In partisan move, Republicans move Michigan's Court of Claims from elected judges to judges selected by the Supreme Court
This week the State House's Republican majority passed legislation that removes the Court of Claims from the Ingham County Circuit Court to a four-judge Court of Appeals panel made up of judges hand-picked by the Supreme Court. The legislation was introduced two weeks ago and rushed through the Legislature without a hearing by the Judiciary Committee because it was opposed by every legal or judicial entity in Michigan that had enough warning to respond.
The highly-political move, which is to be implemented immediately, removes a significant funding source from the Ingham County bench, without prior notice, and transfers the Court of Claims duties to a Court of Appeals administration that:
1. Has no court room dedicated to trials.
2. Has no computer system to manage trial-level litigation.
3. Has politically-elected judges who, for the most part, lack trial level experience.
4. Has no staff experienced in trial-level litigation.
To top that off, by rushing the enabling bill through the Legislature and making the changes immediate, the process has been disruptive and ill-thought through. For example, under the language of the bill, many statutory rights which now are litigated in other local Circuit Courts (for example Open Meetings Act violations, FOIA disputes and Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act litigation) will now be transferred to Lansing.
Knowledgeable lawyers and judges have described the Republicans' tampering with the longstanding Court as a "hijacking" of the Court of Claims remniscent of Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing controversy in the 1930s, when Roosevelt attempted to "stack" the nation's highest court with politically-acceptable judges.
The Republicans argued that this change will make the Court of Claims judges more diverse, which is probably sufficient "public relations" justification to avoid criticism from ordinary voters and taxpayers. Jurists and lawyers criticized the move, however, because it is clearly a hijacking of the Court of Claims from an experienced, smooth-functioning trial court and handing it over to a novice operation that will need to create a brand-new, inexperienced and redundant bureaucracy. And in this manner, with the judges owing their Court of Claims appointment to the insurance-oriented majority of the Supreme Court, rather than to voters, the arch conservative court majority will maintain close control over the Court of Claims process and results.