While across Michigan, media outlets, elected leaders and pundits are reporting that the state Supreme Court acted in an equitable and (surprisingly) apolitical manner by appointing a balanced panel of appeals court judges to preside over the court’s newly acquired function as the Court of Claims, there remains much to be worried about with the new law that brought on this major court shake-up.
Today, the Supreme Court named their picks – two of the judges were originally appointed by Republican Gov. John Engler, and two by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. They all have a strong background of trial court experience, without which, they would be lost.
Who are they?
Judge Michael J. Talbot from District 1 of the COA will become the chief judge of the Court of Claims. After 20 years experience as a trial judge in both the Detroit Common Pleas Court, Detroit Recorder’s Court and Wayne County Circuit Court, he was appointed to the COA by Engler in 1998, and has twice been re-elected. He is also in line to become the chief judge of the COA.
Another Engler appointee, Judge Pat M. Donofrio is from District 2. Prior to his 2002 COA appointment, he sat on the Macomb County Circuit Court. His background was as a litigator in private practice. He too, has twice been re-elected to the COA.
Our first Granholm appointee is Judge Deborah A. Servitto. She also comes from the 2nd District of the COA. Servitto originally presided in the 37th District Court, and was subsequently appointed to the Macomb County Circuit under Gov. James Blanchard. Appointed to the COA in 2006, she has twice won re-election.
And from the 4th District of the COA, we have Judge Amy Ronayne Krause — a 2010 Granholm appointee, who started as a private practice litigator and served on the 54-A District Court in Lansing. Her CV may be the most distinguished among the four. She also served as the Assistant Attorney General, was the first to be awarded the Frank J. Kelley Award for Excellence in Trial Advocacy, and she is currently an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School.
No argument — four superbly impressive adjudicators.
But, that doesn’t erase the very real problems found in this new law.
First, taking the long view, the most obvious concern should be that current appointments are not indicative of future ones. Politics will creep into the selection process as surely as it does with any appointed position. Wherever the opportunity for corruption exists, it will eventually be exploited. The law is fundamentally flawed in that respect.
Of more immediate concern though is the chaos this shift will bring to pending cases as they are transferred from Ingham County Circuit Court to the Court of Appeals. Litigation is a long and difficult process — and costly for all parties. The Lansing State Journal catalogued just a few of the more high-profile cases that are in the queue.
There’s a case that involves the Michigan Finance Authority and their legal tangle with a couple of college students who allege that the state reneged on its promise to waive interest on student loans that are paid on-time for over 36 months. Liability estimates for the state range from $50 to $100 million. So far, the state is losing.
Other key cases include:
- A challenge to the pension tax charged to retired state employees.
- An argument against the ruling that the names of unsuccessful Detroit Emergency Manager candidates must be disclosed.
- An Open Meetings Act challenge by the ACLU over the Capitol building being locked-down during the vote on the Right-to-Work law.
- A case regarding the Department of Corrections that would overturn policy that requires “lifers” who commit a crime while serving from being eligible for parole.
- A couple of suits seeking the disclosure of donors to Gov. Snyder’s disbanded Nerd Fund, among other political funds.
Multiple cases in the Court of Claims at Ingham County are nearing completion, so the time, money and energy spent bringing the new presiding court up to speed will be considerable.
Senate Bill 652, now a Public Act under Michigan Compiled Law, remains deeply flawed — in both the short and long-term. You know it’s gotta be bad when even the Detroit News urged Gov. Snyder to veto it.
Too late now.
Amy Kerr Hardin