Law professor eyes seat on Michigan Supreme Court

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

University of Michigan law professor Bridget Mary McCormack hopes voters will see the wisdom of choosing a Michigan Supreme Court justice who hails from academia rather than court.

While teaching law for 16 years, she's helped students critique appellate decision-making, and in the clinical programs she's started, the students practice in trial courts.

"So I don't feel intimidated by the job itself," said McCormack, sitting in her comfortable, light-filled Ann Arbor home.

It's been about a year since McCormack, 45, started talking to other law professionals about the possibility of running for Supreme Court. After so much positive feedback, she figured she'd give it a try.

McCormack said the faculty was once a common path to the state supreme court, and many Supreme Court justices through the years had not previously served as a judge. That includes recent appointee, Elena Kegan, who was a professor at Harvard Law School before Barack Obama appointed her first Solicitor General and then Supreme Court justice.

Last month, state Democrats endorsed McCormack and two other women--Wayne County Circuit Judge Connie Kelley and Oakland County District Judge Shelia Johnson--for the Supreme Court race to be decided in November.

Justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra will run as incumbents, and Republicans will nominate their candidates in August.

Three seats will be filled.

"I really care about a system that treats everyone fairly, so that commitment drives my interest a great deal," McCormack said. "The court system is obviously a critical part of our democracy. It's the one branch of our government that's not supposed to be pay-to-play. People want and expect it to have integrity. When it doesn't, people lose confidence in it."

McCormack moved to Ann Arbor in 1998 to teach in Michigan Law School's general clinic, which handles an array of litigation cases for people who can't afford lawyers.

She became dean of all clinical programs in 2003, and since then, has launched a number of clinics, including the Domestic Violence Clinic, the Pediatric Health Advocacy Clinic, and most recently, the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has exonerated five people.

McCormack insists that wrongful convictions are not just harmful to the accused and their loved ones, but also to society because the guilty remain at large.

One of the goals of the Innocence Clinic is to shine a light on areas where the justice system can be improved, including eyewitness identification procedures, scientific testing and testimony, and confessions.

But the largest room for improvement is the quality of lawyers representing people who are accused of a crime, McCormack said.

"To Michigan's credit, the governor has appointed a task force to figure out how we can efficiently and effectively provide counsel to people who are accused and can't afford it," she said, adding that good lawyers are worth the cost to the counties because they make sure the guilty are removed from society.

McCormack says she doesn't shy away from tough legal problems faced in the clinics.

"I like to figure out what they are and dive in and see if there's something that can be done about them," she said.

A justice, she noted, is not there to advocate for either side, but to call the balls and strikes.

"But the Supreme Court has the administrative and rule-making and decision-making functions that set the tone for how justice is administered in all of our courts throughout the states," she said, adding that because nearly all criminal and civil cases are adjudicated in the state courts, the state court system must work as effectively as possible for all Michigan residents.

McCormack grew up in central New Jersey, the daughter of a small business owner and homemaker who later became a social worker. Her younger sister, Mary McCormack, is an actress who recently ended her fifth season as the star of In Plain Sight on the USA network. Their brother, Will, is a screenwriter/actor whose next movie, Celeste and Jesse Forever, will be released this summer.

McCormack jokes that as the oldest child, she tried to set a good example by going to law school.

"I took the responsible path," said McCormack. "They showed me! Turns out there are other paths."

She and her husband, Steven Croley, each had a four-year-old and a six-year-old when they married, and now Anna and John are 14, and Matthew and Harry are 12.

"There's a lot of boy energy around here," said McCormack, who jokes that one of her hobbies is doing laundry.

Croley is on leave from his job as a professor at Michigan Law faculty, and now serves as special assistant to the president and senior counsel to the president in the Office of White House Counsel.

That means he leaves for Washington every Monday morning and returns Friday evening.

"It's temporary," she said, with some relief.

Their children play string instruments and have formed their own band called "Joe, the Plumber." (John, 14, recently quipped that now that they're not so young and cute anymore, people will start expecting them to actually be talented.)

McCormack calls herself a "mental health runner," although her preference is a daily 7 a.m. swim once the outdoor pool at the Huron Valley Swim Club opens for the season.

She also spends a lot of time behind the wheel. During Mondays in the winter, for instance, she drove her son to Pioneer High School swim team practice at 5:30 a.m., her daughter and friends to regular classes at Pioneer at 7:30, and the car pool to Slauson Middle School at 8.

Then she drove to work.

Her odometer will continue to climb if she's elected justice because she'll commute from Ann Arbor to Lansing. She doesn't mind the drive, and says her kids would revolt if forced to transfer.

McCormack says she's ready to bump up her campaign in the coming months, although she's no fan of the amount of money spent on political elections in general, and in judicial elections in particular.

"I wish there was a way to just let voters evaluate the candidates without that influence," she said. "But I am up for the job, and expect to be able to make sure people understand who I really am and what my core values are.

Published: Mon, Apr 9, 2012

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