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A look at Michigan's Supreme Court

Posted at 11:41 AM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 11:41:12-04

LANSING, Mich. — Important decisions that impact all of us are made at the Michigan Supreme Court. From cases like the right to an abortion, the Flint water crisis, workers rights and everything in between, the seven justices can change state law and grant justice, so we’re taking a closer look at the highest court in our state.

"We are the ultimate group that decides the law in Michigan," said Justice Elizabeth Welch. "We interpret our state's constitution, we interpret our state's laws. And then also, just as importantly, we are in charge of the administrative function of the courts.”

Michigan’s court system is part of the judicial branch of state government, and the state supreme court sits at the top. You can picture the system like a pyramid. At the bottom are trial courts.

“Most people understand there's the court in their neighborhood, usually a district court—people have maybe some interaction with them for a variety of reasons– they’ve made a mistake or a bad decision and they end up usually in district courts," Welch said.

It’s in district courts where most cases start and are resolved. This is where you typically see full juries like in a court TV show.

“And then after that there are circuit courts which are tied to our counties. And then from there people can appeal to the Court of Appeals," she said.

Basically if a person or lawyer in a case that was decided at a lower court doesn’t like the outcome, they can appeal that decision.

“The Court of Appeals has a high volume of cases, very important court, because that's where a lot of cases end," Welch said.

Cases that remain unresolved can then apply to have the Michigan Supreme Court review their details.

“And we can only accept so many, you know, about 10% of the applications… So it's sort of a filter. And then the really undecided legal issues are often what land in front of us. They're with us because the law is in flux or undecided," she said.

Believe it or not the law changes a fair amount, although typically pretty slowly. But the justices serving on the state Supreme Court have a significant hand in making decisions about the laws we know today. And here in the Mitten, justices are elected not appointed.

“It's not uncommon," said John Philo the executive and legal director of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. "I wouldn't say it's typical, a lot of states have an appointment system, but a lot of states still retain elections.”

The appointment system should sound familiar. That’s how Supreme Court justices at the federal level get to be on the bench. Here at home, Michiganders vote to elect justices, and although the court is meant to be apolitical, Philo tells me we have a pretty balanced Supreme Court, but that hasn’t always been the case.

“I would say right now it's about as balanced as it has been in decades," said Philo. "We saw a very activist sort of court for the better part of the 2000 in the late 1990s, that very much had an agenda. It was, very it was a conservative agenda.”

To come to decisions about the cases in front of them, the seven justices vote among themselves and write opinions to show how they reached one solution over another.

“You follow the law," Justice Richard Bernstein said simply. "Every case is challenging and every case is difficult and every case is hard. But, when you're able to basically write an opinion, that's going to change somebody's life. That makes this all incredibly worthwhile.”

“Everybody interprets laws differently," said Welch. "And you'll see that in our opinions. You'll see the justices grappling with the method that they use themselves to get to an answer. So you'll see all of that play out in the opinions on paper with all the time with both our court and the United States Supreme Court, those sort of different philosophies on how you reach an answer. It's not easy.”

In the coming months, the justices will have to tackle some high profile cases like the injunction stopping Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban from taking effect and a case of discrimination against a gay couple in the Upper Peninsula.