The governor has promised to pick another judge with “an unwavering commitment to the Michigan constitution.”
DETROIT—The chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court said Monday she will step down by the end of 2022, an announcement that followed a major decision affecting abortion rights and more than two years of steering the state’s judiciary through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bridget McCormack, a Democratic Party nominee, has been on the court since 2013 and still had six years left in her second term. She will depart between Nov. 22 and Dec. 31—leaving Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pick a new justice to fill McCormack’s term, regardless of the results of the Nov. 8 election.
In a statement, Whitmer called McCormack a “phenomenal public servant” and promised to appoint another judge with “Michigan values and an unwavering commitment to the Michigan constitution.”
What happens now?
McCormack appears to have strategically timed her departure to ensure Whitmer will be able to handpick her replacement. As long as McCormack leaves (and Whitmer picks a replacement) before the end of the year, it won’t matter who wins the election: Whitmer gets to pick the next judge.
The appointment will mark Whitmer’s first opportunity to select a Supreme Court justice. Whoever she selects will serve through two of the six years that remain of McCormack’s term—and then be forced to run in the general election in 2024 in order to serve the last four years through 2028. The appointment process does not require Whitmer to first gain approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature.
What’s at stake?
Not much—at least for now. Election victories by McCormack and Justice Elizabeth Welch in 2020 put Democrats in the court’s majority for the first time since 2010. Those wins came shortly after a Republican majority struck down Whitmer’s sweeping authority to manage the pandemic response.
McCormack last week was in the 5-2 majority that put abortion rights on the November ballot—and Whitmer is widely expected to find a replacement who shares a similar ideology on the topic, meaning that McCormack’s departure is not expected to lead to any big legal shakeups on the top court.
Of course, that could all change again depending on the outcome of the election in 2024.
Who is McCormack, anyway?
Before her election in 2012, she was co-director of the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school, working with students to exonerate wrongly convicted people.
Indeed, criminal law has been a specialty. In June, she wrote the court’s unanimous opinion that indictments used against Gov. Rick Snyder and others in the Flint water investigation were invalid.
McCormack has been chief justice since 2019, a role that is traditionally only carried for a few years, and decided by the court’s seven members. In that job, she has left her mark across the state, especially during the pandemic, when courtrooms were closed and judges turned to video calls to handle cases.
Before the pandemic, the state Supreme Court ordered all Michigan courts to allow visitors to carry laptops, tablets, and phones. Some counties complained they would lose revenue if people could copy public documents with their devices. But McCormack said the change ensures the “doors to our courts are open to all,” especially poor people who had to stash a phone in bushes before entering some courts.
Justice Elizabeth Clement, a Republican, said McCormack has been independent and fair.
“In a world that has become increasing partisan and angry, she is a voice of reason, compassion and thoughtfulness,” Clement said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.