Michigan's Supreme Court Justices (from top left to bottom right): Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, David Viviano, Richard Bernstein, Mary Cavanagh, (bottom row) Stephen Markman, Former Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, Brian Zahra. Since this photo was taken in 2020, Markman retired and Elizabeth Welch joined the Court. Kyra Harris Bolden will be taking McCormack's seat in January, after she stepped down before her eight-year term was up. (Michigan Supreme Court)
Michigan's Supreme Court Justices (from top left to bottom right): Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, David Viviano, Richard Bernstein, Mary Cavanagh, (bottom row) Stephen Markman, Former Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, Brian Zahra. Since this photo was taken in 2020, Markman retired and Elizabeth Welch joined the Court. Kyra Harris Bolden will be taking McCormack's seat in January, after she stepped down before her eight-year term was up. (Michigan Supreme Court)

In this Michigander Guide, we break down how a case gets to the state Supreme Court, and how the decisions made there impact everyday Michiganders.

MICHIGAN—The Michigan Supreme Court has the power to interpret state laws and decide how they apply to everyday Michiganders. For example, they recently ruled that Michigan’s anti-discrimination laws apply to LGBTQ+ people—so while they may seem like faraway government figures, the decisions they make impact our everyday lives. 

Here’s a breakdown of what the Michigan Supreme Court does, how its justices are chosen, and a few other things you should know about this important legal body. 

Tell it to me quick: How does the court system work?

Most legal cases are heard in local trial courts. Trial courts decide the facts and apply the law in most situations.

You may have heard of circuit courts, probate courts, district courts, and claims courts—these are all trial courts. They’re in every county in Michigan. 

Let’s say you lose a case in a trial court, and you want to appeal the decision. An appeal is a request for a higher court to look at the decision made in a lower court, and possibly reverse it. You would make your request to Michigan’s Court of Appeals. There’s only one.

If you want to appeal a decision made in the Court of Appeals, the next step is to apply to make an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court for a review. If they decide to review the case, their ruling is the last stop in the state.

However, if you’re still dissatisfied with the ruling, you can appeal your case to the US Supreme Court. They don’t have to review the case, but if they choose to, their decision becomes the final word on the issue. 

What does the Michigan Supreme Court do? 

The Michigan Supreme Court receives about 2,000 appeal applications every year, but only about 100 of those applications are granted a hearing. Typically, those cases deal with interpreting the Michigan Constitution or a state law. 

The majority of applications to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court are denied a hearing, which means that the decision made by the lower court still stands. However, in a very small number of cases, the Michigan Supreme Court will respond by giving an order that quickly resolves the case. Or, they can order lower courts to reconsider the case with certain directives. 

What happens when an application is given a hearing? 

  1. An oral argument in the Michigan Hall of Justice. The case isn’t decided during the hearing, but sometimes justices will ask questions or talk through the issue. These hearings are open to the public. 
  2. The Court meets in private. Justices discuss the case, and whichever stance the majority of justices agree with becomes the decision of the Court. 
  3. The opinion. A justice is chosen to write the majority opinion, explaining why the Court made its decision. That decision is then circulated around to the other justices, who can agree, ask for revisions, or disagree. Justices who disagree can even write their own dissenting opinions, which have no power but express their opinion. When every justice has approved the document as reflective of the Court’s opinion, the case is considered decided. 

The Court’s year runs from August 1-July 31. All cases have to be decided by July 31.

It’s worth noting that the state Supreme Court also supervises the lower courts in Michigan, so they deal with rules regarding evidence, discipline, administration, appointments to various boards, budgetary matters, and a host of related concerns.

How do Justices Get on the Court? 

The Michigan Supreme Court has seven justices who are elected for eight-year terms. They’re elected through non-partisan elections—which means their political parties aren’t next to their names on the ballot—but they are nominated by their political parties to run. 

If a justice leaves before their term is up, then the governor appoints someone to finish out the remainder of the departing justice’s term. For example, that’s how Kyra Harris Bolden, who will be Michigan’s first Black woman on the state Supreme Court when her term starts in January, got the position. 

To be considered for the role of state Supreme Court justice, you must: 

  • Be a qualified voter 
  • Be licensed to practice law in Michigan
  • Have at least five years of law practice experience 
  • Be under the age of 70 

Just like US Supreme Court justices, state justices have ideological leanings. The Michigan Supreme Court currently leans Democratic in a 4-3 split. And since the justice Bolden is replacing—Justice Bridget Mary McCormack—is, like Bolden, a Democrat, that ideological tilt will continue in 2023. 

Why Does the Michigan Supreme Court Matter? 

In 2022 alone, the Court made some pretty important decisions in the everyday lives of Michiganders. Along with deciding that LGBTQ+ Michiganders are protected by law, they also ensured that two ballot initiatives actually ended up in front of voters after Republicans on the Board of Canvassers blocked them. These ballot initiatives—one that expanded voting rights and another that gave Michiganders the constitutional right to reproductive freedom—were passed by voters on Election Day. 

And now that voters have elected to protect reproductive freedom in the Michigan Constitution, the state Supreme Court could see challenges arise over interpretations of that amendment—which could impact how pregnant people access reproductive healthcare in the future. 

In Short…

  • The Michigan Supreme Court interprets state law, which can impact our everyday lives. 
  • Justices are nominated by political parties, but are elected on non-partisan ballots. 
  • Justices serve eight-year terms. 
  • Only a small number of cases actually make it to the state Supreme Court each year, and those that do typically involve big decisions, like constitutional interpretation. 
  • In the coming year, the Michigan Supreme Court could have to make important decisions on appeals to our newly approved reproductive healthcare amendment.