A shift of administrative power at the MSC

As soon-to-be former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Cliff Taylor prepares to clean out his office and contemplates life after the Supreme Court, the likely new chief justice is already thinking about the work that lies ahead.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly is likely to be elected chief justice in January

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly is likely to be elected chief justice by her colleagues in January

And who is that, you ask?

The court’s selection of a new chief won’t take place until after the first of the year, but barring an almost unimaginable change of circumstances, say hello to soon-to-be Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly.

With Taylor off the court, the “majority of four,” as Justice Elizabeth Weaver was so fond of calling Taylor and Justices Maura Corrigan, Robert Young and Stephen Markman, now becomes the minority of three.

Don’t look for Weaver to support any of these folks as the new chief.

So, who does that leave?

Justice Michael Cavanagh has served two terms as chief justice already. Weaver had her turn as a one-term chief. In fact, many speculate that the friction between Weaver and the “majority of four” was created when they didn’t support her for a second term and ensconced Corrigan as chief instead. Corrigan served two terms, followed by Taylor’s two terms as chief. Weaver has had plenty to say about Corrigan’s and Taylor’s stints as chief.

Incoming freshman Justice Diane Hathaway needs to get in a few years of service before she would be a credible candidate for chief justice.

Enter Justice Marilyn Kelly. Kelly has yet to serve as the chief justice. Weaver has previously urged the court to elect Kelly as chief. Kelly and Weaver frequently see eye-to-eye on administrative matters and many of the legal issues presented to the court.

Kelly can count on the support of Cavanagh and Hathaway, who are politically and philosophically simpatico with Kelly. Kelly, of course, will vote for herself.

So, there are four votes for a new chief.

And that’s all you need to shift the administrative power on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Appellate courts announce holiday hours

The Michigan Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the State Court Administrative office have posted holiday schedules. The Court of Appeals has a slightly different schedule from the MSC and SCAO due to scheduled furlough days.

Michigan Supreme Court and SCAO
Closed Wednesday, December 24
Closed Thursday, December 25
Open Friday, December 26
Open Monday, December 29
Open Tuesday, December 30
Closed Wednesday, December 31
Closed Thursday, January 1
Open Friday, January 2

Michigan Court of Appeals
Closed Wednesday, December 24
Closed Thursday, December 25
Closed Friday, December 26
Open Monday, December 29
Open Tuesday, December 30
Closed Wednesday, December 31
Closed Thursday, January 1
Closed Friday, January 2

Woman wouldn’t remove veil in court, evidence rule amendment considered

Ginnah Muhammad is a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, a head scarf and veil that covers her entire head except for her eyes.

Her refusal to remove it to testify at her small-claims case against a car rental company has prompted the Michigan Supreme Court to consider a proposed amendment of MRE 611.

Muhammad rented a car from Enterprise Leasing. Enterprise charged her for damage to the car. Muhammad responded by filing a small-claims suit to get her money back.

Thirty-First District Court Judge Paul J. Paruk, sitting as the small-claims court, told Muhammad she had to remove the veil before she could testify. The judge said he needed to see her face so that he could better assess her credibility.

Muhammad balked. She told Paruk she would remove the veil only for a female judge.

Paruk dismissed her case without prejudice.

Enterprise, in the meantime, filed a small-claims suit against Muhammad. She removed it to the 31st District Court. This set up another confrontation with Paruk, who is that court’s only judge. Muhammad asked Paruk to recuse himself from the case. Paruk denied the request and awarded Enterprise $2,083 in damages. Muhammad’s appeal is pending in Wayne County Circuit Court.

But it’s not just about the two grand. Muhammad sued Paruk in federal district court. She alleged that Paruk’s insistence that she remove her veil violated her First Amendment right to free exercise of religion and denied her access to the court system. See, Muhammad v. Paruk, 553 F. Supp. 2d 893 (E.D. Mich. 2008).

U.S. District Court Judge John Feikins declined to exercise jurisdiction over the case. But in doing so, he noted that under Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), “the right to free exercise of religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability.”

