Profile: Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly

Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly makes a case for restoring civility to the once-contentious high bench


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Two years ago, the Michigan Supreme Court was widely viewed as an embarrassment to the state. Eyes rolled as judges personally attacked one another.

The University of Chicago Law School issued a study ranking the nation’s state supreme courts — and Michigan’s was dead last.

The study found that the court was little respected for its decisions and the least independent from the business community of any such court in the nation. That may not be surprising, for this reason: Michigan, unlike most states, chooses its Supreme Court justices through partisan elections. Though independents can run, the political parties normally nominate candidates for the high court.

That once didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. But things changed as the parties became more polarized. Millions began to be spent on high-court contests. By the turn of this century, decisions often were made along partisan lines. A solidly conservative “Engler Four” majority often ignored the doctrine of stare decisis — the custom of normally respecting legal precedent — and began vigorously reversing earlier decisions.

That wasn’t the worst of it. Even those who ideologically supported what the court did had to wince at the spectacle of Michigan Supreme Court justices publicly fighting and trading personal insults. And although the court is fiercely partisan, the justices fighting were all Republicans.

Chief Justice Cliff Taylor and Justice Elizabeth Weaver were the main offenders, although Weaver also feuded with the other three GOP justices: Maura Corrigan, Stephen Markham, and Robert Young Jr. The two Democrats on the court — Michael Cavanagh and Marilyn Kelly, mostly kept their heads down.

Then, in an astounding upset, Taylor was turned out of office by a landslide in November 2008, when he was defeated by little-known Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Diane Hathaway.

A sitting chief justice had never lost. That left the state without a leader. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, where chief justices are appointed by the president for life, Michigan justices elect one of their own to serve as chief, normally for a two-year term.

Kelly decided to run. Republicans still had a majority on the court, but Weaver had gradually become more and more of an independent, and had little love for her colleagues. She crossed party lines, and on Jan. 8, 2009, Kelly became chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, the fifth woman to hold that position.

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