State Bar’s force report goes before House Judiciary Committee

Members of the state House Judiciary Committee appeared to be business-oriented Thursday when Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, made a presentation on the Bar’s recently released Judicial Crossroads Task Force Report.

The report offers suggestions on what can be done to fix the state’s justice system during a massive state budget crisis, such as the state being responsible for funding an indigent defense system; making e-filing statewide; and a shared jurisdiction system that would reduce the number of judges.

Though the Legislature can only push for such legislation as court consolidation and indigent defense, the idea of a business docket perked the most interest.

Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, and Rep. Phil Cavanagh, D-Redford Twp., said they were intrigued by the three-year pilot program, which would be based in Oakland and Wayne counties, the state’s most active court systems. It would involve two or three judges solely dedicated to business-to-business disputes.

When asked whether it would involve additional costs, Welch said once it’s up and running, it would be a means of saving costs. She added that the business impact committee, which drafted the pilot idea, found that such a model would not take any resources away from each county’s existing court system.

But actual cost numbers were what some committee members most hoped to review.

While Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, called the report a “great first step,” he added that he shared the same views as Rep. Bob Constan, D-Dearborn Heights, in that the two would have liked to see more specific recommendations with respect to court consolidations, pay cuts for judges and staffs, especially in southeast Michigan.

Essentially, “how we can see the kind of sacrifices of the judicial branch that, frankly, the rest of us are having to make, and, as we’ll learn by the end of the day [following Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal presentation], that we’re going to have to make even more of.”

Welch said that there will be more specific numbers as concurrent jurisdiction plans go forward.

After the meeting, Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, mentioned that there are bills ready to be introduced for indigent defense funding, and that stronger efforts would be made following last year’s legislative collapse. In addition, Committee Chair Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, said that there would be a committee made up specifically for it.

Because of time restraints, Welch was invited to return to the next committee meeting for further questions on the report.

The report, which was written for members of the Legislature, the governor and the Michigan Supreme Court to review with the intent that they will consider making changes, can be found at http://www.michbar.org/judicialcrossroads.

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A carrot and a stick for Michigan voters

Twelve years to the day after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Massey, et al. v Secretary of State that term limits for state legislators, approved by Michigan voters in 1992, are indeed constitutional, the state house judiciary committee discussed a possible tweak-and-massage of those limits.

It’s not the first time legislators have looked at the idea of tinkering with, but not eliminating, term limits. But yesterday was the first time they’d discussed sweetening the deal in hopes of gaining favor with Michigan voters.

The term-limit adjustment would go like this: it would allow legislators to serve up to 14 years, as they are now. Currently, elected members of the state legislatures can serve three two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the state Senate. But the joint resolution, HJR EEE, proposes that they could serve all 14 years in the House, or 12 years in the Senate and two years in the house, which would slow the turn-over in the state legislature. The upshot would be that more experienced legislators could stay in office, and ideally could gain the experience and build the relationships necessary to sort out Michigan’s numerous and deep challenges.

Here comes the sweetener. Also proposed in the resolution is a provision that if the legislature does not present a balanced budget to the governor by July 1 of every year, each and every representative and senator would pay the price, and would forfeit his or her salary for every day until it’s it’s done. If the governor does receive the budget on time, but refuses to sign it, the governor and lieutenant governor would forfeit their salary until the governor seals the deal.

The resolution, sponsored by Westland Democrat Richard LeBlanc, is a melding of two house bills, sponsored by Tim Bledsoe, D-Grosse Pointe, and Bill Rogers, R-Brighton. LeBlanc said that both ideas are appealing, but attaching the paycheck forfeiture to reforming term limits would provide an attractive selling point to get voters on board.

According to LeBlanc, voters like term limits. But Bledsoe noted that Michigan has the most “draconian” limits in the country. Only California and Arkansas have similar limits.

“At one point in our country, 21 states had term limits,” LeBlanc said. But they’ve had such devastating consequences that as of today, six of those states have repealed.

In 1992, he was in favor of them, he admits. And in fact, he wouldn’t have been elected without them.

People were “astounded” he said, when LeBlanc announced that he liked proposal B in 1992. But he’s had a change of heart, now that he’s seen what widespread inexperience does to the legislative process.

“They were right,” he said of term limit opponents. “I was wrong.”

Next year, if term limits are not tweaked, all of the most experienced representatives will be gone, at a time when Michigan is facing serious issues, said Rogers. He likened electing representatives to choosing a heart surgeon.

“I would rather have someone who’s been doing it for a few years than someone who is doing it for the first time,” Rogers said.

The proposal will come back to the committee, “very soon,” said Chairmain Mark Meadows, D-Lansing. Bill sponsors hope to get a ballot proposal in front of voters for the August primary elections.