Feikins then explained why he wouldn’t hear the case:

[I]f Paruk has a valid, neutral and generally applicable policy of requiring witnesses to keep their faces visible while giving testimony, that policy would not violate Muhammad’s right to free exercise of her religion. Determining if Paruk has such a policy and, if he does, deciding whether it is valid, neutral and generally applicable would necessitate a detailed examination of how Paruk manages his court room as a state court judge. Conducting this type of review as a federal judge would undoubtably increase friction in the relationship between our state and federal courts. I find, therefore, that respect for the relationship between our state and federal courts weighs heavily against exercising jurisdiction over Muhammad’s declaratory judgment action for violation of her right to free exercise of her religion.

The proposed amendment of MRE 611 would give Michigan judges the framework to create the neutral policy Feikins mentioned:

(b) Appearance of Parties and Witnesses. The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons.

A staff comment to the proposed amendment explains:

This proposed amendment would clarify that a judge is entitled to establish reasonable standards regarding the appearance of parties and witnesses to evaluate the demeanor of those individuals and to ensure accurate identification.

The court is accepting comments on the proposed amendment through April 1, 2009. Send them by e-mail to MSC_clerk@courts.mi.gov or by regular mail to Box 30052, Lansing, MI, 48909.

MSC names a dozen new chief judges in district and circuit courts

The Michigan Supreme Court has appointed 12 chief judges for various district and circuit courts around the state.

All appointments are effective Jan. 1, 2009 and expire on Dec. 31.

The appointments are listed below. Click the judges’ names to see a copy of the supreme court’s appointment order.

Honorable William W. Carmody – 11th Judicial Circuit Court

Honorable Brent A. Weigle – 3A Judicial District Court

Honorable Patrick W. O’Grady – 15th Judicial Circuit Court

Honorable Stacey A. Rentfrow – 4th Judicial District Court

Honorable Gregory S. Ross – 73A Judicial District Court

Honorable Joshua M. Farrell – 80th Judicial District Court

Honorable Christopher S. Ninomiya – 95B Judicial District Court

Honorable Elizabeth L. Church – 91st Judicial District Court

Honorable Maria I. Barton – 89th Judicial District Court

Honorable Mark A. Wisti – 97th Judicial District Court

Honorable Michael G. Mack – 26th Judicial Circuit Court

Honorable Stewart D. McDonald – 65B Judicial District Court

Roseville judge suspended without pay, censured by MSC for drunken driving

The Michigan Supreme Court has ordered a 90-day suspension without pay and has publicly censured Roseville District Court Judge Catherine Bove Steenland.

Steenland was arrested last spring in Ogemaw County for driving after drinking way too many beers.

According to a report in the Bay City Times, Steenland was on a trail that winds around a lake when she backed into a ditch. Her efforts to get the car out prompted witnesses to call 911.

Steenland had a blood alcohol level of .23 after her arrest. She pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle while visibly impaired.

The Judicial Tenure Commission conducted discipline proceedings and recommended a 90-day suspension without pay, and public censure. The Michigan Supreme Court accepted the JTC’s recommendation in an order released yesterday afternoon.

The suspension is effective Dec.18.

In announcing its discipline of Steenland, the MSC observed:

The respondent has pled guilty to the commission of a misdemeanor designed to promote public safety. The commission of a crime by a judge erodes public confidence in the judiciary, which is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Michigan Lawyers Weekly honors Up & Coming Lawyers of 2008

Michigan Lawyers Weekly is pleased to present the Up & Coming Lawyers of 2008.

This is MiLW’s annual salute to the bar’s rising stars. Each of the lawyers profiled have practiced for 10 years or less, have already distinguished themselves in the practice of law, and appear poised for even greater things!

Congratulations to the 2008 Up & Coming Lawyers:
(MiLW subscribers can click through to each honoree’s profile. Not a subscriber? Click here for a special offer.)

Marla Schwaller Carew

George B. Donnini

Adrienne D. Dresevic

John S. LeRoy

Derek D. McLeod

Keri Lynn Middleditch

Jaimie M. Powell

Janet L. Ramsey

Juliana B. Sabatini

Damali A. Sahu

Eastern District bankruptcy judges featured at Dec. 10 luncheon

Bankruptcy Judges Marci B. McIvor, Phillip J. Shefferly and Thomas J. Tucker are the featured roundtable speakers at the Eastern District Federal Bar Association Bankruptcy Section’s Dec. 10 luncheon at Cobo Hall.

The event starts with an 11:30 a.m. buffet lunch. More information here.