Partisan shift expected in Michigan Supreme Court

BY DAWSON BELL
http://www.freep.com

LANSING — The new Michigan Supreme Court will meet for the first time today to elect a chief justice, welcome the first justice to join the court in a decade and, perhaps, give some indication of what path the court will take.

Court observers expect Justice Marilyn Kelly will become the first Democrat elected chief justice since Conrad Mallett Jr. in the late 1990s. Disaffected Republican Justice Elizabeth Weaver — part of the Republicans’ 4-3 majority — is expected to vote for Kelly.

More important is the shift in the court’s philosophy. Democratic Justice Diane Hathaway replaces Republican Justice Clifford Taylor, removing the court’s majority of self-described judicial conservatives.

Although justices are elected on a nonpartisan ballot, parties nominate them.

Weaver, who has openly feuded with Republican colleagues for several years and did not respond to an interview request Wednesday, is regarded as a swing vote who might side with Democrats often, especially in civil cases. That could mean changes in the way the court rules in areas such as medical malpractice, governmental immunity and accidental injury, with the benefit of the doubt swinging to the injured party.

That’s certainly what Democrats who helped elect Hathaway are counting on. And what Republicans expect.

Dan Pero — longtime Republican activist, consultant and current head of the American Justice Partnership, a group that campaigns nationally for judicial restraint, is bracing for that change. If Weaver supports Kelly it’s “a pretty clear indication of where her votes are likely to go” when the new court decides cases, Pero said.

Judy Susskind, president of the Michigan Association for Justice, said she believes Weaver will join Democrats to form a new majority and reverse course in some areas.

The new majority, she said, is likely to place less emphasis on technical interpretations of statutes and make it easier for injured parties to sue.

But sweeping or rapid change is unlikely. The law evolves a single case at a time. It can take years to settle a single issue, from the filing of a complaint to a Supreme Court decision. And each one can present complex considerations that don’t fit neatly into partisan or philosophical boxes.

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