LANSING, Mich. — For the fourth time in state history, the Michigan Supreme Court has a female majority. One of those women recently sworn in is from right here in West Michigan.
There are seven justices on the Michigan Supreme Court with four of them being women.
I sat down with newly elected Justice Elizabeth Welch from Grand Rapids to get her take on the first four months on the bench and how the coronavirus has impacted their daily lives.
“And that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the Michigan Supreme Court Justice according to the best of my abilities,” said Justice Welch back in December while taking her oath.
Her family was right by her side; in fact, her kids helped her slip into her new robe before a photographer took the official portrait.
Her election means there’s now a female majority on the bench along with Justice Megan Cavanagh, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Justice Beth Clement.
It was the last time they’d all be in the courtroom together thanks to COVID.
“I practiced law for 25 years. I did employment law. I worked at a couple of large law firms before starting my own law practice in 2004,” she told me in her chambers as we talked about her new role.
Her position is nominated by political party but elected on a non-partisan ticket by voters.
“I really thought the skills I had developed over the 25 years, not just in my law practice but using my law degree outside my law practice, really brought a lot of synergy there – and I was motivated to step forward,” she said. “There was an opening on the court; one of the long-time justices was retiring, and so there was an opportunity to step forward and run.”
Justices serve an eight-year term and must be licensed to practice law in Michigan. There’s no term limit, but at the time they’re elected they have to be younger than 70.
Justice Welch has been on the job now for four months.
“It’s a bit of a crushing schedule when you’re brand new; you’re walking into the middle of the term,” she said. “The court’s term starts in September; that’s sort of when the work is – it’s kinda September to July 31st year; that’s kinda how the court’s businesses run. So, when you’re coming in on January 1, you’re coming into the middle.”
Every year the Michigan Supreme Court receives roughly 2,000 appeals. Of those, they hear about 10 percent. Justice Welch, so far, has heard more than 30 in her time on the bench. But because of COVID, she’s had to do everything over Zoom.
“I had to hire a team of five people, all interviews on Zoom,” she said. “I still have a couple of my clerks that I have yet to meet in person because we’ve been remote at the Hall of Justice.”
And they’re still in their robes even while working from home. Justices hear oral arguments a couple days a month after deciding to take on a case.
The Supreme Court is a little complex.
Justices hear cases appealed to them from the Court of Appeals, but you first have to get permission to send it to the high court.
While most people think about the justices’ opinions, they’re also responsible for supervising all courts in the state, establishing rules for them regarding practice and procedure, and making justice issues more accessible.
“The vast majority of people in civil cases – divorces and landlord/tenant and contract disputes – all the things that are not criminal matters are civil cases – there’s a huge, stunning number of people who are not represented by lawyers in those cases,” she said. “They can’t afford them - they still have to show up to court and navigate a court system that’s frankly designed for lawyers.”
That’s why the court created the Justice for All Commission. Justice Welch serves on one of the subcommittees.
The task force did a year-long study finding recommendations and gaps that needed to be fixed so people had 100 percent access to the civil justice system in our state.
“And right now the system’s disaggregated,” she said. “Every county is different; they all have different software, they all use different technology, and understandably, so that’s just how the system developed. But we’re at a moment where we’re trying to sort of getting everybody working together so we can see what’s out there and who’s impacted and how and why.”
Justice Welch still has more than seven years left on her term to work toward those goals and tells me she’s ready to work with the others to get the job done.
“People know about the opinions piece, which we’ve been talking about, but they don’t realize the time it takes to really move new innovative ideas through the court system and bring those ideas to everybody.”
Another interesting thing about moving from a law firm to the bench is that due to ethics rules, Justice Welch had to close her practice, its bank account, and move her clients to new attorneys.
And if a former client’s case ends up in front of her, she has to recuse herself.
As for when they’ll return full time to the courtroom, that’s still not decided, but it seems like Zoom hearings may continue in the future.
Welch is a part of the fourth female majority in the court's history.
The first time it happened was in 1997, when Dorothy Riley, Betty Weaver, Marilyn Kelly and Patty Boyle served on the court.
Dorothy Riley retired that year and was replaced by Cliff Taylor.
There was a female majority again in 2009 to 2010 with Marilyn Kelly, Betty Weaver, Maura Corrigan and Diane Hathaway.
However, during 2010, Betty Weaver retired and was replaced by Alton Davis.
The last female majority was in 2011 with Marilyn Kelly, Mary Beth Kelly, Maura Corrigan and Diane Hathaway.
However, during the year, Justice Corrigan left the court (to become DHHS Director) and Brian Zahra replaced her.