Tuesday, March 1, 2011

DEJA VU (Number 10)

When I was Chief Justice, I was privileged to have a real cracker jack chief of staff by the name of Mike Devine.

I used to call him QT. His forte was quick thinking. For every crisis he had a ready answer, almost always the right one.

Mike has gone on to a successful career in the law and in banking. A leukemia survivor who takes each day as a blessing from a gracious Creator, Mike is more than glib. His memory for details is encyclopedic.

He called me the other day to add his own sidebar to the story of Michigan’s Second Lady.

It is a convoluted tale, typical of what happens in politics.

In 1969, Wayne County Sheriff Ray Gribbs eked out a narrow victory over Dick Austin, a popular black candidate, to become Mayor of Detroit. But the handwriting was on the wall. In the mayoral election of 1973, Detroit would elect its first black mayor.

Ed Bell was a charismatic black judge with political ambitions. In order to be eligible to run for mayor in 1973, he would have to leave the bench a year ahead of time. So in the Spring of 1972, he announced his resignation. Supposedly, he would leave the bench at a point in time when it was too late for his vacant seat on the circuit court to be filled in the 1972 November election.

Which would mean that the Governor’s appointed judge would serve until after the election of 1974.

Whether by miscalculation or mere happenstance, Judge Bell resigned just a little too early and he created a vacancy when there were still five days left for someone to become a candidate to succeed him in the November 1972 election.

Enter my friend Mike Devine. He and then Circuit Court Judge Jim Ryan were returning from lunch when a happy, noisy crowd of well dressed citizens emerged from the elevators. They had been in the eleventh floor auditorium where Ed Bell had just announced his campaign for Mayor and his resignation from the bench.

That night, Mike called Traffic Court Judge John Kirwan, a former University of Detroit basketball star, and said, “How would you like to be a Circuit Court Judge?”

There were just five days left to garner several thousand signatures on petitions to put Kirwan’s name on the ballot. Mike recalls conducting signature gathering classes for groups of Kelly girls at 7:30 in the morning.

They got the job done, but the Secretary of State refused to accept the petitions, relying on a statute which defined the ‘next election’ as one for which the filing date was more than seventy days after the vacancy occurred.

Governor William G. Milliken also relied on the seventy day statutory grace period. He assumed that his appointee would serve until after the 1974 election. His appointee would have two years of service on the bench and would have the benefit of the ballot designation as an incumbent Circuit Judge, practically assuring election.

Mike thought the seventy day statute was unconstitutional. Article 6, Section 23 said the vacancy was to be filled at the next election. And next means next.

The Michigan Supreme Court agreed, and in August of 1972 it ordered the Secretary of State to accept John Kirwan’s petitions, and place his name on the ballot.

And so it was that Governor Milliken’s appointee, who expected to serve at least two years and to be able to run in 1974 as an incumbent, was left with a dead end six month interim job.

The disappointed short term judge was none other than Dorothy Comstock Riley.

Ten years later, her judicial career would once again be on the docket of the Michigan Supreme Court.

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