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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan Resigns to Head DHS

Justice Maura Corrigan
In the first business-day of the new year, a significant development is unfolding at the highest levels of government for the State of Michigan.  Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan is expected to resign from the Court in order to serve in newly-minted Governor Rick Snyder's cabinet; most likely as the Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services.

This gives us pause on several levels.  The first consequence of Justice Corrigan's resignation is that it provides the new governor, deemed a political "moderate" along the lines of William Milliken, with his first opportunity to appoint a justice to the high court.

Governor Snyder's first appointment comes at a time of acute dissension at the High Court.  The Court has long been divided along ideological lines with a tightly held conservative majority of 4 justices often opposing the 3 more liberal justices over the past decade.  While some of the players have changed over time, the 4-3 conservative majority on the Court has remained relatively constant for many years.  Justice Corrigan has always led her conservative colleagues, authoring many business-friendly decisions and opinions tending to favor law enforcement in the criminal law.

Some of the acrimony within the Michigan Supreme Court has spilled from their conference chambers into the public in the form of scathing dissents in several decisions, and a recent letter-censure of fomer-Justice Betty Weaver back in November.  Justice Corrigan was among the five Justices signing the censure letter. 

The consensus among Michigan's appellate bar is that Governor Snyder's appointment will end-up as a critical "swing-vote" on the several critical decisions awaiting argument and decision in the current term of the High Court.

One of Justice Corrigan's recent opinions of note was the case of People v Smith; a case involving an African American criminal defendant's challenge to his murder conviction, handed down by an all-white jury selected from a nearly all-white jury pool.  Justice Corrigan's opinion affirming the conviction (and reversing the Court of Appeals decision that had remanded the case back to Kent County for a new trial) was upheld by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Berghuis v Smith.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the author of the SCOTUS decision, characterized Justice Corrigan's handiwork as "cogent".  High praise for a conservative state justice coming from a Clinton-era SCOTUS appointee.

Another highlight in Justice Corrigan's distinguished jurisprudence is her opinion (5-2) in Glass v Goeckel, granting Michiganders the right to walk along the beaches of the coastline of our Great Lakes.  A controversy had arisen from the intermediate appellate court's decision in a case from Up-North holding that citizens could not walk along the beaches of the Great Lakes but rather, could only walk in the water; difficult, if not impossible along many stretches of the lakes.  In overturning the intermediate appellate court, Justice Corrigan's opinion cited both Roman law and portions of the Northwest Ordinance.  She also faced eleventh-hour vigorous dissents from her colleagues Stephen Markman and Robert Young, Jr.

Perhaps Justice Corrigan's most enduring accomplishment, in addition to her life of selfless public service, is her leadership role in bringing about the completion of the Michigan Hall of Justice; a beautiful courthouse which serves as the home of the Michigan Supreme Court and the Lansing office of the Court of Appeals.  Having argued in that Court on several occasions, I've noted that you could land a plane on the counsels' tables.

A second major consequence of Justice Corrigan's job-swap is even more political.  If she assumes the directorship of the Department of Human Services, she will head the agency tasked with providing public assistance and child and family welfare assistance to Michigan's poor.  The DHS has over 100 county offices throughout Michigan.

In the Great Recession era, the DHS has been swamped with families and individuals seeking aid; over one million open cases were logged by the agency last May.  Also, the agency is being sued in federal court over its track record of protecting children.  The imminent appointment of a receiver for the agency apparently was forestalled by Justice Corrigan's appointment.

With Governor Snyder getting elected and taking office on a firm promise to immediately reducing the state's nearly two billion dollar budget deficit, you don't have to be a genius to "do the math" on this one.

So let's sit back and see how this one plays out, as the ripple effect from the election spreads throughout our Great Lake State.

Update:  Since the original version of this post, Justice Corrigan and Governor Snyder have made Corrigan's appointment as Director of DHS official.  Recognizing the difficult task at hand, Governor Snyder has apparently promised Corrigan, and the federal judge, 600 new-hires to replace the more than 1000 experienced workers mothballed via former Governor Granholm's retirement inducements. 

Former Justice Corrigan has a huge and important challenge ahead.  Michigan's poor and its underserved children stand to benefit.

For another take on this subject, check out fellow Oakland Press blogger Tim Skubick's post.


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