Friday, March 09, 2007
Behind the low comedy, high stakes
Detroit Free Press - www.freep.com - BRIAN DICKERSON: Behind the low comedy, high stakes Behind the low comedy, high stakes March 9, 2007 BY BRIAN DICKERSON FREE PRESS COLUMNIST When last we peeked in on the guardians of Michigan's judicial system, as I recall, they were rolling around on the floor of the state Supreme Court chamber, trading insults and eye-gouges in a disciplinary proceeding involving Geoffrey Fieger (who'd been hauled before them, ironically enough, for making unflattering remarks about judges). Now the skirmishing has resumed, with Justice Elizabeth Weaver renewing accusations that her GOP colleagues are making mischief in secret conclaves and the targeted justices insinuating that Weaver's elevator no longer goes all the way to the top. It would all be raucous good fun -- if only the stakes in this ugly little hissing match were as small as the combatants waging it. But a meltdown in Michigan's court of last resort is no petty domestic dispute, however much it may resemble one. The judiciary's credibility is under siege, although that has less to do with the personalities of the incumbent justices than with the lingering legacy of former Gov. John Engler(R-fat bastard). An arm of the party The state Supreme Court was a creature of partisan politics long before Engler came along. But it wasn't until Engler's last term, when his appointees achieved majority control of the high court, that justices were explicitly enlisted as guarantors of one party's policy agenda. In 1998, when he was hustling insurance industry support for Maura Corrigan's Supreme Court candidacy, Engler was candid about his objectives. "We need to elect justices who will uphold the tort reforms adopted by Republican legislators," he told a fund-raising dinner I attended, referring to a controversial package of bills that had tipped the balance of power in liability cases in favor of deep-pocket defendants. It was a case of the state's most powerful politician promising what his judicial candidates were forbidden to -- a specific judicial outcome in exchange for the financial support of a favored group of litigants. In the nine years since, Corrigan and her GOP colleagues have more than delivered, systematically emasculating Supreme Court precedents that had protected insurance policyholders, accident victims and targets of discrimination. Bolting the caucus Weaver, the only Republican justice to reach judicial office without Engler's sponsorship, initially was a reliable ally of the new majority, but she soon came to resent her GOP colleagues. In Weaver's view, the Engler justices were behaving more like a partisan legislative caucus than like members of a collegial court. Some critics charged that the new justices had an explicit agenda -- a list of Supreme Court precedents marked for reversal. Weaver's most recent critiques of her GOP colleagues are an odd grab bag of personal grievances and substantive allegations that go to the heart of the majority's impartiality. The latter deserve serious public scrutiny, and the hearings Senate Judiciary Chairman Paul Condino has scheduled later this month are a good place to start. This court's problems are bigger than Betty, and it will take more than family counseling to address them.