Politics

McCormack made the court better — but it is the right time to exit

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Nobody has done more to restore confidence to the Michigan Supreme Court than Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.  

Her sharp command of the law and engaging personality spurred thoughtful discussions that changed minds (including her own at times) on a previously balkanized court. 

But now, 10 years after she came on the scene, McCormack has become a victim of her own success. Her successes have helped install a Democratic-nominated majority that's becoming what McCormack sought to destroy when she came on the court in 2013 — another predictable, partisan body taking shots at one another. 

To preserve her legacy, the chief justice needs to move on, and I'm glad to see she's doing exactly that, stepping down by year's end. 

The Michigan Supreme Court before Bridget McCormack was political.  

The tensions of the infamous "Engler Court" remained in 2012. Republican-nominated justices tended to stick together on controversial cases to advance a desired outcome. Democratic-nominated justices did the same. 

And justices were less than congenial about it. 

In one 4-3 decision dealing with charging deadbeat parents criminally, the majority Republicans wrote about how parents who couldn't pay were "irresponsible and selfish." Democratic Justice Marilyn Kelly wrote that Michigan has long put behind bars "the willful, the recalcitrant, the obdurate or deceitful. In light of the majority's holding we can now add to that list those who are unable to pay." 

Pre-McCormack pot shots in opinion footnotes weren't uncommon. If the make-up of the split decisions weren't 100% predictable, most of the decisions were. 

McCormack blew into the court almost like a celebrity. She was personable and engaging. The sister of actress Mary McCormack, McCormack has the unique gift of exuding her brilliance in a humble, non-condescending way. 

Maybe, more importantly, she wasn't all that political. 

After she won in 2012, McCormack struck up an instant rapport Justice Robert P. Young Jr., a Republican, whose legal genius too often had been shadowed by the court's political undertones. Starting in 2013, the court rulings started becoming more about debates over the law as opposed to debates over how the law could be used to influence an outcome. 

The rulings were smart and well thought-out. The divisions on cases became less predictable. McCormack sided with Young early on, which agitated Democrats. Then, eventually, McCormack won her arguments and Young sided with McCormack.  

Minds were opened. Opinions were better thought out, the public benefited. 

Success breeds success, even in the courts. In the shadow of McCormack's approach, more Democratic-nominated justices were elected. By 2021, the Supreme Court session started with a Democratic majority for the first time since the 1990s. 

Meanwhile, the Dems haven't controlled the Legislature since the early 1980s. Outside of ballot proposals, they haven't been to pass public policy unless the Democratic governor negotiated something. 

The pressure for change became too much for even McCormack to resist. This summer, the Supreme Court did through court rulings what a Republican-led Legislature had previously refused to do: Declaring that the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act should cover the LGBTQ community. Allowing those accused of unemployment fraud to sue the state. There were a few more. 

The Dem majority became an activist court. Also, the backbiting returned. McCormack, herself, took the rare step of writing a concurrence to her own opinion just to take another swing at conservative Justice Brian Zahra. 

Then, this past week, the Supreme Court inflamed the Board of State Canvassers' periodic partisan foolishness. 

Instead of simply reminding the Canvassers that their job is to count petition signatures, not block ballot access over perceived technical issues, the justices couldn't resist the urge to grandstand. McCormack led the parade. 

"What a sad marker of the time," she wrote in addressing "a game of gotcha gone bad." 

I don't want to remember McCormack this way. She's not a judicial activist. 

Unlike Frodo and the one ring, McCormack is throwing her power into the fire before she's consumed by it, and I applaud her for that.  

I prefer to remember McCormack as the person who turned around the Supreme Court, not someone who brought it around full circle. 

(Email Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS at melinnky@gmail.com.) 

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