Focus on independence of the judiciary --Justice Sandra Day O'Connor among speakers at WSU symposium

By John Minnis

Legal News

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be among the speakers at an invitation-only symposium at Wayne State University in February on "Options for an Independent Judiciary in Michigan."

The nonpartisan symposium, co-sponsored by the Wayne State Law School and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), will present various potential reforms to the process of electing or selecting Michigan's Supreme Court Justices in 2020 and beyond.

Topics to be discussed include the advantages and disadvantages of merit selection of judges over the current elective process, general election reform, public financing of judicial elections and voter education.

The State Bar of Michigan and the League of Women Voters are also co-sponsors of the symposium.

"We are honored and privileged to have Justice O'Connor here for this important event," said Robert M. Ackerman, dean and professor of law at Wayne State University Law School. "Justice O'Connor has taken a great interest in the independence of the judiciary, and her participation will help focus attention on this issue. We have enjoyed collaborating with ABOTA and hope that the program will have a long-term impact on the provision of justice in Michigan."

Loretta Ames, current president of the Michigan Chapter of ABOTA, said one reason for the 2020 goal 10 years down the road is to have adequate time for judicial reform to be done correctly.

"Any change to the current process should be deliberative and not a quick fix," she said. "Election and selection processes which place a premium on transparency, public input and diverse input will elevate judicial independence and public confidence in the courts."

St. Clair Shores attorney Robert Garvey, national board representative of ABOTA and past president of the Michigan Chapter, said another reason the year 2020 was selected is because it is beyond the terms of sitting justices and at the expiration of the winners of the 2010 election, where Justices Elizabeth Weaver and Robert Young face re-election.

"We did not want this to be about any one election," Garvey said. "We're telling them (partisan stakeholders) they can put down their weapons."

Garvey said other states have explored and encouraged independent judiciaries, either by selection or publicly funded nonpartisan elections. One such state is Arizona, Justice O'Connor's home state.

Through the Sandra Day O'Connor Project on the State of the Judiciary and the O'Connor Judicial Selection Initiative, the former associate justice is a frequent speaker on state judicial reform and independence.

"We've put cash in the courtroom," she said at a Fordham Law School conference, "and it's just wrong."

Other confirmed speakers at the Wayne State symposium include retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis; Seth Andersen, executive director of the American Judicature Society; and James Sample of Hofstra University.

Kourlis served for nearly 20 years as a Colorado Supreme Court justice and trial court judge. She is a founding member and executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) at the University of Denver. The IAALS is dedicated to improving the process and culture of the civil justice system. It provides principled leadership, conducts comprehensive and objective research and develops innovative and practical solutions focused on serving individuals and organizations that rely on the system to clarify rights and resolve disputes.

Founded in 1913, the mission of the American Judicature Society is "to secure and promote an independent and qualified judiciary and a fair system of justice." Andersen is a nationally recognized authority on judicial selection, judicial independence and improvements to the administration of justice. He has published numerous articles on merit selection of judges, diversity in state court judiciaries and the role of the organized bar in promoting an independent judiciary.

Before joining the Hofstra Law faculty in 2009, Sample served as an attorney in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. At the Brennan Center, Sample was involved in the Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. case, which formed the basis for John Grisham's book, The Appeal.

Garvey said the Wayne State symposium is unique in that the sponsors are only inviting people with the power to shape public opinion and make reform. Invitees include trial lawyers, state Supreme Court justices, Republican and Democratic leaders, the American Constitution Society, The Federalist Society, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, labor, deans of all Michigan law schools, the legislative and executive branches of state government and major law firms.

"They're action people who have power," Garvey said. "This is a bipartisan exploration on ways we can think about the judiciary."

The national American Board of Trial Advocates was formed in 1957 to fight for the preservation of "Justice by the People," the civil jury trial. Members are evenly divided between plaintiff and corporate defense lawyers, all of whom seek a stable, nonpartisan, independent judiciary.

"You always want to have an independent judiciary," Garvey said. "I think everyone on the street wants that."

For more information about the symposium, contact Robin Dortenzio at Wayne State Law School at (313) 577-3099.

Published: Thu, Jan 7, 2010

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