Politics & Prejudices
Fix our highest court
The state's supremes work in 'needless secrecy'
Published: February 2, 2011
Five months ago, when I was much younger and better looking, I wrote about the shenanigans at the Michigan Supreme Court. The news then was that Elizabeth "Betty" Weaver, who was roundly hated by her fellow Republican justices, had suddenly resigned, after working out a deal with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Weaver, who had grown sick of the infighting, etc., would quit if the governor would appoint Alton Davis, a distinguished appellate judge from Gaylord, in her place. That meant that Davis had to immediately run in November, and the Democrats placed him on the ballot. I assumed he'd win easily, since the ballot identified him as a "justice of the Supreme Court." Voters normally re-elect judges.
But I miscalculated. To oppose him, the Republicans nominated a woman named Mary Beth Kelly. For whatever reason, Michigan voters are strongly drawn to judges with Irish names. Especially the name Kelly. Mary Beth cleaned poor Alton's clock, and Republicans were back in a 4-3 majority on the high court.
Yet we hadn't heard the last of Betty Weaver. Though elected as a Republican, she had an independent streak. For years, she feuded with the so-called "gang of four," judges appointed by or closely allied to former Gov. John Engler. They voted in lockstep. Weaver voted according to how she felt the rule of law should be properly applied. When she began speaking out, the gang attempted to slap a gag order on her, which she merrily ignored.
Three years ago, she got some revenge. Then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, her biggest enemy, was defeated for re-election in a stunning upset. Weaver then crossed party lines and voted with the Democrats to elect another Kelly, Marilyn Kelly, chief justice.
Yet the feud continued. Last October, now off the court, Elizabeth Weaver, who had been calling for more openness on the court, did something shocking. She released transcripts of deliberations she had secretly recorded years ago. They show embarrassing things being said by various judges, most notoriously, Robert Young Jr., who the new Republican majority swiftly installed as chief justice.
In the transcripts, Young, who is African-American himself, uses the N-word. He didn't deny it, but said he was making a point, and that the bigger outrage was that Weaver had taped her colleagues without their knowledge.
Even some people who had no use for the Englerites were shocked by Betty Weaver's actions; people don't like being secretly bugged. There were suspicions she did this for political purposes. Young, after all, was also up for re-election last year. But if the revelations were designed to hurt him politically, they backfired. He was re-elected easily (the Democrats didn't nominate anyone named Kelly to run against him). Five of seven justices, including Democrat Marilyn Kelly, then voted to censure Weaver.
Lots has been written about this, but most of those writing haven't bothered to talk to Weaver. So I did. She told me she couldn't care less about being censured, and that what she did has been grossly misinterpreted.
"A review of my record — rather than reading what has been written about me — reveals this," she said by phone from her home in Glen Arbor on Sunday afternoon. "My whole point was openness."
"This is the Supreme Court of Michigan. It exists to do the people's business. Yes, during the recent election, I revealed some of the court's inner workings. It wasn't a pleasing sight. ... And the response from those so revealed was so predictable." Look, she told me, "needless secrecy in Supreme Court justices' performance in the business of judicial government allows and encourages the abuse of the judicial powers. That can lead to violation of the rule of law, and unjust, unprofessional and unfair performance of the justices' duties."
Did that happen while you were on the court? I asked. "Are you kidding? Much of the time I felt like Alice in Wonderland."
But surely certain things have to be done in secret, don't they? I asked. "Yes, certain things. Employee issues, for instance. But far fewer things than those currently in charge would like concealed. Think about it. The Michigan Supreme Court does not deal with treason or national defense. Its docket covers people issues from A to Z — adoptions to zoning. This is the people's business, our business. And our responsibility is to all people, and not especially the partisan or special interests. The people should be able to see how these decisions are being made."
Weaver denied frequent charges that she was bitter because she wasn't re-elected chief justice after serving a single two-year term. "I could have had it again if I wanted it. I didn't."
What she does want to do is improve the court. Apart from opening deliberations to public scrutiny, she outlined a series of reforms, most of which make very good sense. For example, Weaver thinks the present system where the political parties select the nominees has to go. Instead, candidates would earn a spot on the ballot by petition, same as other judges.
She thinks the justices should be elected by district, to ensure some geographical diversity. Right now, every justice lives in Wayne, Oakland or Ingham (Lansing) counties. She said that's why she wanted Alton Davis on the court, not because he was a Democrat.
Former Justice Weaver also thinks Supreme Court campaigns should be publicly financed, or failing that, we should have complete transparency and immediacy in campaign finance reporting. She wants us to be able to see who is giving money to these birds and who hence wants to influence them — as soon as possible.
You can read her recommendations in detail at justiceweaver.com. You know, for years, people told me Betty Weaver was crazy. They said she dressed funny, was sometimes hard to understand, and wasn't like the other justices.
> Email Jack Lessenberry