From a high school campaign volunteer to the Michigan Supreme Court, Justice Elizabeth Welch has believed in the rule of law as a “great equalizer.”
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—For decades, Elizabeth Welch served her community as an attorney specializing in employment law, working with small businesses and individuals. She also used her extensive legal skills on issues ranging from conservation to protecting public education to voting rights.
“All the issues I care a lot about are, frankly, directly impacted by the court,” Welch told The ‘Gander. “That was certainly a motivator to step forward, there’s just a big understanding of the importance of the court.”
So, Welch stepped forward.
In November, Michiganders elected Welch to the state’s Supreme Court, alongside re-elected Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack.
Welch, endorsed by Michigan’s Democratic Party, is replacing a justice endorsed by the Republicans. This changes the balance of the court at a crucial moment when the basic rights of Michiganders–as well as their survival–have become matters for the courts.
For example, in October, the state’s Supreme Court struck down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s authority to enact emergency orders like limiting gatherings and closing indoor dining. Since then, Whitmer used a different statute to institute a three-week pause on some Michigan businesses, in response to an explosion of cases that infected 100,000 Michiganders in two weeks.
A differently-aligned state Supreme Court could uphold the new sources of Gov. Whitmer’s emergency authority making it easier for her—and future governors of all political parties—to save lives in times of extreme risk.
While Welch couldn’t say how she might rule on a hypothetical case to come before the court—which is par for the course for judges—she did discuss what her voice means on Michigan’s Supreme Court.
“We all come to the bench with different philosophies and different lenses,” Welch said. “My background of working on social justice issues and being really involved on the frontlines in my own community is an important viewpoint to bring to the court. I also have a background of helping people on employment issues, whether it’s a small business, a nonprofit or an individual. I’ve done all of that. That is another lens I’m bringing with me.”
Welch hopes her voice will be a positive addition to the makeup of the bench. She said the judiciary is “the great equalizer” and spoke of how the downtrodden and privileged should be treated the equally by the court.
For that reason, she hopes to use the authority of the Supreme Court in providing administrative oversight for Michigan’s judiciary to help address the disparities in access to justice. While in criminal law everyone is constitutionally promised representation, thanks to Gideon v. Wainwright, that guarantee doesn’t exist in civil law. She said a majority of people involved in civil cases, ranging from contract disputes to divorces, don’t have a lawyer, in large part due to the high price of legal representation.
“When I graduated, it was still ‘every lawyer has to give more pro bono time.’ There’s not enough pro bono hours to go around, particularly when you think of the landlord-tenant tsunami crisis that is upon the courts,” Welch said. “Landlords probably tend to have council, tenants often don’t. What do we do for that tenant who walks in to the courthouse and is being evicted? The judge has to balance that. It’s a very awkward space for the judge as well, because they can’t represent the unrepresented party, that’s not their job, but it is their job to make sure justice is dispensed fairly.”
Welch hopes to work with the other Justices and judges across Michigan to help develop resources for those kinds of situations, to both ease the burden on judges and give people who can’t afford proper legal representation a fairer chance in civil courts.
Passion for the law is one lens that unifies most judges, though, and for Welch that passion started early. She started in high school as a volunteer for the political campaign of Rep. Paul Henry (R-Grand Rapids), getting an inside look at policy and how it affects voters. From there, she went to college and law school, and found work in a large law firm. She got involved in her community and supported candidates, but did not take what she considered a traditional approach to seeking office herself.
“I have always cared deeply about policies and how they impact people in our communities, and I have always—going back to law school—firmly believed in the power of government to do good if it has good, strong leaders,” Welch said.