No one has done more to restore faith in the Michigan Supreme Court than Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.
His sharp grasp of the law and engaging personality sparked thoughtful discussions that changed opinions (including sometimes his own) on a previously balkanized court.
But now, 10 years after bursting onto the scene, McCormack has become a victim of her own success. Her successes helped install a Democratic-appointed majority that is becoming what McCormack sought to destroy when she took to the field in 2013 — another predictable partisan body shooting at each other.
To preserve her legacy, the Chief Justice needs to move on, and I’m glad to see she’s doing just that, stepping down by the end of the year.
The Michigan Supreme Court before Bridget McCormack was political.
The tensions of the infamous “Engler’s Court” remained in 2012. Republican-appointed justices tended to stick together on controversial cases to advance the desired outcome. Democratic-appointed judges did the same.
And the judges were far from sympathetic about it.
In a 4-to-3 decision dealing with the criminal charge of deadbeat parents, the Republican Majority wrote that parents who couldn’t pay were “irresponsible and selfish.” Democratic Judge Marilyn Kelly wrote that Michigan has long put behind bars “the willful, the recalcitrant, the willful, or the deceivers. In light of the majority’s detention, we can now add to this list those who do not are unable to pay”.
Pre-McCormack pot shots in opinion footnotes were not uncommon. While the composition of split decisions was not 100% predictable, most decisions were.
McCormack blew the field almost like a celebrity. She was friendly and endearing. Sister of actress Mary McCormack, McCormack has the unique gift of exuding her genius in a humble, non-condescending way.
Perhaps, more importantly, she wasn’t so political.
After his victory in 2012, McCormack struck up an instant rapport with Justice Robert P. Young Jr., a Republican, whose legal genius had too often been clouded by the court’s political undertones. Starting in 2013, court rulings began to focus more on debates about the law than debates about how the law might be used to influence an outcome.
The decisions were smart and well thought out. Divisions over cases have become less predictable. McCormack sided with Young early on, which riled Democrats. Then, finally, McCormack won his arguments and Young sided with McCormack.
Minds opened. The opinions were better thought out, the public benefited from it.
Success breeds success, even in court. In the shadow of McCormack’s approach, more Democratic-appointed justices were elected. In 2021, the Supreme Court session began with a Democratic majority for the first time since the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have not controlled the Legislature since the early 1980s. Outside of voting proposals, they have not passed public policy unless the Democratic governor has negotiated something.
The pressure for change has become too great for even McCormack to resist. This summer, the Supreme Court did through court rulings what a Republican-led legislature had previously refused to do: declare that the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act should cover the LGBTQ community. Allow people accused of unemployment fraud to sue the state. There were a few others.
The Democratic majority has become an activist court. Moreover, the gossip has returned. McCormack, herself, took the rare step of writing a deal with her own opinion just to give conservative judge Brian Zahra another swipe.
Then, last week, the Supreme Court ignited the periodic partisan madness of the Board of State Solicitors.
Instead of simply reminding canvassers that their job is to count petition signatures, not block access to the ballot due to perceived technical issues, the judges couldn’t resist standing up. . McCormack led the parade.
“What a sad marker of the times,” she wrote, addressing “a game of gotcha gone wrong.”
I don’t want to remember McCormack that way. She is not a legal activist.
Unlike Frodo and the One Ring, McCormack throws her power into the fire before she is consumed by it, and I commend her for that.
I prefer to remember McCormack as the person who overthrew the Supreme Court, not someone who shut it down.
(Email Kyle Melinn of Capitol MIRS Press Office at [email protected])