Former chief justice taken for a 'Cruise'

Each time I shovel snow, I'm reminded of a comment in December 2008 from then Chief Justice Clifford Taylor as he prepared to leave the Michigan Supreme Court following an unceremonious defeat at the election polls.

Taylor, a member of the state's highest court since 1997, had just lost his re-election bid to Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Diane Hathaway. His defeat, by a 49 to 41 percent margin, was tied to an election day tidal wave generated by President-elect Barack Obama coupled with a devious campaign ad that labeled Taylor as the "sleeping judge." It was a one-two punch to the solar plexus, ending Taylor's four-year reign as chief justice of the seven-member Supreme Court.

The ad, run by Democratic opponents of Taylor, painted him as literally asleep at the judicial switch, depicting him snoozing while on the bench, with an actor portraying him in a simulated court session. The campaign attack was quickly denounced by Taylor and his supporters, but the damage to his re-election bid already had been done.

So, when I walked into his office at the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing that December day to conduct a bit of an "exit interview" with the outgoing chief, I expected him to be somewhat bitter over being ambushed by his political opponents. In fact, he seemed somewhat relieved that his public service career was nearing an end, knowing that he would be freed from the seemingly endless political sniping that had engulfed the court.

For the most part he was in a jovial mood that day, looking forward to some much-deserved "R & R" and the opportunity to teach a course at Ave Maria Law School in sunny Naples, Fla.

Said Taylor: "I'll be down there from January through April, so I don't expect a lot of sympathy cards," he cracked. "If friends do write, I trust it will be after they're done shoveling."

Whether we qualify as friends or not, I figure it is high time to "write," especially since I have finished my latest round of shoveling. In particular, it seems fitting to share an anecdotal story or two from the Taylor archives, some of which I swore never to print. It has been especially hard to uphold the promise in regard to one of the stories involving a well-known member of the broadcast media, whose reputation as a "ladies' man" is probably more in the realm of wishful thinking.

One story deemed fit for printing involved Hollywood heart-throb Tom Cruise, whose meteoric rise to stardom was officially launched with his performance in the 1986 blockbuster movie, "Top Gun."

The screenplay for the film, which starred Cruise and Kelly McGillis, was written by a neighbor of Taylor's, Boyne City native Jim Cash.

"He lived across the street from us in East Lansing," Taylor said of Cash, who died of an intestinal disorder in the spring of 2000. "He knew I had been an officer in the Navy and he would periodically invite me over to his house to ask, 'Would this be the way naval officers would talk with each other?' He wanted to know whether he had the lingo right for a movie he was working on. I was his decidedly unpaid naval consultant."

That movie, of course, would catapult Cruise to worldwide fame for his portrayal of Navy jet pilot Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. It traced the story of Maverick's run through the Top Gun fighter training school, his heroic downing of a number of MIGs during a battle over the Persian Gulf, and his romancing of instructor Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood, portrayed by the eye-catching McGillis.

"I'm still awaiting payment of my consultant's fee," Taylor said with a smile during the 2008 interview.

"Of course, I could give no guidance as to the seduction of Kelly McGillis," he quipped, alluding to the movie scene in which Cruise and McGillis took their student-teacher relationship to a different level.

Taylor and his wife, Lucille, who served as chief counsel for Gov. John Engler during his administration, were guests of Cash at the world premiere of the movie in East Lansing.

"He wrote a P.G. script, but when the final version came back for showing it had the seduction scene between Cruise and McGillis," Taylor related. "There we all were, in this movie house in East Lansing, watching this movie with our kids, when that scene unfolded. Jim was in a real state, almost to the point of hyperventilating. He couldn't believe they added that scene to the movie."

Not everything, of course, goes according to script in Hollywood, nor for that matter in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Taylor discovered that unwelcome truth firsthand in the November 2008 election when he was bounced from office in what has been termed one of the greatest election upsets in state history.

Ironically, the judicial winner that day turned out to be the real loser, forced from office and eventually into federal prison for committing bank fraud. Taylor, much to his credit, has declined to comment on his onetime opponent's precipitous fall from grace. Perhaps, instead, he can take solace in knowing that state voters were the ones caught napping that election day.

Published: Thu, Feb 26, 2015

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