michigan supreme court

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Beginning this fall, people serving on Michigan juries will be allowed to play a more active role in the pursuit of justice.   The Michigan Supreme Court announced today that it is revising the rules for people serving as jurors.

Michigan Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court has agreed to Governor Rick Snyder’s request to make an early ruling on whether the new income tax on pensions violates the Michigan Constitution.

Governor Snyder made the request to avoid what potentially could be years of litigation.

The governor is trying to preempt an expected lawsuit from state employee unions. They say the tax on pensions will illegally reduce their agreed-to compensation under collective bargaining agreements.

The Michigan Constitution says the state may not “diminish” nor “impair” the financial benefits of pension plans.

The governor wants the question settled before the pension tax takes effect next year. The law extends the state income tax for the first time to pensions of people born after 1945.

The Supreme Court ordered oral arguments to be held in the case in September. The court has a Republican majority.

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A work of fiction written by a person charged with a crime can be used against the defendant in court according to a new decision from the Michigan Supreme Court.

The question before the state’s highest court was whether a story a defendant had written depicting graphic scenes of incest between siblings and their father could be used against him as evidence of his intent.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Tomorrow, the Michigan Supreme Court will consider a rule change that could put local governments in a stronger position to challenge unfunded state mandates.  

The Headlee Amendment is a state constitutional amendment meant to reduce unfunded state mandates on local governments, like requiring but not necessarily providing extra money for special education programs. 

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It's a case that has turned into a political football for the conservative and liberal incarnations of the Michigan Supreme Court.

In an order released today, the Michigan Supreme Court's conservative majority reversed a major decision that allowed Michigan citizens to sue the state over pollution concerns.

From the Associated Press:

The case involved the discharge of partially contaminated water to a popular trout stream. In December, the court's liberal majority used the case to give more rights to people to challenge
state regulators over certain environmental permits.

At issue is whether people have the right to sue the state over pollution concerns when the state issues things like pollution discharge permits.

The case that was argued involved the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Merit Energy, and the Anglers of the AuSable.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

The Michigan Supreme Court is faced with the question of whether a work of fiction can be used against the author if they are charged with a crime.  

A Bay County man was convicted of molesting his young granddaughter. Used against him during the trial was a fictionalized “sex manual” he wrote about incestuous sex between siblings and their father. 

Chief Justice Robert Young summed up the question before the court during today's hearing.  

“We’re now trying to determine the extent to which this incest fantasy is admissible, and why if it is.”   

Sylvia Linton is the prosecuting attorney. She says  the trial-court judge made a valid point about fictional works:

“Just because Sophocles wrote about incest doesn’t mean he would do that. Well that’s true, but if Sophocles was on trial for having incest with his mother, then I think it becomes extremely relative.”

To which Justice Stephen Markham asked:

 “So if Agatha Christie is charged with murder, the fact that she wrote several first-person stories about murder would be relevant as evidence?”   

The prosecutor says in some cases, yes, Agatha Christie’s stories could have been used against her.

The defense attorney says allowing works of fiction to be admitted as evidence would open the door for what could be used against a person, and prevent people from receiving fair trials.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this year.

Kevin Connors / MorgueFile

The Michigan Supreme Court may soon hear its first case on the state’s medical marijuana law.

Larry King of Owosso has a medical marijuana license from the state.  He was charged with a felony by the Shiawassee County prosecutor for growing marijuana in a locked dog kennel that did not have a roof. The Circuit Court dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals reinstated the felony charges.

Dan Korobkin is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. He says the prosecution shouldn’t charge King with a felony because King is legally allowed to grow marijuana:

“Instead of simply telling Mr. King that he needed to move his plants inside, or put a roof over it, they’re now prosecuting him on felony drug charges for the same offense that he would be charged with if he never had any medical marijuana card at all.”

Korobkin said Michigan voters approved the medical marijuana act to protect patients that were approved to use marijuana for medical reasons.

