Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Supreme smackdown

There are plenty of major political battles that take place at the Michigan Supreme Court, but they aren't usually between Supreme Court Justices.

The setting was the ruling in a case concerning a reprimand for bombastic trial lawyer Jeffrey Fieger. He had attacked several of the Michigan Supreme Court Justices:

The court majority found the comments -- in two 1999 radio broadcasts in which Fieger compared the judges to Nazis and suggested they deserved to be sodomized -- could be punished because of their potential to undermine respect for the legal system.
Fieger was the Democrats' 1998 gubernatorial nominee, losing in a landslide to John Engler. He is known for his unkempt hair and abrasive personality. He is also a very successful trial lawyer, winning major cases and racking up millions in legal fees. However, the Michigan Supreme Court has shot down several major awards, costing Fieger millions of dollars. The majority voted to reprimand Fieger.

The Michigan Supreme Court has seven justices. Four--Corrigan, Markman, Taylor, and Young--are solid conservative Republicans who have consistently delivered good rulings and opposed judicial activism. Two--Cavanagh and Kelly--are Democrats. The seventh, Elizabeth Weaver, is a moderate Republican.

Weaver has been alienated from the conservatives since the other Justices--including the Democrats--voted not to reelect her as Chief Justice, replacing her with Corrigan. The Detroit News reports:

Justice Elizabeth Weaver wrote a scathing dissent charging that four justices - all fellow Republicans - showed bias and prejudice against Fieger by not disqualifying themselves from the case.

That didn't please Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, who wrote in a strongly worded response that, "with her dissent, Justice Weaver completes a transformation begun five years ago, when all six of her colleagues voted not to renew her tenure as Chief Justice of this Court."

"This transformation is based neither on principle nor on 'independent' views, but is rooted in personal resentment," he added in an opinion joined by Justices Maura Corrigan, Stephen Markman and Robert Young Jr.

In the staid world of legal opinions, this is the equivalent of cursing someone out.

The article continues:

Weaver has grown so out-of-step with the other four Republicans on the court that she's become known for joining the dissents frequently written by Democrats.

Weaver has said she's just being independent. But in the Fieger case, Taylor suggested Weaver's independent streak was really about losing the chief justice position five-and-a-half years ago.

"It is deeply troubling that a member of this Court would undertake so gratuitously, and so falsely, to impugn her colleagues," he wrote. "This is a sad day in this Court's history, for Justice Weaver inflicts damage not only on her colleagues, but also on this Court as an institution."

Weaver in turn characterized the majority's opinion as misleading, inaccurate, irrational and irrelevant. She argued they should recuse themselves and cited statements about Fieger from their campaigns for the high court, including a fundraising letter mailed by Corrigan's campaign earlier this year.

Weaver said Corrigan adopted statements from former Republican Gov. John Engler that "we cannot lower our guard should the Fiegers of the trial bar raise and spend large amounts of money in hopes of altering the election by an 11th-hour sneak attack."

The other Republican justices, however, pointed out that Weaver had received a campaign donation from Fieger.
Weaver was most recently elected in 2002. In early 2005, barely two years into an eight-year term, she announced that she was going to resign. This would have let Governor Granholm appoint a replacement, and given the overwhelming power of incumbency in Michigan court elections, it would have given the Democrats a seat for decades. If she wanted to retire, she could have done so two years earlier, and let Republicans nominate somebody else. This was a move calculated to betray the people who put her in office.

Someone managed to talk her out of it, but it's apparent that she hasn't let go of her grudge.

You never know when a moderate Republican might betray you.

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