COMMENTARY: Justice Cavanagh's remarkable judicial career celebrated

By Ross Parker

Legal luminaries recently celebrated the distinguished judicial career of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael F. Cavanagh, the longest serving appellate judge in Michigan history. Several hundred people attended the court's extraordinary session in the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing on December 3 to express their appreciation for his exceptional service to the legal profession and the people of the state of Michigan.

Justice Cavanagh became a judge in 1972 when he was elected as a district judge in Lansing. Two years later he was elected as judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, and in 1983 the electorate promoted him to the state Supreme Court where he has served for 33 years, the second longest serving member of that court. He was chief justice from 1991-1995. When he retires on January 1 next year, he will have sat on the bench for 42 years and ruled on nearly 100,000 cases.

His life on the bench reminds us of the qualities that make up a great judge: integrity, a consistent sense of justice, common sense, contribution to the development of the rule of law, and civility.

Successfully navigating the treacherous waters of Michigan judicial politics is itself a notable accomplishment. There are many arguments against an elected judiciary. Voter neglect and indifference regularly produce judges who serve as prime examples of why a well constructed appointive system makes more sense.

But Justice Cavanagh is the exception.

Even when his views on subjects such as criminal law and procedure are expressed in dissenting opinions, he continues to be respected for his intellectual integrity.

Fifty years ago Chief Justice Earl Warren and the U.S. Supreme Court revolutionized criminal procedure in America by a decade of cases which re-interpreted the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments to the Constitution. In the decades that followed many of these rulings have been tempered and contracted by conservative court majorities who struck the balance differently between defendants' rights and crime control.

Justice Cavanagh's opinions have continued to emphasize the importance of protecting defendants' rights, but they also continued to be relevant for those of us on the other side of the aisle.

His views, majority or dissent, made us all better prosecutors and law enforcement officers. They poked and prodded us in the nuances of investigation and prosecution to be more careful, more consistent, and more professional in our jobs.

His sense of justice contributed significantly to the creation of a better criminal justice system for generations to come.

His enrichment of the development of the rule of law extends well beyond criminal law and procedure into a wide variety of other substantive areas.

He also mentored 53 law clerks (including me), was a law school teacher of ethics and practice, a champion of victims' rights, a national leader in the support of tribal courts, and a tireless worker for the improvement of the law and its practitioners.

For all of these attributes, it is Michael Cavanagh's civility and peacemaking qualities that are most valued by those who worked with and for him.

All litigators have witnessed or experienced judges who demean, terrify, and reduce lawyers to tears. But being in Justice Cavanagh's presence in the courtroom is always a refreshing, even enjoyable, experience.

Justice Cavanagh has been that rare judge who can probe and question, and even ultimately rule against you, without making litigators want to retreat to a life of wills and debt collection in the safety of their offices. Surely this courtesy and respect will continue to be paid forward into countless acts of civility and professionalism by lawyers and judges for decades to come.

So thanks Justice Michael Cavanagh. Your life's work made a difference for us all.


Ross Parker is author of the book "Carving Out the Rule of Law: The History of the United States Attorney's Office in Eastern Michigan 1815-2008."

Published: Fri, Dec 19, 2014


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