McMorrow to leave prosecutor's office, bring his expertise to Supreme Court

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Like many his age, Timothy McMorrow feels it is premature to retire and that his long expertise means there is a lot more he can contribute to the legal profession.

At the same time, there is the sense that a change might be in order, and maybe some more flexibility — especially for someone like McMorrow, who has been in the Kent County Prosecuting Attorneys Office since 1982 and has held the position of Chief Appellate Attorney since 1983.

The Michigan Supreme Court (MSC) Commission agreed and has offered the highly-experienced attorney the opportunity to review, on a contract basis, applications to the court. He will be paid per case

“I’m looking forward to this, but with a certain amount of trepidation because it’s such a change,” McMorrow says, with a calm demeanor that belies any actual anxiety about it. “Though I think it will be part-time, I don’t know how much time I’ll devote to it, since it’s sort of like piecework, but it’s good to have control over that.”

The MSC Commissioners review each case under MCR 7.302(B). Cases must fall under one of six criteria, including questions about “the validity of a legislative act;” an issue of “significant public interest” brought against an agency or officer of the state; legal principles of major significance to the state’s jurisprudence; instances where waiting for a Court of Appeals (COA) decision is likely to cause substantial harm; a COA?decision that is “clearly erroneous,” causing material injustice, or if the decision conflicts with MSC decisions or a different COA?decision; or an appeal from an Attorney Discipline board appeal that may cause material injustice.

An article in the State Bar Journal  for Feb. 2008 explained, “Commissioners are the Supreme Court’s permanent research staff; they provide legal research, writing, and analysis for the Court. The commissioners come from a variety of legal backgrounds, including former prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and civil practitioners.”

The current Chief Commissioner is local resident Daniel Brubaker, the subject of a Grand Rapids Legal News article at the time of his appointment in May 2012. According to McMorrow,  Brubaker supervises 19 full-time commissioners and a few other contracted employees.

Naturally, the Commission does not decide which cases will be heard, but is charged with making recommendations to MSC for their final ruling.

Since 70-80% of the applications to the court are in the criminal area, McMorrow’s expertise is a good fit.

Prior to joining the Kent County Prosecuting Attorneys Office, McMorrow worked in the Cook County Public Defender Office in Chicago, on felony appeals. He was briefly in private practice before that.

He attended a Catholic high school in Kalamazoo, followed by getting an A.B. from the University of Notre Dame. It is no secret that McMorrow is a big fan of anything Notre Dame, especially football; he was the president of and has been the recipient of Award of the Year (2004) from the Notre Dame Club of Grand Rapids.

He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School with his J.D. in 1975.

McMorrow has always been very active in the profession, serving as chair of council for both the Criminal Law and Appellate Practice Sections of the State Bar of Michigan (SBM); member of the SBM Committee on Standard Criminal Jury Instructions 1985-1992; member and past treasurer of the Grand Rapids Bar Association; as an organizer for the Michigan Appellate Bench/Bar conference, including co-chairing the conference 2004 and 2007; and as a past president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Appellate Forum.

In addition, he is on the Amicus Committee for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, entailing help with writing briefs that fall under his area of expertise, he has given presentations for the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, and he taught until recently at Grand Rapids Community College on the subjects of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. As many know, McMorrow has given a yearly update on changes to criminal law and important court cases for the GRBA Criminal Law Section.

Looking back on his career with Kent County, McMorrow points with most pride to two precedent-setting decisions. The first, People v. Vandervliet, concerned the circumstances under which evidence about similar acts of a defendant may be used at trial. “The rule has changed quite a bit in terms of if that’s relevant, and that wasn’t all just based on the one case,” McMorrow says, “but mine was the seminal case on it.”

About the other, he explains, “People v. Strait had to do with a child’s statement of what happened in sexual abuse. There is a special rule to allow the first statement of the child under certain circumstances” — the “excited utterance” — “but in this case the MSC adopted a rule that was very, very close to the rule that I asked them to adopt.”

McMorrow has given arguments before the MSC on 30 cases, but adds, “some of them on more important cases than others.”

In addition to actually handling the appeals cases for the Prosecutor’s Office, McMorrow says he and his staff are often called upon to give advice about potential appeals ramifications to colleagues on non-appellate cases.

So much has changed over the last 33 years of his career. McMorrow seems completely comfortable with the technological changes, and though he will talk about his first encounter with “mag cards” and how that was just the first of his technology surprises, he feels the much more important changes have to do with people’s attitudes.

“There’s no question about it, the Michigan Supreme Court in 1982 would fairly be described as quite criminal-friendly and very prosecution-unfriendly, but a lot has changed there. Law enforcement has made a lot of strides in the way they do things, and the irony of it is that the crime rate across the country is actually down.

“There’s also what we call the CSI effect. Juries now think that everything will be all figured out through forensic science and it’s hard to explain the reality to them.

“Also, Kent County has physically grown, so our work load has increased pretty much steadily,” he adds.

One highly significant advance during McMorrow’s career was the granting of investigative subpoena powers to prosecutors. “We can petition the court to allow us to investigate, and we can bring a defendant in and compel them to talk under oath. You can’t do that out on the street. Lots of cases have been solved that way – through revealed information.”

McMorrow says he will really miss the interaction with police agencies his work has involved, but this points to one of the more telling differences in his new adventure. “I’ve spent my whole career as an advocate, but the Supreme Court Commission job is not an advocacy position. You have to look at things objectively, you have to have that mindset,” he says.

His last day is Feb. 20, after which he hopes to spend more time with his wife of 36 years, Anne. McMorrow comments, “I’m leaving the office in good hands. I appreciate people telling me they’re going to miss me, but I’m sure it will all be smooth.”

Still, he adds, “I’ll be missing this office. I’ll be missing the questions about what constitutes getting a warrant, and I’ll even miss the mid-trial explosions that come up at times. You know, I’ve done this for a long time, and I enjoy the people with whom I work.”

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