Grand Rapids Press

At times in recent years, the Michigan Supreme Court has been bitterly divided. So it was nice last week to see all seven justices agree on something — a potentially partisan case — and in the process correct a highly political decision from an earlier court.

In the ruling last week, all the members of the state’s high court agreed that a judicial appointment made late in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s final term was valid and will stand. The ruling upholds the clear meaning of the Michigan Constitution, which bestows on the governor the power to make appointments when a court vacancy occurs.

The vacancy in this case was on the 54-A District Court in Lansing. In late November of last year Gov. Granholm appointed then-District Judge Amy Krause to a spot on the Michigan Court of Appeals. Ms. Granholm appointed Hugh Clarke to fill Judge Krause’s district court slot.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette challenged Judge Clark’s appointment on the grounds that it conflicted with a 1982 state Supreme Court case. In that 1982 case, a plurality of the high court invalidated the appointment of Dorothy Comstock Riley to the Supreme Court.

Gov. William Milliken appointed Ms. Riley under circumstances similar to those in this case, as a lame duck after the election of his successor, Gov. James Blancahrd. However, Mr. Blanchard challenged the appointment. The court removed Ms. Riley from the bench. Voters later returned her.

The Michigan Constitution says a judicial vacancy “shall be filled by the governor.” The constitution further specifies that “The person appointed by the governor shall hold office until 12 noon of the first day of January next succeeding the first general election held after the vacancy occurs.”

Those are plain and straight-forward words and they affirm the Michigan governor’s power to make the appointment. All seven justices — hailing from the Republican and Democratic party — agreed with that assessment. Mr. Clark will serve on the District Court bench until Jan. 1, 2013.

The mystery is how a plurality of the Supreme Court in 1982 could have come to a contrary conclusion. The ruling was patently political, seeking to curb one of the constitutional powers of the governor’s office for partisan gain. This ruling should set to rest this question about the judicial appointment powers of the governor.

This is not to dismiss concerns about lame duck governors packing courts and boards in the waning days of office. Eleventh hour appointment blitzes by Republican and Democratic governors, and there have been both, are simple attempts to extend power beyond an elected term.

Still, it’s clear from the Michigan Constitution that those governors have the authority to make such appointments. That is one of the spoils of victory. This recent Supreme Court ruling affirms that power in a way that should leave no doubt.