, there has been a series of editorials around the state recognizing the partisanship and other problems of the Michigan Supreme Court.  The editors urge reform.  Here are the titles:

-Grand Rapids Press of Dec.28, 2010: “Why we need to reform judicial elections in Michigan”;

-Muskegon Chronicle of Jan.12, 2011: “A diverse court must consider state’s geographic makeup”;

-Lansing State Journal of Jan14: “Michigan needs reform to take partisanship off the bench”;

-Traverse City Record Eagle of Jan 14: “Judicial reform finally coming?”

-Toledo Blade of Jan 14: “Partisanship corroding Michigan Supreme Cout”

-and various other newspapers papers publishing Detroit columnist Jack Lessenberry’s column of Jan.14, under various titles.

3.  I have submitted encouraging responses to these editorials, and some have already published by them as a guest editorial or op-ed piece.

I hope you give serious attention to these proposals, then get involved and take action.  You can contact me with any suggestions, criticisms, or ideas at Justice Weaver@centurytel.net.  Communicate with the Governor, your legislators, local officials and community leaders, local and state press and media, colleagues, co-workers, educators, friends, neighbors and family.

Finally, may I share with you two of my ten Principles for Living also found on my website, justice weaver.com. They range from “BE A GOOD FINDER—SOMEONE WHO LOOKS FOR THE GOOD IN ONESELF AND OTHERS” to “DO RIGHT AND FEAR NOT.” 

“Do Right and Fear Not” is easy to say, but not always easy to do.  So, let us all—DO RIGHT AND FEAR NOT.

Really, it’s very satisfying.

6 Responses to Plan for reform

  1. Eric Odmark says:

    Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

    Judge Weaver has hit the nail on the head. Her goal to open the court up to the light of day, is indeed commendable. So do right and fear not and also keep in mind the words of Helen Keller, quoted above.

  2. Barbara Taylor says:

    Encouraging to hear such sound and specific solutions to rectify current judicial problems. A highly important basis of our country is the right to a fair and balanced hearing and the expectation that all facts pertaining to a case will be allowed and receive thorough attention. The “peoples business” must be the priority of the Courts and to continue to hear of judges not allowing certain evidence, not dispensing equal consequences for situations and multiple other problems is cause for grave concern. It fosters almost a dread of being involved in a legal situation with the potential prospect of being involved in any arm of the courts. Also of concern is the unknown money that floods certain campaign and the inherent secrecy that is in place. Even if misconduct or misuse is not involved it smacks of the appearance of evil, the suspicion that something is amiss. The desire to investigate the court system, to expose issues and to rectify problems is an opportunity at hand and can shed light on current practices and make swift changes to “business as usual”. The opportunity to take logical steps in reform is present and needs to be activated swiftly. The outcome will enhance citizens attitudes and provide a sense of reasonableness, a hope of fair treatment and do much to restore confidence by the public in possible court situations that seem frightening, dragged out, and emotionally and probably financially draining.

    • Apa says:

      Yes, and they do. However, most (maybe all) Supreme Court cases are matters of the Constitution, and how it shloud be interpreted in a given circumstance. Not only are the Justices a product of their times, they take into consideration public sentiment and the generally accepted ideals of justice.Most laws are applied based on precedents, they become case law. Judges and lawyers look at how a law was interpreted in a prior case and aim for consistency. That is why the difference between a great judge and a poor one is how well they write their legal opinions. Because future judges will look to their ruling and try to find the specific details of a case that dictated his or her application of the law. Supreme Court Justices often have a dissenting opinion put on the books, too. The minority of Justices who disagreed with the ruling explain what their interpretation of the law is as it pertains to that case and what details of the case shloud have been more or less significant.

  3. Jack Norris says:

    How can the ordinary citizen cooperate in and contribute to the effort that Betty Weaver recommends? Probably many would like to know.

    JN

    • Pankaj says:

      I considered applying for a job with the federal government many years ago. Reading through the rules that applied to federal employees I came across a section that stated government employees were forbidden from taking part in some forms of political activity. From Wikipedia: The Hatch Act of 1939 is a United States federal law whose main provision is to prohibit federal employees (civil servants) from engaging in partisan political activity. Named after Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico, the law was officially known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities.The act precluded federal employees from membership in any political organization which advocates the overthrow of our constitutional form of government. During the McCarthy Era, this designation was interpreted to include communist and some related labor organizations. Thus ended my aspirations to federal employment. I do not advocate the overthrow of our government, but I do believe strongly that a serious overhaul of our constitution is long overdue.

  4. Justice Weaver has presented a vision of a fair and just-for-all Michigan court that will undoubtedly unfold from all that we know to be good and true right now. She is most certainly to be commended for her courage and persistence in taking on “a way of doing business” that has not been serving the people of Michigan properly. We Michiganders will benefit greatly from Justice Weaver “doing right and fearing not” but we’ll do even better when WE “do right and fear not” too!

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