Outspoken: Chief justice unflinching in expressing his opinion


By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

He is the state's chief justice, the preeminent member of the judiciary in Michigan. He is Harvard educated, well-schooled in the world of political hard knocks, and widely regarded by friends and foes as a brilliant legal scholar.

Yet the opinions of Robert P. Young Jr. don't necessarily hold sway with everyone in legal circles, even an aspiring attorney in his family.

His younger son, 24-year-old Barrett, also is a Harvard grad and currently is an associate director for the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C. He plans to enroll in law school at the University of Chicago this fall with one particular career goal in mind, according to his father.

"He wants to rise to a position to overrule his father," Chief Justice Young said with more than a hint of a smile. "In short, he wants to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He isn't bashful about saying that."

Such confidence is seemingly a family trait that can be traced to Young's father, Robert Sr., a prominent physician in Detroit for 50 years before succumbing to cancer two years ago at age 82. He graduated from medical school at Still College in Iowa, establishing a successful general practice in Detroit despite the evils of racism that he first experienced as a youngster growing up in segregated South Carolina.

"My dad was a very quiet man, very unassuming by nature, but there was quite a bit of steel in his spine," said Young, the first black graduate of Detroit Country Day High School. "I like to think that I inherited some of that steeliness from him."

For those who know Young, that might be considered an understatement. He has not shied away from responding to public criticism of his role on the court, particularly during the reign of former Chief Justice Clifford Taylor. During that time, Young was part of the so-called "Gang of Four" that included Taylor and Justice Maura Corrigan and Justice Stephen Markman. All but Corrigan were appointees of Republican Governor John Engler and were vilified by Democrats and the trial lawyers association for their "anti-worker, anti-civil rights, and anti-consumer agenda." In short, they were accused of ignoring legal precedent in favor of judicial activism, opening the doors of justice for insurance companies and big business while slamming them shut for ordinary citizens.

Young, not surprisingly, has labeled such claims as "pure poppycock," calling the charges "politically motivated attempts" to realign the court's make-up. He mused over the movement to reform the state's judicial selection process from elected to appointed positions, changes that have been championed by such legal heavyweights on a national scale as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"In reality, I believe that those calling for reform are not so unhappy with the process as with the election outcomes," Young said. "The election outcome (for Democrats) was just fine in 2008, while it was not so good in 2010. An examination of the ebb and flow of this movement can really be traced to the outcome of the most recent judicial election."

Young earned re-election last fall, winning an eight-year seat along with Mary Beth Kelly, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge who was a colleague at Dickinson Wright. The campaign was costly and time-consuming, particularly for Young who was in the crosshairs of Democratic efforts to maintain a majority on the state Supreme Court.

"I really enjoyed the campaign last year, more so than my two earlier experiences," Young said, noting that he put more than 80,000 miles on his car during an 18-month period crisscrossing the state. "It was good to be able to talk candidly about judicial philosophy and why it matters in the governmental process. For the most part, the public was very receptive to what we were saying. It was an energizing experience, especially since we received far more strokes out on the campaign trail than we ever have here (in Lansing)."

The campaign, he said, was like an "Avatar" experience, where he assumed a somewhat different personality than that of his normal judicial role on the bench. There, where he is known for peppering attorneys with probing questions as they present cases before the Supreme Court in the gleaming Michigan Hall of Justice, his style can be brusque. His questions pointed. His look unyielding.

"During the campaign, even though the stakes are high, I could adopt a different personality, one that is better suited to getting my judicial philosophy across," Young said. "It also afforded me a chance to impress upon voters the importance of working together to solve some of the financial challenges we face as a judiciary and as a state."

A member of the state's high court since 1999, Young succeeded Marilyn Kelly as chief justice in January. He said he welcomed the opportunity to lead the court, believing that his experience as vice president, corporate secretary, and general counsel of AAA of Michigan from 1992-95 would serve him well in his expanded role with the Supreme Court.

"At this stage I think I am particularly well-suited to be chief because I know all the major players in the other state branches," Young said, alluding to the relationships he has developed with Governor Rick Snyder and legislative leaders such as Randy Richardville and Jase Bolger. "I believe that I have established some credibility with the other branches of government that will be useful as we work through the continuing budget challenges."

