2006-02-11 / Columnists

Republican Justice Betty Weaver Continues Uphill Term Limits Battle

Michigan Politics
By George Weeks

There will be no quiet fade for maverick Republican Justice Betty Weaver, who postponed indefinitely her announced 2005 resignation from the Michigan Supreme Court in order to press her uphill fight for term limits and other major changes affecting the court.

The self-described "common sense, independent and self-disciplined judicial thinker" outlined her revised ideas last week – just after having yet another dust-up with the other four Republicans on the seven-member court.

In revealing draft language Friday for a constitutional amendment providing that a justice could not be appointed or elected to more than one eight-year term, she said: "It should be limited to eight years across the board – for justices, governors, senators, and representatives."

Under an amendment approved overwhelmingly (and regretfully, in my view) by voters in 1992, a governor, secretary of state, attorney general, or senator is limited to two fouryear terms. House members get only three two-year terms, which is as limiting as it gets in any of the 15 states with term limits.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce leads a commendable effort to extend the limits on representatives to eight years. But reality is that there's no public clamor for change, and it would be tough to get any term limit proposal on the November 5 ballot – whether by the Legislature or by public petition.

Still, Weaver is correct that the current system of selecting justices needs improving; there's far too much money involved in the process, and having justices running on the non-partisan ballot with a designation as "incumbent" gives an advantage that amounts to a "fixed" election.

I would add that the current system of partisan conventions nominating candidates for the nonpartisan ballot is a mockery.

Weaver, while out of sync with other Republicans on the court (they ousted her as chief justice in 2001 and she was the lone vote against current Chief Justice Cliff Taylor), is not the first Republican justice to call for change. The late Chief Justice Jim Brickley and exJustice Bob Griffin, both of Traverse City, were among them.

Under Weaver's proposal, there would continue to be an election for Supreme Court positions every two years. In filling vacancies, a governor "would be required to consider nonbinding recommendations from a judicial qualifications commission" that would be established by statute.

Weaver, a former Leelanau County probate judge and exCourt of Appeals judge whose sprawling district included all of the Upper Peninsula, has been working with Senator Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau) on getting the Supreme Court language slotted into whatever term-limits deliberations the Senate may take up.

While Weaver originally talked of a 14-year limit for justices, McManus said Friday Weaver's latest idea "is something I'd look at. She's on the right track."

However, McManus wisely emphasized the key is to get others to sign on – "You can't be a Lone Ranger running up the hill."

Weaver was a Lone Republican Ranger last week when Chief Justice Taylor and Justice Stephan Markman refused to disqualify themselves from a case involving a plaintiff with a case against the State of Michigan – whose lawyer, Attorney General Mike Cox, has hired the wives of Taylor and Markman for matters unrelated to the case.

Weaver's spats with the other Republicans usually simmer out of public view, but in this case the court issued statements from all justices. On the issue of appearance of conflict, Weaver said Taylor and Markman "make a misleading and disingenuous suggestion that public opinion regarding when a justice should participate where his or her spouse works for a legal representative of a party is to be found in the electoral process."

As the Lansing State Journal noted, Weaver properly argues the court lacks clear procedures upon which the court should determine when a justice should step aside.

When I asked her when she'd really retire before her term expires in 2011, (as she originally said last October) she said: "I will leave when I feel I have done what I can."

Leaving this year would give Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm a high court appointment – a prod for the GOPruled Legislature to at least listen to Battling Betty and extend the dialogue for possible change.

Up North Lawmakers

It's no surprise that Northern Michigan's congressmen split on reaction to President Bush's State of the Union Address last week. Democrat Bart Stupak of Menominee groused; applauding were Pete Hoekstra of Holland and Dave Camp of Midland, whose idea on an energy research tax credit was embraced by Bush.

More intriguing: Camp and Hoekstra were on opposite – both losing – sides of the battle that resulted in Ohio Representative John Boehner winning the majority leader job vacated by beleaguered Representative Tom DeLay of Texas.

Camp, who backed early front-runner Roy Blunt of Missouri, remains as a deputy whip in the GOP leadership structure. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Hoekstra backed dark-horse contender John Shadegg of Arizona, who was third on the first ballot and then dropped out.

As for Stupak, in a media press conference called shortly after the State of the Union, he said: "I hate to say it, but his rhetoric does not match reality."

He said Bush failed to address home heating costs, provide solutions to escalating health care costs, or promise adequate funding for homeland security.

But stay tuned for the budget message and other details.

George Weeks recently retired after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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