Should there be fewer judges in Michigan?

Aug 18, 2011

Does Michigan need fewer judges? The chief justice of the state supreme court thinks so, and so does the governor.

Yesterday, a new study by the state court administrative office recommended eliminating forty-five of the almost six hundred trial judges in Michigan, and also getting rid of four appeals court judges.

This would save money, perhaps almost eight million a year. That’s a popular idea these days. When he endorsed this report, Michigan Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. said “Increasing the size of government is easy. It turns out it takes political courage to reduce it.”

But with all due respect to the chief justice, in today’s world, it is  exactly the opposite. Reducing and cutting government are the most popular ideals there are. Even committed liberals and President Obama pay lip service to the idea of shrinking government.

Nobody, however, wants to talk about reducing services, oh no. Everybody still wants those; they just don’t want to pay for them.

But equal justice under law costs money, and these days, almost nobody has the guts to say, “yes, government costs money, but it is worth it. You want to live in a world without cops and courts and paved roads, fine. But not me.”

And actually, those praising this report are ignoring half of it. Yes, it did say we ought to eliminate forty-five trial judges. But it ALSO said we need to add thirty-one trial judges in parts of the state where they are needed.

Basically, we need judicial redistricting. Yes, there are places that do have more judges than they need. But the study found that fast-growing Macomb and Oakland counties actually need thirteen more judges. The district court that services Detroit needs six more.

When asked about this, those supporting the report mumbles something like, “well, we know, but in the present economic climate we thought it was better not to replace them.”

What that means is that some people will get less than their fair share of justice. I’ve been in courtrooms with crowded dockets, where low-profile criminals -- what Tom Wolfe calls the “chow” of the legal system -- are herded by attorneys before judges who drone out their sentences in a rapid monotone that seems to warn against any interruption.

Good judges are invaluable, and really don’t cost very much. Yesterday one of the best of these, Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny, was in the news for threatening to fine or jail citizens who show open contempt for our courts by not bothering to show up for jury duty. In my opinion, that’s something every judge should do.

I first met Judge Kenny when he was an assistant Wayne County prosecutor trying the first Kevorkian case. Though he lost the case, he prosecuted it with grace, dignity and class.

Yes, eliminating all these judges would save a few million. But our state is now giving billions in tax breaks to business, and spends hundreds of millions on any number of other programs.

There was an old New Yorker cartoon in which a lawyer asked a defendant, “so, just how much justice can you afford?” The real answer is that we can’t afford to be without the justice that we need.