“We’re representing him because the prosecution of a medical marijuana patient who is complying with the law is a gross injustice and thoroughly undermines the intent of the voters in passing the Medical Marijuana Act."

jeffness / Wikimedia Commons

Politicians don’t like to flip flop. Going back on what they said before can be a big political headache. 

The U.S. Supreme Court also takes flip flopping very seriously. The last time they overturned a decision was in 2003.

By comparison, the Michigan Supreme Court has flip-flopped a lot. Somewhere around thirty-eight times in the past decade.

All this flip flopping means that court keeps changing the law. One reason for the flip flops is because the judges on the court keep changing. Between elections and appointments there can be a lot of turnover on the bench. And new judges don’t necessarily agree with those who came before them.

Robert Sedler is a court watcher who says ideology is causing the back and forth on the Court. And he says things got bad about a decade ago. He teaches law at Wayne State University Law School.

"Around 1998 there were a series of appointments by former Governor Engler who were very ideological in their views. The majority took the position that, if they believed  cases were wrongly decided, they were going to overrule those cases."

Conservative majorities, like the one appointed by Engler, aren’t the only ones overturning old decisions. In 2010 there was a more moderate court, and they also overturned cases.

Take marajuana, for example. In 2006 the court saw all marijuana use the same, it was illegal. Four years later the new court saw more nuance and interpreted the law in ways that impacts medical marijuana use.

Patrick Brosset / Flickr

Can a judge determine what happens when you flush your toilet? A case before the Supreme Court may decide that very question.From the AP

The Michigan Supreme Court said Thursday it will decide if local governments can be ordered to install a sewer system when private septic systems fail and spoil a lake, a case that centers on Lake Huron and a five-mile stretch in the Thumb region.

State regulators want Worth Township to install a sewer system, but an appeals court last year said the township isn't responsible for the problems of private property owners.

Some septic systems are failing in an area between M-25 and Lake Huron in Sanilac County, 80 miles northeast of Detroit. Waste is being discharged into the lake and its tributaries, and the lots are too small to build new systems.

In a brief order, the Supreme Court narrowed the issue: Does state law allow regulators and the courts to demand that a township install a sewer system when a lake is contaminated?

Township attorney Michael Woodworth said he's not surprised that the justices agreed to take the state's appeal.

"The case is one of statewide significance," he said. "There have been (local governments) that did not challenge the authority of the Department of Environmental Quality. What surprised the DEQ in this case is the township stepped back and said, 'Wait a minute.'"

Worth Township seemed ready to build a new sewage system as recently as 2008, but the cost kept them from proceeding.

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a murder conviction in the case Michigan v. Bryant.

The case involved a Detroit man who identified his shooter as the victim lay dying, and whether or not that evidence could be considered in court.

A Wayne County jury convicted Richard Bryant of murder based on the victim's statement. But the Michigan Supreme Court overturned that conviction, saying Bryant was denied his constitutional right to confront his accuser.

Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether it is appropriate to allow children to testify in criminal cases behind screens that shield them from seeing defendants.

The court agreed today to take the case.

The U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers in court.

In the case going before the Michigan Supreme Court, an eight-year-old girl testified that her brother-in-law had repeatedly raped her over a period of years, and exposed her and her brother to pornography.

The jury did not believe the man’s defense that the girl made up the charges to break up his marriage.

The defendant says he was deprived of his right to confront the primary witness against him because she testified from behind a one-way screen.

The screen shielded her view of the defendant, although he could see her.

A therapist said that was the only way she could testify without risking serious emotional damage.

The defendant says the shield prejudiced the jury against him, and that the Constitution requires witnesses to look defendants in the eye when testifying against them.

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The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on the dispute around Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor.

