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A supreme opportunity to improve high court's image

Date: 12/02/2012
Source: Detroit Free Press

By Brian Dickerson, Free Press Deputy Editorial Page Editor

Justice Diane Hathaway hasn't reached the halfway mark in her first term on the state's highest court, but it's unlikely she'll be there much longer.

Until this year, Hathaway was known chiefly for knocking off incumbent Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, the court's longest-serving Republican, in the 2008 election.

But last summer brought the disclosure that Hathaway and her husband, lawyer Michael Kinglsey, had briefly transferred their second home in Florida to Kingsley's daughter, ostensibly to facilitate bank approval of a short sale of their primary residence in Grosse Pointe Park -- a house in which the couple was several hundred thousand dollars underwater.

Hathaway has been sphinx-like about the transaction, which the state Judicial Tenure Commission has been scrutinizing since it became public. But last month, Detroit's U.S.Attorney filed a civil fraud suit seeking the forfeiture of the Florida home Hathaway and Kingsley have since reclaimed -- an action that could portend more serious allegations to come.

I've no idea how serious Hathaway's legal exposure may be, although it's a bad sign when a sitting justice has to refer curious reporters to one of the state's premier criminal defense specialists. The sleaziness of her real estate dealings is palpable, though, and few people in either party believe she'll still be on the Supreme Court when its current term ends.

The Michigan Constitution gives Gov. Rick Snyder the authority to appoint a replacement for any justice who leaves the court before the end of his or her term. Snyder has already exercised that authority once, when he appointed then-Court of Appeals Judge Brian Zahra to the seat vacated by Maura Corrigan.

Snyder has displayed little interest in leaving his own stamp on the court -- Zahra is a conservative Republican who typically votes with the old Engler court majority -- and replacing Hathaway with another conservative Republican would only augment the Republicans' current 4-3 majority. But that safe majority gives Snyder an opportunity to adopt, by his own executive order, one of the most important recommendations of the bipartisan commission on state Supreme Court elections co-chaired by retiring Democratic Justice Marilyn Kelly and Republican U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Ryan.

The Kelly-Ryan commission spent more than a year studying ways to insulate the theoretically nonpartisan Supreme Court from the corrupting influence of Michigan's political parties and the special interests who bankroll them. Its members have urged Snyder to take a giant step in that direction by choosing his next justice from a list of three to five candidates vetted, in public hearings, by a panel of respected laypeople and lawyers. Commissioners say the panel should be appointed by Snyder himself -- with the proviso that both major parties are equally represented.

For Snyder, it's an opportunity to boost the credibility of a judicial branch that has been tarnished by grasping party bosses and untraceable special-interest money -- and to burnish his own reputation as a man concerned with fairness.

He should seize it while he has the chance.

(c) 2012, Detroit Free Press