Historical Society luncheon offers speakers of 'Supreme' interest



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Speakers took two very different approaches at the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society annual luncheon last Thursday, but both succeeded in increasing the knowledge of the large crowd in attendance.

Justice Joan Larsen, the newest member of the Michigan Supreme Court, spoke in up-close and personal terms about one individual who indisputably plays a large role in the historical record, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The current president of the State Bar of Michigan (SBM), Lori Buiteweg, gave an overview of the insights Michigan Supreme Court justices had about what would happen in the future of the legal profession.

Buiteweg further compared those justices’ foresight with the ongoing process of responding to the future embodied by SBM’s 21st Century Practice Task Force.

The MSC Historical Society is a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation which collects, preserves, and displays documents and items relating to MSC and other Michigan Courts, as well as promoting the history and public awareness of Michigan’s courts and legal heritage. The society, which was founded by MSC Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley, sponsors research, publishes educational materials and holds special events.

The distinguished Historical Society President, Charles R. Rutherford, welcomed guests to the Detroit Athletic Club for the annual membership luncheon. He noted that all of the Michigan Supreme Court justices were present except Brian Zahra who had a previously-scheduled conflict.

He also acknowledged previous Michigan Supreme Court justices in attendance, including Marilyn Kelly,  Conrad Mallett, and Mary Beth  Kelly, who had just joined the Historical Society board.

Former Justice Charles Levin, who is almost 90, arrived just prior to Rutherford’s introductions.

West Michigan attorney Bruce Courtade, of Rhoades McKee, serves on the society’s board of directors.

After Rutherford’s introduction, MSC Chief Justice Robert Young addressed the crowd briefly. He spoke about the progress made in performance measures at the trial courts under MSC management, and  introduced Justice Larsen by discussing the contribution she has made to the court’s “vigorous discussion” at their weekly conferences.

The chief justice joked that he feels a need to outlive all of his law clerks “to prevent them telling stories about me.”

Justice Larsen’s stories about SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia were all flattering and warmly positive.

Larsen has an outstanding background in addition to the clerkship for Justice Scalia, after she graduated first in her class from Northwestern University School of Law. She won numerous academic and writing awards while at Northwestern, provided legal advice to the White House, among other agencies, while a deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, and served on the faculty of University of Michigan Law School since 1998, where she achieved a reputation as a brilliant legal scholar.

“I am a law geek,” she started out. “The best evidence of this is that I have a favorite Westlaw headnote, and it reads, ‘Where the legislative history is ambiguous, the court must turn to the statute itself.’

“I knew you would laugh; you are lawyers, and that seems backwards. But the fact that that headnote exists is a measure of Justice Scalia’s effect on the law,” she added, referring

to the famed jurist’s doctrine of originalism.

Justice Larsen said that Justice Scalia firmly encouraged law clerks to engage in debate with him. “He valued clerks most who would argue with him,” she said. “It took me a few months, but I pretty quickly figured out that Justice Scalia loved a good debate. We developed a very nice rapport. I could tell him when I thought he was wrong on the law, or sometimes when I thought his pen was a little too sharp.”

She emphasized that his tradition of being civil even to those with whom he greatly disagreed has been continued during her experience with the Michigan Supreme Court.

Justice Larsen’s emotions welled up as she talked about the last time she saw Justice Scalia. He sought her out at a large event in Washington, D.C.,  knowing that she had been appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court, embraced her, and called her ‘Justice.’

The title of Lori Buiteweg’s presentation was “On Michigan Supreme Court Visionaries, or, @LoriBuiteweg on @MiSupremeCt #Drivingchange and #Sbmfuture law,” to drive home the point that social media advances have changed the landscape in ways that few could have predicted.

Ann Arbor attorney Buiteweg, who specializes in family law, emphasized that change is hard, and being a visionary even harder, but said a number of MSC justices were up to the task.

She mentioned two justices whose ideas took decades to realize: Justice George Durant called for state regulation of the legal profession in 1882, and the state bar came into existence 43 years later; and Justice Howard Wiest found a need for a Court of Appeals, which came to pass some 50 years later.

The previously-mentioned Dorothy Comstock Riley, whose term was much more recent, not only saw the need for more specializing within the courts, such as family courts, but also “was the guiding light behind the drive to create the current Hall of Justice.”

Buiteweg closed by asking that everyone pay attention to the report of the 21st Century Practice Task Force, due April 25.