In 1917, some land along Lake Michigan was given to the city of Benton Harbor. The "Friends of Jean Klock Park" describe the gift this way:

In 1917, John and Carrie Klock deeded a half mile of lake Michigan frontage to the City of Benton Harbor Michigan in memory of their deceased daughter Jean. Their gift consisted of 90 acres of globally rare natural resources that included Great Lakes Dunes, a Great Lakes Marsh and interdunal wetlands. The donated land was named Jean Klock Park and was dedicated "FOR THE CHILDREN" - "in perpetuity" - "FOREVER."

Today, the city of Benton Harbor has leased part of the park to the Harbor Shores Community Redevelop Corporation. The Redevelop Corporation used the land, including sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline for 3 holes of an 18 hole golf course.

Residents didn't like it and they filed a lawsuit. The case made it to the Michigan Supreme Court yesterday.

USFWS

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case regarding a possible illegal search today.

In the case "The People of the State of Michigan vs. Mark Slaughter" - the defendant, Mark Slaughter, was charged with possessing marijuana plants in his basement after a firefighter found the plants during an emergency call. From the court filing:

On May 6, 2007, firefighters were called to the residence of Kathleen Tunner at 3206 Coolidge, Royal Oak, Michigan. Ms. Tunner testified that she suspected that water was running down the wall of her basement in her unit over her electrical box. Ms. Tunner contacted 911 and the fire department arrived...even though the unit in which called for assistance was Ms. Tunner's unit, Lieutenant Schunck never entered or inspected Ms. Tunner's unit...[Schunck] testified that they entered Defendant's unit, absent any signs of leaking water or hearing water running from outside Defendant's unit...Upon entering Defendants unit, the firefighters observed suspected marijuana plants...and subsequently contacted the police."

The Associated Press reports that lower courts have ruled in Slaughter's favor:

Slaughter's defense lawyer successfully argued that it was an illegal search. Prosecutors say there's an exception when authorities find evidence of a crime during an emergency.

So let's play armchair Supreme Court justice. Do you think this amounted to an illegal search? You can read the complaint to gather more information before you issue your ruling.

screen grab of YouTube video

This Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that may determine if police officers have an expectation of privacy when they are doing their jobs.

It all started with a video.

Detroit city police and members of former Mayor Dennis Archer’s staff wanted to prevent a sexually explicit video from being played at a Dr. Dre concert in July 2000.

A camera crew for the rapper videotaped police officers saying they would pull the plug on the concert.

Former police officer, and current Detroit City Council president pro-tem Gary Brown, is seen on the video saying "we're going to shut this show down."

Eventually, Dr Dre decided not to show the video police were concerned about.

But the video of the police officers making their threats was put onto a concert DVD.

Thanks to YouTube user "snoopfroggydogg," you can see the "Detroit Controversy" videos here (WARNING: they contain images and words not suitable for younger viewers):

Detroit city officials sued, claiming the DVD makers violated Michigan’s anti-eavesdropping law by putting the video on the DVD without their permission.

The city officials and police officers claim their privacy was invaded by being videotaped and the video being shown publicly.

Attorney Herschel Fink represents the DVD’s producers. He says police officers have no 'right to privacy when they’re doing their job:

"I think the very essence of law enforcement is transparency...and I think this case has implications for mainstream news gathering and not just private citizens who are videotaping police berating them which was the case here."

Lower courts have tended to side with the DVD producers.

Earlier this morning, Governor Rick Snyder announced that he was appointing Appeals Court Judge Brian Zahra to the Michigan Supreme Court. 

Judge Zahra will be taking over the place of state Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan.  Corrigan will leave the court on Friday to begin a new job as the head of the state Department of Human Services.  Governor Snyder named her the Director of DHS last week.

So, just who is Judge Brian Zahra?  Here are 5 things we know:

  1. He has a Bachelor of General Studies degree from Wayne State University. He also has a J.D. from the University of Detroit School of Law.
  2. He has served on the Michigan Court of Appeals since 1999.
  3. In 2006 he received Jurist of the Year from the Police Officers’ Association of Michigan.
  4. He is a member of the State Bar of Michigan.
  5. He is married and has two children.

