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Lansing, Michigan

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David Mittleman
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Michigan Supreme Court’s New Policy Enhances Credibility, Avoids Conflicts

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Earlier this month, Michigan’s Supreme Court adopted a fair and reasonable new policy to govern the disqualification of justices in the event of a potential conflict of interest. By a 4-3 vote, Michigan’s Gang of Justice approved rules that will, in some cases, take the decision out of the potentially conflicted justice’s hands.

Judicial disqualification, also known as recusal, is an incredibly important component of the impartiality and integrity of the legal system. Under the old, unwritten tradition, each individual justice essentially had the final say on whether or not to step aside on a given case due to a conflict of interest. While most judges and justices do the right thing and step aside when they face a conflict of interest, the few who do not can seriously undermine the public’s trust.

A stunning and well–known example can be found in West Virginia, where a state Supreme Court justice was elected to the state’s highest court with the help of $3 million donated by the chairman of Massey Energy Company. That justice later decided in favor of Massey in two key decisions, despite calls for his disqualification.

The new rules adopted by the Michigan Supreme Court will help avoid any actual or perceived injustice. Now, a party whose request for disqualification is refused by an individual justice can appeal to the entire seven-member Court for a ruling.

An excellent editorial by the Lansing State Journal underscores the importance of the change in policy, especially in this era of big-money judicial campaigns. The four justices who voted in favor of the measure – Justices Hathaway, Cavanagh, Weaver, and Chief Justice Kelly – clearly understand the importance of fairness and impartiality. The minority, on the other hand, would prefer the old way of doing things.

Justice Robert Young, who in the past almost always voted with the “Sleeping Judge” Cliff Taylor, was among the dissenters. Last year the people of Michigan voted Taylor off the bench. In 2010, voters will get to have their say about Justice Young.