By Lynn Monson
Lifetime achievement: Architect of 'Michigan Miracle' honored by state Supreme Court
Washington could use a few Dan Wrights these days.
At a time when making public policy seems more about arguing and less about solving problems, a former Michigan state court administrator was honored Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Lansing for not only what he accomplished but how he did it.
The Michigan Supreme Court and the state Department of Human Services presented attorney Daniel J. Wright with a new award created in his honor. The Daniel J. Wright Lifetime Achievement Award “recognizes an outstanding advocate for Michigan children and families,” said Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr.
Gov. Rick Snyder presented the award to Wright as part of a Michigan Adoption Day program at the Hall of Justice in Lansing.
Several of the speakers offering high praise of Wright on Tuesday mentioned that federal officials called one of his achievements “The Michigan Miracle.”
That’s a reference to the two years he spent solving a major problem—converting all of the state’s circuit courts and their Friend of the Court offices to the federally mandated Child Support Enforcement System. A Michigan Supreme Court commissioner for 11 years, Wright was picked for the job by then-Chief Justice Maura Corrigan in 2001. He traveled extensively throughout the state to understand the problems and views of the many court constituencies, then set about finding the most efficient way to a solution. Corrigan noted that it was vastly important work because the state was facing a deadline for losing tens of millions of dollars in federal aid. More importantly, she said, the old system was hurting Michigan families because of inefficiencies and lack of oversight in dealing with missed child support payments.
Wright was later head of the Friend of the Court Bureau, a division of the State Court Administrative Office, the administrative agency of the Michigan Supreme Court. He also directed the office’s Child Welfare Services Division.
That division’s current director, Kelly Howard, said Wright’s successful revision of the child support system saved the state more than $147 million it would have lost in federal funds.
“Dan’s genius and his greatest legacy here is his ability to build relationships—across professional disciplines, across branches of government, across political parties—to unite everyone for a common purpose. He has vision and the gift to share it,” Howard said during the presentation.
Corrigan, now the head of the Michigan Department of Human Services, called Wright “a prince with the heart of a poet and the brains of a diplomat.”
“He could be trusted to resolve conflicts without wounding egos and to identify and lead us to much-needed reforms,” Corrigan said.
Wright’s other work at the state level included starting Adoption Forums for the Supreme Court in 2008 to address barriers that were stranding children in foster care. He served on a “permancy options” legislative work group to find ways to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes. Part of his work led to legislation requiring courts to consult with the child’s wishes when making decisions about the child’s future. Wright also was part of the Michigan Underground Economy Task Force that recommended solutions to the problem of parents hiding assets and income to avoid paying child support.
A native of Detroit, Wright graduated from Marquette University with a degree in journalism, then received his law degree in 1973 from the University of Detroit School of Law. Before joining the Supreme Court staff in 1989, he worked in private practice, including six years with the State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit, where he represented indigent defendants. He was a partner in the Detroit firm of Gromek, Bedure and Thomas, where he specialized in appellate work.
Wright, who lives in Grand Ledge with his wife Lynne after retiring in 2009, said in an interview after the award presentation that he tried to bring honesty, compromise, and accountability to the process of policy-making. That formula isn’t being used much in public policy lately, he said, noting that the day before, the Congressional “Super Committee” announced that it had failed to agree on a plan to reduce the burgeoning national debt.
“I think there is way too much posturing, way too much hypocrisy in government,” Wright said. “This failure of the debt committee, that’s just an example of it, that people just won’t compromise. You have to compromise in order to get results.
“All I did is speak the truth. In other words, if there was something bad that had to be swallowed, I would say so. I’d say this has got to be done, there isn’t going to be any give on this, it’s essential, it’s what we’re here for. Then I would go from one side to the other, first alone, then I’d bring them together.”
Not everyone embraces change equally well, Wright said, so sometimes the greater good required replacing people who were roadblocks.
“The one key thing that I did was holding accountable some people (who) just weren’t trying. They were saying, my way or the highway. And that was it. They were not cooperating with the idea of compromise. And so we had to get rid of them and we did.”
That seemingly tough-guy approach belies what those who worked with Wright say are his strengths. The long list of compliments presented Tuesday included integrity, honesty, loyalty, the ability to make people feel at ease, recognizing the contributions of others, the “rare ability to do great work under great pressure,” and “generosity with his time, his knowledge and his jokes.” Several noted his love—and frequent quoting—of the poet William Butler Yeats.
“It may sound like a movie, with Dan coming in as the superhero, but it’s true,” Howard said. “And that’s how he was able to achieve so much. Just Dan being Dan. Direct and honest and positive and collaborative.”