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Editorial: Making the most of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway's exit

Date: 01/08/2013
Source: Detroit Free Pess

Stick a fork in Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway: She's done -- and high time.

Hathaway, who stunned political odds makers four years ago by unseating incumbent Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, bowed to overwhelming pressure Monday when she submitted her resignation scarcely halfway into her eight-year term.

The coup de grace was a 19-page complaint in which the state Judicial Tenure Commission called for Hathaway's immediate suspension, charging that she had committed criminal fraud, violated the federal money laundering statute, cheated on her joint income taxes, and repeatedly lied to the commission in a futile effort to cover her tracks.

But Hathaway's credibility had been eroding steadily since last May, when WXYZ-TV reported that she and her husband, lawyer Michael Kingsley, had transferred houses in Grosse Pointe and Florida to Kingsley's children shortly before obtaining permission to complete the short sale of a third house they owned in Grosse Pointe. Her legal troubles mounted in November, when the U.S. Justice Dept. filed suit to seize the $664,000 Florida house Hathaway and her husband, lawyer Michael Kingsley, had temporarily deeded to Kingsley's daughter for $10. The criminal allegations outlined Monday in the JTC's list of particulars made Hathaway's continued participation in the business of Michigan's highest court unthinkable.

Michigan's constitution gives Gov. Rick Snyder the exclusive authority to appoint Hathaway's replacement -- and there's little doubt he'll exploit the opportunity to augment the 4-3 majority Republican-nominated justices enjoyed before Democrat Hathaway's abrupt retirement.

But Snyder could establish a far more important legacy by adopting the recommendation of the state's bipartisan commission on state Supreme Court elections, which has urged the governor to choose his next nominee from a list of three to five candidates vetted, in public hearings, by a panel of respected lawyers and lay people.

The commission, co-chaired by then-state Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Ryan, spent more than a year exploring ways to insulate the ostensibly non-partisan state Supreme Court from the corrupting influence of Michigan's political parties and the special interests that bankroll them. An executive order establishing a governor-appointed nominating panel would be a modest but important step.

Embracing the Kelly-Ryan's recommendation that candidates for the court be vetted publicly by bar and community leaders, rather than privately by party power brokers, should be a no-brainer for a governor who has described himself repeatedly as a champion of greater transparency and accountability in state government.

(c) 2013, Detroit Free Press