Kyra Harris Bolden pledges justice ‘without fear or favor’ on Michigan Supreme Court

Kyra Harris Bolden is running for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Kyra Harris Bolden for Justice via Facebook

By Kyle Kaminski

May 28, 2024

Kyra Harris Bolden is the only current Michigan Supreme Court justice who has experience creating laws—and she thinks that makes her uniquely suited to interpret them.

MICHIGAN—Last year, Kyra Harris Bolden made history as the first Black woman to take a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. And this year, she’s trying to keep her spot on the bench—and achieve another first as the first Black woman to be elected to the Court.

Bolden, a former state representative from Southfield, ran for one of the two state Supreme Court seats that were up for election in 2022, and came in third place behind Justices Richard Bernstein and Brian Zahra. But she was ultimately appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to replace former Chief Justice Bridget McCormack in 2022, and is now running for the Democratic nomination to serve out the remainder of McCormack’s term, which expires in 2029.

As a former member of the state House of Representatives, and the only justice with legislative experience, Bolden is openly pro-choice and pro-labor. She also crafted (and passed) five bipartisan bills focused on criminal justice reform and protecting survivors or sexual violence.

Bolden graduated from Grand Valley State University and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, has worked as an attorney in southeast Michigan, and was reportedly inspired to pursue law after she learned the story of her great-grandfather, who was lynched in Tenesee in 1939.

She’s also a member of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, the Wolverine, Straker , and Oakland County bar associations, and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Bolden has also received several awards—including the NAACP’s Ida B. Wells Freedom and Justice Award.

In an exclusive interview with The ‘Gander, Bolden shared more about her journey to the bench and what she described as a commitment to “applying the law without fear or favor” as she (again) asks Michiganders for their vote at the polls in this year’s November election.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Can you explain why it’s critical for voters to pay attention to this election? Why does it matter who serves on the state Supreme Court?

The Michigan Supreme Court is the highest court in the state, and it provides a check on the executive branch and the legislative branch. We have the power to not only interpret the laws that the Legislature makes and the governor signs, but we also have the power to deem a statute unconstitutional if we believe it is unconstitutional. We also have a lot of power to interpret the law, which determines how laws are actually enacted and carried out. It’s a critical role as the third branch of government—just as critical as the legislative or executive branches.

Being the highest court, there’s nowhere else to go when you need a matter adjudicated. We take the most pressing, important issues of the state. We mostly choose what cases we’re going to take up in any given year, which again, are the state’s most pressing and critical issues.

And we take up every single sector of Michigan life—anything you can think of that might end up in litigation—from zoning to licensure, to termination of parental rights, custody battles, to whether or not someone was wrongfully convicted, or if there’s a sentencing issue, and as we’ve seen in recent history, whether or not something gets on the ballot for voter consideration.

It’s a critically important position, and I’m honored to have one of the seven seats.

What motivated you to pursue a seat on the state Supreme Court?

Many people may not know, but I was pregnant when I ran for Michigan Supreme Court in 2022, and it wasn’t an ideal position to be in, but I did it for a couple of reasons. I don’t see tons of women running for office—especially women who are pregnant or women with young children.

I also ran for my daughter. How could I tell my daughter that she could be anything if I’m sitting here scared and I’m contemplating not doing something because of her? What message would that send? There had also never been a Black woman on the Michigan Supreme Court before me. How could I take that opportunity away from my daughter and all the children of Michigan to have representation on the court? My run was not about me. It was for the future of Michigan and because our decisions on the Michigan Supreme Court have generational effects.

Outside of the very impactful opinions and decisions, I think the overall representation has been absolutely critical. So, this year, it’s a lot of the same motivations. It’s about representation, which I can see is very important to people, but it’s also about keeping a seat at the decision making table, knowing that I’m there to lend a voice that might not otherwise be represented.

Your campaign website says you’re “committed to ensuring equal access to justice without fear or favor.” What does that mean to you? And why is that something that’s needed on the Court right now?

Historically, with the way courts are structured, you sit above everyone. You wear a robe. You can lose a sense of perspective. A lot of people have commented to me about how I’m just a regular person. They thought I was going to be mean or something because I was a judge—and I don’t want that perception. We are just people trying to make the best decisions possible.

We’re trying to follow the law, and sometimes that means making unpopular decisions, but people should have the opportunity to be heard and respected. That should be non-negotiable. That doesn’t mean that you win, but it means that you had a fair opportunity to be heard.

