Gongwer News Service

Justice Robert Young Jr. was elected Michigan’s chief justice on Wednesday, succeeding former Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly just two years after she had defeated him for the chief’s post. And as the new chief justice, Mr. Young said he will try to lead efforts to enact “smart cuts” to the state’s judiciary to help in “these dire fiscal times.”

That will include recommending the state reduce the overall number of judges and to move aggressively to convince local courts to better consolidate operations where there is an uneven distribution of work.

Officials with the Supreme Court did not release the vote of the seven members of the court, but with Republican-nominated justices now dominating the chamber with four justices to the three nominated by Democrats, Mr. Young would have had at least four votes to win the post.

In an interview, Mr. Young said the vote would not be disclosed.

He had earlier told associates and friends that he had the four votes needed to win election after he won re-election to the court along with new Justice Mary Beth Kelly.

His election as chief justice also comes as it is expected that Justice Maura Corrigan, herself a former chief justice, will soon resign from the court to be appointed by Governor Rick Snyder as director of the Department of Human Services. Asked about that possibility, Mr. Young said the potential resignation is “either a cruel hoax or the worst kept secret.”

He also said he had not spoken with Mr. Snyder about any appointments to the court.

Traditionally, chief justices have served two two-year terms. The last chief justice before Ms. Kelly to serve just one term was former Justice Elizabeth Weaver. The court’s decision to deny her a second term is seen as the start of a years-long bitter dispute between she and other Republican justices, including Mr. Young. She sided with Democrats in 2009 to elect Ms. Kelly the chief justice, and during the recent election campaign revealed that she had recorded some judicial conferences where Mr. Young had used racial slurs in making some arguments.

Ms. Weaver resigned from the court last summer, and without directly ascribing the court’s recent acrimony to her, Mr. Young said that the court in the last several months had been far more collegial than it had been in years. “I expect that to continue,” he said. “It’s an extreme departure from the difficult times of the past.”

Mr. Young, a Detroit native, was first named to the court in 1998 by then-Governor John Engler to succeed former Chief Justice Conrad Mallett, who resigned. At the time, Mr. Young said he was a “Republican person, but not a Republican jurist.”

He promised at the time to dedicate his “energy and modest talents” to be the best justice he could be.

He was just the fourth African-American named to the state’s highest bench, and since his appointment has been the only African American on the Supreme Court. In 1998, he said more still had to be done to ensure equality among the races.

Mr. Young earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard. He practiced law with Dickinson Wright PLLC in Detroit before becoming general counsel to AAA of Michigan. Before being appointed in 1995 to the Court of Appeals he had served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and as a trustee to Central Michigan University.

He won election to the court in what were seen as unusually bitter elections in 2000 and 2002. His re-election last November was relatively easy, although he finished second in balloting to Mary Beth Kelly.

With his election as chief justice, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, a longtime vociferous Young critic, said, “The Court will go back to its ways of protecting insurance companies, corporations, sexual predators and polluters over the people of Michigan.”

Mr. Young said Mr. Brewer’s comments were “not true.”

What the court had focused on in the last decade was largely deciding on the meaning of legislation passed during Mr. Engler’s administration, Mr. Young said, when Mr. Engler and the Legislature focused on bills to cut down on the number of lawsuits filed.

In something of a backhanded slap at the Granholm administration, Mr. Young said not that many laws had been passed in the last decade. Had more legislation been passed, then the court might have focused on interpreting those measures, he said.

After the court held its election, Mr. Young asked Gary Olson, the former director of the Senate Fiscal Agency, to outline the state’s changed fiscal situation over the past decade.

“This was a horrific presentation,” Mr. Young said. “We are no longer facing the prospect of turning around when the economy gets better. We have made an objective drop in statewide wealth and prosperity. I can’t help but think the same nostrums used in the last decade to paper over the true situation will no longer work.”

Saying his focus as chief justice will be on overall administration, Mr. Young also said he will try to offer to Mr. Snyder and the Legislature “smart cuts. We aren’t burdened by uninformed cuts from the other two branches.”

That will be difficult, he said, as the judiciary’s total budget is just 1 percent of the state’s budget, and that “we are down to the sinews and the rest is bone.”

The largest share of the judiciary’s budget is in judicial salaries and Mr. Young said he will press the administration and Legislature again to consider enacting provisions to reduce the number of judges on the bench.

The court had recommended several years ago that the number of Appeals judges be cut by four and trial judges by 16. The move was opposed by the then-chief Appeals Judge William Whitbeck and trial judges and not adopted (Mr. Whitbeck has been seen by some as a possible Supreme Court selection by Mr. Snyder, though he turns 70 later this month and would only be able to serve out the remainder of Ms. Corrigan’s term and not run for re-election in 2012).

But reducing the number of judgeships is where the state could save the greatest amount of money, Mr. Young said, and where local governments could save money in terms of secretarial salaries and other administrative costs.

Mr. Young said he would also push for local courts to consider consolidating court functions in areas where some courts are not very busy. Mr. Young said he would be very “aggressive” with those local courts where there has been “maldistribution of work.”