Sunday, January 30, 2011


In January of every odd numbered year, the justices of the Michigan Supreme Court elect a Chief Justice.

That’s because in November of the even numbered years one or two of the justices are up for election, and if the court personnel changes, there just might be a new leader.

It wasn’t always that way. For about a hundred years prior to 1956 the justices rotated the job.

Chuck Levin often suggested that they go back to the old way. You can’t blame him. As the only real independent on the court, rotation was about the only way he would ever get to sit in the center chair.

From 1971 until 1975, Justice Thomas M. Kavanagh was the Chief. We used to call him Thomas the Mighty. In January of 1975, he was succeeded by his namesake, Thomas Giles Kavanagh. Thomas the Good.

By 1977, the political complexion of the court had changed. Now there were three Republicans, three Democrats, and Levin. Giles Kavanagh was reelected Chief Justice.

Soapy was still waiting. Blair Moody, Jr. was solidly in his corner. His father had been appointed United States Senator by then Governor Williams.

Then came the rebellion of 1979.

Kavanagh decided to step aside as Chief Justice, but not in favor of Soapy. He and Chuck Levin jumped ship to install Mary Stallings Coleman. The first woman elected to the court now became the first woman to be chosen Chief Justice by her colleagues.

As liberal as Soapy was, and as committed to women’s rights, Coleman was still junior to him. And he wasn’t invited to the restaurant where the decision was made.

So he waited.

In November of 1982, when Democratic nominee Michael Francis Cavanagh was elected, to succeed Republican John Fitzgerald, Soapy could count four votes, even without Justice Levin.

Now it would be Soapy’s turn to lead. The middle chair would be his. He had earned it. He deserved it. He wanted it.

And this time, he would have it.

Being Chief was important to him. Twelve years in the Governor’s mansion gave him unique experience as an executive. He knew how to get things done, how to manage people, how to inspire them, how to use them.

The state provided each justice with a law clerk. Soapy wasn’t satisfied. He hired two more clerks with his own money. He would hold meetings, delegate tasks, synthesize their efforts.

His opinions had the ring of executive white papers. He would argue with eloquence what he believed to be the right thing to do. If the precedents didn’t easily line up with his view of justice, he marshaled his considerable intellectual powers and the help of his staff to get where he wanted to go.

Then the unthinkable happened.

On the day after Thanksgiving, after celebrating and giving thanks with his wife and five children, Blair Moody died.

On December 9, 1983, Republican Governor William Milliken appointed Dorothy Comstock Riley, who had lost by a quarter of one percent of the vote to Mike Cavanagh two weeks before, to fill the Moody vacancy.

1 comment:

  1. this is getting good. I love this kind of history. Can't wait for the next installment.