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Wed May 12, 2010
Mich justices battle over ethics, secrecy
By Rick Pluta, Michigan Public Radio Network
LANSING, MI –
Tensions on the Michigan Supreme Court exploded into public view Wednesday as the justices argued about a confidentiality rule. Three of the justices acknowledged they have filed an ethics grievance against Justice Betty Weaver for violating the rule. As Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports, the news came at the court's monthly administrative meeting that turned into a sometimes raucous event.
These monthly administrative hearings are typically pretty tame, despite long-simmering tensions on the court. This month, judicial restraint was out the window as the justices bickered, interrupted and called each other names.
"There's an 800-pound gorilla in this room."
Justice Betty Weaver has been a flashpoint on the court for the past several years as she's often battled with her fellow Republicans and accused them of misfeasance and ethical lapses. The other three Republican justices have chafed under the accusations and Weaver's refusal to abide by a rule that prohibits disclosure of what happens in the court's closed-door conferences. Weaver says the rule violates her First Amendment rights and is meant to hide the court's decision-making process from public view.
"I understand why public officials want secrecy," she said. "It's a lot easier to deal in secrecy."
Fed up, Weaver's fellow Republicans acknowledged they have filed a grievance against her with authorities, including the Judicial Tenure Commission, which investigates allegations of misconduct by judges.
Specifically, the grievance is that Weaver revealed details of one of the justices' closed-door sessions to a lawyer who used the information to craft a motion in an attorney discipline case before the Supreme Court. Justice Robert Young says that crossed the line into misconduct.
"I think no one, whether they are a lawyer or not, would be other than shocked to know that a justice of this court shared the confidential communications about a case to a lawyer who was a party in a related case that gave him strategic information," Young said.
Young was joined by Justices Maura Corrigan and Stephen Markman in filing the grievance. If the commission determines there was a violation, it could recommend censure, suspension or removal from office. But, the commission's recommendations have to be adopted by the Supreme Court. The commission's director would not confirm or deny there is an investigation underway, but he did say the question of disciplining a Supreme Court justice is "uncharted territory."
Weaver says she made a mistake, and took herself off the case. But Weaver says she did nothing unethical, that her rivals on the court are simply seeking revenge, and the public won't buy their arguments.
"The public is not interested in tattle-taling and I do believe the public will take care of tattle-tale judges," she alleged.
Justice Young is up for re-election this year. Weaver's term also expires, but she says she hasn't made a decision on seeking re-election.
Weaver also tried to get the court to repeal the confidentiality rule because she says it wasn't properly adopted four years ago. She was supported by Democratic Justice Diane Hathaway, and that sparked this angry exchange with Justice Markman.
"This has been the lawbooks for years," Markman said.
"Well, Justice Markman, you sound exactly like my children when they were in kindergarten," Hathaway responded.
Hathaway and Weaver also took the Republicans to task for boycotting closed-door sessions of the court and simply sending in their votes on official rulings, and whether to accept or refuse cases. Weaver says that is an abdication of a judge's duty.
Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly tried to strike a compromise by proposing a rule that prohibits justices from going public with its closed-door deliberations except to report misbehavior. A full hearing on the rule will probably take place next month, although it seems unlikely that by itself that will restore order to the Michigan Supreme Court.