by Jessica Carreras
Associated Press contributed to this report
LANSING – In one dramatic day, the deeply divided Michigan Supreme Court shifted in favor of Democrats as Republican-turned-Independent Justice Elizabeth Weaver stepped down and was replaced by Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointee Alton Thomas Davis. It’s a good sign for LGBT activists and other liberals looking to shift the high court left in November’s elections.
Gov. Granholm named Appeals Court Judge and Grayling resident Davis to the state’s highest court Aug. 26, and Davis took the oath of office just before noon. His appointment doesn’t require legislative approval.
During a news conference with Weaver and Davis, Granholm told Weaver that “the next justice must share your compassion for those in need, your commitment to justice and your fierce independence. I can’t think of anyone who better meets those criteria than Judge Alton Tom Davis.” She called Davis “the most experienced jurist that I have ever appointed to the bench – all courts.”
Davis was nominated for a full eight-year term at last weekend’s Democratic state convention in Detroit, but plans to run as a nonpartisan candidate. The other candidate endorsed by Democrats is Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris. The Republican-endorsed candidates vying for the two open seats are incumbent Justice Robert Young and Wayne County Circuit Judge Mary Beth Kelly.
Weaver’s resignation didn’t shock many, given recent clashes with both political parties.
She has twice been nominated by Republicans for the Supreme Court, but has clashed with the court’s GOP justices frequently over the years. After a third Democrat, Diane Hathaway, won Chief Justice Cliff Taylor’s seat in 2008, Weaver has often sided with the Democrats in 4-3 decisions, infuriating Republicans. She had planned to run for re-election as an independent until deciding to step down.
Weaver has such a prickly relationship with her fellow Republicans that they filed a misconduct grievance against her earlier this year. Davis said he agrees with Weaver’s assertion that there has been too much personal animosity on the court.
“I do not think that has any part of professional legal work, and ought not be there, and I’m not going to participate in it,” he said. “It’s distracting, it is detracting and it’s not to be encouraged.”
The rancor continued with Michigan GOP spokeswoman Jennifer Hoff saying in a statement after Granholm’s announcement that “Michigan residents deserve a qualified judge, not a politician in a robe.”
Asked about the comments, Davis said, “It’s a good reason to have a nonpartisan system so that those kinds of wild attributions for political purposes aren’t necessary or encouraged.”
The 63-year-old Grayling resident was appointed by Granholm to the Court of Appeals in 2005 after being a circuit court judge for Otsego, Crawford and Kalkaska counties for 21 years. Davis taught English before attending the Detroit College of Law. Upon graduation, he worked in private practice and was the part-time Crawford County prosecutor before winning the circuit court seat in 1984.
Politicos on both sides are scrambling to review Davis’ record to gauge where he will stand on key issues – one of them being LGBT rights.
During his time on the circuit court, Davis did show a glimmer of gay support, albeit in an unpublished decision. The February 2009 ruling authored by Davis concerned the custody rights of a lesbian couple who parented three children together under Illinois’ second-parent adoption laws, but had since moved to Michigan and dissolved their relationship.
Davis, along with Judge Stephen L. Borrello, wrote in their opinion: “‘Parent’ is defined as ‘the natural or adoptive parent of a child.’ It is apparent that the trial court ignored this definition and construed the word ‘parents’ in the (Michigan) Child Custody Act as requiring male and female adoptive parents. … The only relevant consideration in this matter is each individual party’s established relationship as an adoptive parent with the children, not their relationship with each other.”
Though it doesn’t make Davis a transparent win for progressives, ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan says it’s a good indicator. “It’s hard to say, but hopefully (Davis) will turn out to be a progressive justice,” Kaplan said. “It’s hopeful that with his appointment, that might mean that there’s a 4-3 majority of progressive justices on civil rights issues, but we just don’t know how things will play out.”
And before they can, Davis has to be elected to a full eight-year term.
Davis will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot with the title “Justice of the Supreme Court” under his name. Republican Justice Young also will have the incumbent designation.
It’s a distinction, says Kaplan, that could give Davis an edge in winning one of the two open seats in a less closely-followed race where voters tend to select those already on the court. “What will be next to his name is the term ‘incumbent,’ meaning people would recognize him already as a justice,” Kaplan said. “It could be very helpful.”
But the fight isn’t over yet on either side. The Supreme Court race in recent years has drawn millions of dollars in ads run by candidates and third parties, and Davis said he knows he’ll have to raise money for his race. He just doesn’t know how much.
Judges cannot run for re-election once they’re 70, so if Davis wins, he’ll only be able to serve one term.
The ACLU of Michigan will be holding an educational forum on the Michigan Supreme Court justices in the near future. Check http://www.aclumich.org for updates.