Disruption and Incre ...

Disruption and Increasing Access to Justice | Chief Justice Bridget McCormack

July 15, 2021 | by D. Todd Smith

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COVID-19 created both challenges and solutions for courts and legal practitioners. Fortunately, many states, like Michigan, adapted quickly and were able to provide legal access throughout the pandemic. This week, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack joins Jody Sanders and Todd Smith to discuss her state‘s response and the tremendous opportunities for increasing access to justice that the pandemic provided. Chief Justice McCormack details the impact that technology can have on court access and connecting traditionally-underserved populations. She also offers a valuable perspective on judicial use of social media.

We’re honored to have a very special out-of-state guest, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court. Chief Justice McCormack, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Probably a lot of our readers may already know you from social media, but for those that don’t can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you came from?

I’ve been serving on the Michigan Supreme Court since January 2013. I was elected in November 2012. Before that, I was on the faculty at the University of Michigan Law School, taught at Yale Law School for a couple of years and before that, I started my career in New York City as a public defender. I’ve had a few different phases of my legal career so far. It’s all pretty different.

It’s interesting because not typically around here do we know about people going from being professors in law school to a state court appellate bench. That’s a cool transition to get there. How did you decide that you wanted to be an appellate justice?

You don’t see it nowadays very often. It used to be somewhat common. Some of the important justices in Michigan’s history cycled through the court and the University of Michigan Law School somewhat regularly. Justice Cooley has an important place, not only in Michigan Supreme Court history but in University of Michigan Law School history. That was not uncommon historically but has been far less common nowadays. You’re more likely to see law school faculty members go to the federal bench like Justice Barrett, for example. Justice Larson, who was my colleague on the Michigan Supreme Court, was quickly elevated to the Sixth Circuit but she was also my colleague at the University of Michigan Law School.

I agree with that you don’t see it in the state court so often. I simply was far more interested in the state appellate court than the federal courts. A state court is where most people have to go to access justice or where most people have to go when someone wants to access justice from them. State courts handle 95% of civil and criminal cases. They play such an important role in so many of our neighbors’ lives that I find the work that they do, for me, especially compelling. My work at the law school, I did teach some traditional stand-up classes like criminal law but I primarily taught clinical classes where my students were representing people who couldn’t otherwise afford lawyers in a variety of contexts, thinking about access to justice and the gaps in our system of justice has been something I’ve been doing for my whole career. In state court is where we can make big progress. Federal courts, I don’t even know what they do. Do they have any cases?

We hear about prestige factors in judicial clerkships, federal versus state. The point that’s lost on a lot of applicants is what you brought up. Something that’s sometimes lost in the judicial clerkship application process is the value that comes out of a state court clerkship in the sense that you’re getting so much more experience in that real world and if you’re going to go practice as a litigator in Michigan, things that would be very useful to you in your practice, would you agree?

That’s especially true if you’re going to litigate in the state. It’s as valuable if you’re never going to litigate in Michigan but you can clerk on the Michigan Supreme Court, in California on California Supreme Court or in Texas for one of the Great Justices on that court. I do think there is a breadth and depth of experience you get on a state Supreme Court because of the volume of cases that we see that is unique and a worthwhile experience. I went to NYU Law School. I taught at Yale and Michigan so I’m very familiar with the clerkship process focusing almost entirely on the federal courts. I don’t understand that because state supreme court clerkships and even intermediate appellate court clerkships get such valuable experience.

There are some tremendous mentors on a lot of those courts who will spend a lot of time with their clerks and make sure they get a lot out of those clerkships. I always get great applicants from the University of Michigan Law School but I continue to teach there, so I have my hands there to find good clerks. I’m getting good applicants from lots of top law schools, so I’m hoping some of that is changing a little bit.

Todd is a former Texas Supreme Court clerk and I spent two of my years in law school clerking in a state trial court, so we’re both big proponents of state court clerkships on this show. Tell us a little bit about the structure, the Michigan Supreme Court criminal and civil court that has a discretionary review.

In Texas, you have a criminal supreme and a civil supreme and your Chief Justice Hecht is a good friend of mine and I am a big fan of his. We’ve been working on a lot together in the past years. In Michigan, we have one supreme court and all civil and all criminal cases can come to us but we have a wholly discretionary docket. We don’t have any automatic jurisdiction or mandatory jurisdiction. We decide our docket every year. We have an intermediate appellate court and then we have different trial courts, circuit districts and probably pretty similar to Texas in that way, I would think.