In early March, Young appeared before a legislative committee to address the "current state of the judiciary" in Michigan. His appearance came on the heels of the release of a report from the Judicial Crossroads Task Force, billed as a "road map for judicial reform and reinvention." The Task Force was co-chaired by Edward Pappas, a past president of the State Bar of Michigan, and Barry Howard, a former Oakland County Circuit Court judge.

Young, during his testimony before the legislative panel, noted that the judicial branch budget is "less than 1 percent of the gross state budget," and that "we control only a third of that budget that supports our operations." The remainder, he indicated, "such as the Court Equity Fund that goes directly to counties, is mandated by legislation." The general fund portion of the "proposed fiscal year 2012 executive budget for judicial operations represents a 27 percent reduction since fiscal year 2000," according to Young, and the number of judicial branch full time employees has "dropped from 526 in fiscal year 2000 to 413 as of February 17, 2011--a reduction of more than 20 percent."

He advocated the continuation of a series of "smart cuts" that will keep judicial costs in line "without imperiling our constitutional mission." The cuts include eliminating judgeships "where the workload no longer justifies them," saving the state approximately $160,000 annually in salary and benefits and the local funding units upward of $300,000 in related personnel costs.

"Retention of unneeded judgeships just can't be justified--particularly when our dire financial condition means that we all have to cut our budgets deeply," Young told the committee.

The current budget proposal, Young said, calls for the elimination of six trial court judgeships, resulting in savings of $942,010 in fiscal year 2012.

He trumpeted the greater use of technology to "increase efficiency and save money," pointing to the implementation of a statewide case management system for trial courts that will be completed in 2014. A "Judicial Data Warehouse" project and greater use of videoconferencing for court hearings also are expected to yield significant budget savings, Young said. Plans for court consolidations are yet other options being explored to "realign judicial resources and reduce taxpayer costs," he indicated.

These are issues, of course, that weigh on the minds of other Supreme Court members as well. Reaching a judicial consensus on such matters is no easy task, especially on a court that has been divided along political lines over the past decade, Young acknowledged. Still, Young is confident that civility has been restored to the court and that a "sense of collegiality" can be sustained in the months and years ahead. In particular, Young said that Justice Michael Cavanagh has "reached out in a spirit of cooperation" and that "every day we are making an effort to turn the page" for the betterment of the court.

"His leadership in that regard has been greatly appreciated," Young said of Cavanagh. "As a court, we are taking the necessary steps to build trust in each other."

Young, who graduated from Harvard in 1974, wasn't so sure that he trusted his instincts about attending law school there. He said that the three years at Harvard Law were "the worst years of his life," as he recoiled at the sometimes "mean-spirited Socratic method" of teaching and the fact that he was "surrounded by a lot of people on power trips who knew in utero that they were destined to be lawyers."

His years in Cambridge, Mass. did have a particularly positive outcome, he admitted. It was at Harvard that he cemented his relationship with his wife, Linda Hotchkiss, a Detroit Cass Tech grad. She earned her bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College, receiving her medical degree in psychiatry from Harvard. She has held leadership positions with Trinity Health and the Detroit Medical Center, and last summer was appointed chief learning officer for Genesys Health System in Flint. Her expertise in the field of psychiatry impressed Young's former colleague on the bench, Chief Justice Clifford Taylor.

"Cliff liked to say that Linda had plenty of (psychiatric) work to do at home," Young said, poking fun at himself. "He may have been right."

Young and his wife have been married for 35 years and have two grown sons, Robert and Barrett. Robert is an independent filmmaker, and like his brother, is a graduate of Harvard. Their grandmother, Robbie Young, was raised in Chattanooga, Tenn. and attended Highland Park Community College. She currently lives in Southfield, where she can keep tabs on the state's Chief Justice and his two siblings, Michael and Judy.

Young credits his parents for instilling the importance of volunteer work, a commitment he most recently has displayed as chairman of Vista Maria (see related story in Spring 2011 issue of MOTION magazine). Over the years his community involvement has extended to work with the Detroit Institute for Children, the Detroit Historical Society, the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, and Central Michigan University among other organizations. It is a passion that runs deep.

"The rewards of volunteer work are tenfold what I invest in terms of my time," Young said. "Coming together for the common good never gets old."

Published: Mon, May 9, 2011