Good news in the Michigan Supreme Court

Sep 12, 2013

There’s a little good news both from and about the Michigan Supreme Court. Yesterday, the court announced it is ordering all courts in the state to provide interpreters for people who have limited or no English-speaking skills.

This was followed by a joint press conference starring Chief Justice Robert Young, one of the state’s longest-serving and most conservative justices, and Justice Bridget McCormack, who is both the court’s most recently elected member and one of its most liberal.

Though they have often voted differently when deciding cases, the two justices clearly had a warm camaraderie yesterday, and that was notable. There have been times in recent years when some justices have launched personal public attacks against each other, which did nothing for the court’s reputation.

The order to provide certified translators is a huge step in the right direction, especially given our ongoing influx of Spanish-speaking and Middle Eastern immigrants.

The order applies to every court in the state. Some counties already have been providing translation services, but many don’t, and they now have three months to come up with a plan.

Many don’t realize it, but Michigan’s Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to regulate and supervise all other state courts.

The order wasn’t quite unanimous. Justice Stephen Markman, one of the most conservative justices, opposed it, saying the court was being improperly pressured to do this by the federal government.

But the other six justices evidently agree this is the right thing to do. The order says people who can afford the cost of an interpreter will be charged for those services; those who can’t afford to pay won’t.

Yet making sure everyone can both understand legal proceedings and be understood themselves is a tremendous step towards the goal of equal access under law.

The bipartisan nature of this ruling was refreshing, as was the clear indication from the two justices that Michigan’s top court is working in a far more collegial fashion than it had been.

Only a few years ago, then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor and Justice Elizabeth Weaver were trading public insults, and at one point Weaver secretly taped discussions among the justices.

They are gone now, and Young, who has been on the court for 15 years, said the justices are now respectful of each other’s views and willing to listen to each other. McCormack agreed, saying this had been a year of “incredible collegiality.”

But while it is good that things are better on the court, we now need a better way of electing justices to the court. Specifically, a more transparent way. In recent years, we have been unable to find out where most money spent on state Supreme Court races has come from, something not good for democracy.

This practice is now spreading to other courts. The State Bar of Michigan is calling for an end to secret judicial campaign spending, a practice former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said was legal. The State Bar is asking the current secretary, Ruth Johnson, to reverse that ruling. If she agrees, that would be about the best blow for democracy and openness I can imagine.