Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Former Mich. justice continues fight to reform court

GLEN ARBOR, Mich. - For years, Elizabeth "Betty" Weaver was easily the most controversial justice on the Michigan Supreme Court. She feuded with most of her fellow Republicans on the court, who made it clear they despised her - and she felt the same.

Now she's ready to give her view of what happened to her career - and what she really thinks about the state's highest court.

Ms. Weaver, a longtime probate, juvenile, and appellate judge, was elected to the seven-member court in 1994. Her relationship with her fellow Republicans gradually soured.

Two years ago, she broke with the GOP judges to elect Democrat Marilyn Kelly chief justice. She suddenly quit last August, having worked out a deal with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm on a successor.

The Democratic governor appointed Justice Weaver's choice, Alton Davis of Gaylord, a well-respected Democratic judge. That gave Democrats a majority on the court, although it didn't last long. As an appointee, Justice Davis had barely two months to try to hold the seat in last November's election.

Republicans shrewdly nominated an appellate judge named Mary Beth Kelly. "Kelly" has long been the most powerful vote-getting name in Michigan, especially in judicial elections. She won by a landslide, restoring the court's GOP majority.

Ms. Weaver's departure was expected to be the end of her history of controversy and the court. But it wasn't.

Weeks later, she released transcripts of Supreme Court deliberations she had secretly recorded. Five of her colleagues angrily voted to censure her. She says she didn't care.

She does say that much of what has been said and written about her is untrue, although she isn't very concerned about that.

"They say I was bitter because I was denied a second term as chief justice," she said. "I could have been chief justice; I didn't want it."

What she does want is people to know that Michigan's Supreme Court is broken and needs radical reform.

During a long phone interview, she said she didn't release the transcript out of spite. (Among other things, it shows now-Chief Justice Robert Young, Jr., one of her principal enemies on the court and an African-American, using the n-word.)

"I revealed some of the inner workings of the court because the public's business should be conducted in public," she said.

"We need transparency. Not a secret club of seven justices from the Detroit-Lansing beltway joining together to promote agendas of partisan or special interests."

She believes people should be able to see not only what justices decide, but how they make their decisions.

But aren't there some times when judges need to do the business of the court behind closed doors?

"Of course there are," she said. "Employee issues, for one thing. But in fact, there are 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 issues from A to Z - adoption to zoning. This is the people's business."

She thinks the Supreme Court's deliberations should be as open as she is outspoken. But she also thinks the court needs major structural reforms - and has a six-point plan to fix the court.

She would do away with the current system that has major political parties place candidates for the court on the ballot.

She thinks they should earn a spot on the ballot by petition, as all other Michigan judges have to do.

She'd like to see justices elected by district, to allow geographic diversity. Currently, all seven justices live in only three counties - Wayne, Oakland, and Ingham. Justice Davis' defeat in November meant, she said, that two-thirds of Michiganians have no justice from their immediate area.

Ms. Weaver also thinks we need to move to a system of public funding of judicial campaigns. Until then, she would require transparency and accountability in campaign finance reporting.

That means knowing who gives which candidate how much money, and enabling citizens to find out within two days. "We should allow absolutely no secret or unnamed contributors," she said.

She'd also like term limits for justices - perhaps a single term of 14 years. And she'd change what happens when a justice dies or resigns while in office.

Currently, the governor can name anyone he or she likes to the post. Former Justice Weaver would establish a broad-based qualifications commission to provide the governor with two recommendations.

The governor would be free to pick one - or someone else. The appointment would be subject to a public hearing and confirmation by the Michigan Senate.

Even some who don't like Ms. Weaver's politics or style agree the court needs reform. Justice Marilyn Kelly is co-chairing a year-long task force studying changes.

Ms. Weaver says she is happy about that, because it may keep attention focused on the reform issue.

But she is pessimistic that the Kelly panel will lead to major changes - which, in any event, would require a state constitutional amendment.

Ms. Weaver, now 69, says she intends to continue to campaign for court reform, and may write a book about the subject.

If she does, I'd guess it won't be dull.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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