How would you describe your overarching judicial philosophy?

I get asked that question a lot. And I think for anyone that’s in this job, it’s really hard to have a judicial philosophy, exactly, of how you’re going to interpret a case before it even comes to you.

I’ve said this since the beginning when I was running, because I’ve made laws, passed laws, and I’ve voted on countless bills. Sometimes a strict textualist approach is not going to be helpful because our laws are not necessarily clear and they don’t contemplate every situation.

I have to leave myself malleable to take in all the information and try to make the best decision based on the information in front of me. I’m not going to look at a case through a specific lens every single time. I’m committed to taking all the information and making the best decisions.

How do you navigate the influence of politics and public opinion?

People bring up [political news] to me, and I’m always asking what they’re talking about—because I really just try to focus on the cases that are before the court. I don’t think people realize that we get over 200 appellate applications per month. Between that and writing opinions and voting on which cases we’re going to take up, it’s a very rigorous schedule, so I actually don’t have a lot of time to absorb a lot of [political news and] other information.

I really just focus on the cases that are before me and absorb that information so that I can make the best decisions possible. I’ll leave other people to do their jobs in those other arenas.

What do you view as Michigan’s biggest upcoming legal challenges?

I think access to justice and equality—and equity in that access—has been one of the most challenging things, and will likely remain one of the most challenging things in the judiciary.

We really have to evaluate the barriers that even made it possible for there not to be a Black woman or a woman of color on the Michigan Supreme Court until 2023. There are a lot of barriers, not only for litigants, but for a diverse group of people to be in these judicial positions.

I’ve been thinking about how to build a pipeline, how to get more people interested in the law in the first place. There’s been a decrease in people studying law because of student loans. As a result, that can cause indigent defendants to not have adequate access to representation.

How do you view the role of the Michigan Supreme Court in protecting or restricting reproductive rights and access to abortion?

That is an issue that can come to the Michigan Supreme Court. When [Proposal 3 to cement reproductive rights into the state Constitution] was proposed to be on the ballot, there was a case that went to the Michigan Supreme Court on whether it would even make the ballot.

And so, as the issue comes up across the country, it is something that can come up at the Michigan Supreme Court. And if it were to come up, the Michigan Supreme Court would have the final word on that issue. But again, that goes for that issue, as well as any other issue.

Any guiding thoughts when it comes to how you might rule on reproductive rights issues, should they make their way to the Court?

I’ll look at the law and try to interpret it. There are going to be gaps in any law, which is why those issues can come to us. So, like anything else, I’ll wait for those issues to arrive.

It may be deeming a whole statute unconstitutional for a legal reason, or it may be specific provisions or wording that’s being challenged. It’s really hard to say anything generally about an issue before it comes to the Court. And as a justice, I really keep that thought process sacred.

But what I will say is whatever issues come before the Michigan Supreme Court, the Michigan Supreme Court is likely going to be the last word. Very few cases get appealed to the federal courts from the Michigan Supreme Court. I think we’ve seen how important state courts can be.

The Court may deal with other issues like election integrity, gun safety, and civil rights. Any guiding principles on those issues?

My guiding principle is the law itself. How the law is interpreted depends on the question. Sometimes it’s a legislative interpretation, sometimes it’s an issue of constitutionality. I always look to the law and just try to make the best decisions possible based on what’s presented.

You don’t want judges to come in with preconceived notions about issues, because I think we’ve seen that play out. I think it’s important to be open to what our decisions will be on any issue.

Can Michiganders really trust the Court to be fair and impartial?

I think so. Michiganders have the opportunity to vote for who they want on the Michigan Supreme Court. And if that trust is lost in a particular justice based upon their opinions, concurrences, or dissents, then they have the opportunity to put a new person on the court.

In some states, judges are appointed or have life terms. We have terms. We have to earn our votes. People have an opportunity to select the person they believe is best suited for the job.

What can you do to build more public trust with the Court?

I’m the youngest person that has served on the Michigan Supreme Court. I’m also very active on social media, so people can follow me and find me at events—at least one every week. Most of these are community events, because I really try to make sure that I’m out in the community.

I think justices being more accessible and transparent will inherently instill trust. And so that’s what I can contribute. I can’t change the overall scope of what people believe of judges, but I’m doing my best to just let people know what I’m doing and what I care about.

READ MORE: Why you should care about this year’s Michigan Supreme Court election

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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