Update 10:19 a.m.:

Michigan Radio has learned that Judge Zahra's appointment will take effect on Friday, January 14th at noon.  In a release sent out this morning, Governor Snyder said Zahra's, "legal reasoning abilities and depth of understanding of Michigan law are virtually unmatched." Snyder also noted:

Judge Zahra’s sixteen years of judicial experience and his razor sharp intelligence will make him an outstanding addition to the court. His integrity and consistent legal philosophy that judges are to interpret laws, not make them, gives me confidence that he will respect our system of checks and balances while upholding the rule of law.”

9:22 a.m.:

Governor Rick Snyder has named Appeals Court Judge Brian Zahra to the Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports. Zahra was appointed to the appeals court in 1999 by former Republican Governor John Engler. He was then elected to the court in 2000 and 2006.

Judge Zahra will be taking over the place of state Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan.  Corrigan will leave the court on Friday to begin a new job as the head of the state Department of Human Services.  Governor Snyder named her the Director of DHS last week.

Like Corrigan, Zahra is a Republican.  That means the state Supreme Court will keep its 4-3 GOP majority.

Photo courtesy of www.governorelectricksnyder.com

Governor Rick Snyder will name a new state Supreme Court Justice today at a morning news conference.

Snyder will be appointing a replacement for current Justice Maura Corrigan.  Snyder named Corrigan to head the state Department of Human Services last week. Corrigan will step down from the court on Friday to begin her new job.

There's been no word yet on who will replace her, but the Associated Press reports:

Appeals Court Judge Jane Markey of Grand Rapids wants Snyder to name her to the court because she'd bring a west Michigan perspective. The 59-year-old sent out an unusual release late Saturday asking for the appointment and noting that the court hasn't had a justice from Grand Rapids since 1946. Appeals Court Judge Brian Zahra of Northville may be higher on Snyder's list. He turned 51 Sunday and ran unsuccessfully for the high court in 2004.

justicebobyoung.com

Newly appointed Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young is calling for budget cuts in Michigan's judiciary, reports Rick Pluta of the Michigan Public Radio Network.

Pluta reports that Chief Justice Young "says he will call for combining courts and cutting judges in areas where there are fewer people and fewer cases." Young said:

"The Legislature will either do something rational to reduce the size and cost of the judiciary, or it will do something irrational. I think it is most rational to reduce redundancy rather than to cut into the judiciary in ways that will disable it from fulfilling its constitutional duties."

Pluta says "a 2009 report by the State Court Administrator says the state could save $2 million by eliminating more than a dozen judgeships in metro Detroit and northern Michigan."

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UPDATE 10:39 a.m.:

Rick Pluta, Michigan Public Radio's Lansing Bureau Chief just filed this breaking news report:

Justice Robert Young has been selected as the new chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Young was chosen by his fellow justices in a closed-door vote. The decision reflects the change in control of the court from Democrats to Republicans in the last election.

9:17 a.m.:

The seven justices of the Michigan Supreme Court will meet today to select a new chief justice. After this past November's election, Republicans are in the majority of the court with four members; three justices are Democrats.

Justice Robert Young Junior was re-elected to an eight year term in 2010.  He said yesterday that he has four votes to become the next Chief Justice. Young, who has been on the Michigan Supreme Court since 1999, is a Republican from the Detroit-area. The current Chief Justice is Marilyn Kelly, a Democrat. 

As the Associated Press reports:    

The court's membership will change soon. Justice Maura Corrigan is expected to resign to lead the Department of Human Services under the new governor, Rick Snyder.

No such announcement from the Snyder administration has been made yet publicly.

Marilyn Kelly, who is now Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, has given her life to Michigan’s legal system.

Now in her last term on the bench, she doesn’t like a lot of what she has been seeing lately. Besides deciding cases, Michigan’s Supreme Court is charged with overseeing all the other courts.

And she fears that the public is losing respect for the judiciary, in part because of the way judges are chosen. Especially higher-level judges, those who sit on appellate and supreme courts.

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