We have a lot of different trial court designations.

I followed a little bit of that in some litigation around bail. I didn’t understand what some of those courts were. I was trying to figure out what the definitions were.

Our trial court system is unique. Historically, there have been movements to try to change and consolidate it but when you have 254 little fiefdoms, it’s hard to get any consensus on how that should be done. Chief, you have one intermediate appellate court in Michigan?

There is one intermediate appellate court. There are 26 or 27 judges who sit in panels of three. It’s one court. They sit at least three places in the state every once in a while. One of their panels will travel to the upper peninsula of Michigan to this whole other part that’s across the lake but they’re doing a lot of work.

I asked because we had Judge Dillard from Georgia on the show as well and I was somewhat surprised that a state the size of Georgia had one intermediate appellate court. That’s a large number of judges as you mentioned on that court, but we’re used to the fourteen intermediate appellate courts that we have in our state that is geographically situated.

They have their own independent jurisdiction and cases. They face some interesting issues, especially in Houston, where you have two courts with the exact same geographic jurisdiction that write separately.

Why? That’s a lot and confusing.

It’s very confusing, especially if you’re in Houston and you have one court going one way and the other court going the other way, you have to guess which one’s going to get your case.

This is Texas. What can I say?

Access To Justice: The administrative work of the courts is the place where we have the ability to impact most people in the most important ways.

We have to do things as differently and confusing as we can. How does Michigan select their judges? Here, everything is a partisan election from the Justice of the Peace, small claims court, all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court.

Michigan judges are elected as well. For the most part, they’re elected on the nonpartisan section of the ballot. I say for the most part because there is this one pretty important place where the parties do play a role and that is for the supreme court, the parties nominate candidates. They then appear on the nonpartisan section of the ballot, but when the parties play a role in the nomination process as you might imagine it does invest them in the race in a way that makes it a little less nonpartisan than it might otherwise be. In the lower courts, trial courts and Court of Appeals, judges or judicial candidates can collect signatures and make their way to the nonpartisan section of the ballot and that really is nonpartisan. The party isn’t playing any role. That’s not to say that people don’t go to local party events for support but it’s different from the supreme court elections, which have a bigger place for the political parties to play.

You’re elected for eight-year terms on the appellate court?

On the supreme court, we’re elected for eight-year terms. The Court of Appeals and the trial courts are six-year terms. This is probably true in most places, it is pretty uncommon for a candidate to make it to the bench unless there’s an open seat without getting nominated and filling a vacancy. A lot of people make it there the first time because in any vacancy, without any oversight, the governor appoints vacancies and then if you’ve been appointed by the governor, you have to run in the next general election but you’re running with the designation under your name as the incumbent so it’s a tremendous advantage. It’s unusual for a candidate to get to the bench the first time by way of the election, although I did that. That is how I got there.

How was it going from being in academia and a law professor to running in a statewide nonpartisan but still political election?

I had no idea what I was getting into and had I known it at the front end, I honestly don’t think I would’ve done that and it would have been for me. I had this naive idea that I could contribute to this court. A lot of the clinical work I did with my students was appellate work and so I was in the Michigan Supreme Court somewhat regularly, felt like I had a good reputation and good relationships with the bench. In fact, the year that I was running, there’s an annual competition for the best brief filed in that court and I won the award that year while I was running, so I felt like I might be able to contribute.

I thought I have this different background that’s useful on a multi-member court. The whole idea of the multi-member court is different people with different experiences bringing different perspectives to a conversation. It helps you get to a better answer and I thought mine would be a good contribution. I know what I’ll do. I’ll run for statewide office. That was one of the most naive things I’ve ever done in my life but here I am. Once I started and I was like, “This is a whole thing,” but I wanted to then at that point do it well, so I tried to figure it out and I ended up the top vote-getter.

You may be the only person I’ve ever met that went straight from a faculty teaching gig to elected office as an appellate judge.

Usually, you would want to know a little bit more about running for office. I hear the critique and I accept it.

Maybe it’s a good thing to not have known and then you got to jump in with both feet.

It could be. Sometimes it’s those audibles you call in your career that turn out to make a whole lot of sense in hindsight. If you had over-planned, you might never have found that door open.

You started as an Associate Justice on the court and then you became chief. How does the process of becoming Chief Justice work on your court?

On our court, the court decides. We have an election for the chief every two years. In January of 2019, my colleagues elected me chief and then re-elected me in January 2021. I’m serving my second two-year term as chief in 2021. Typically in Michigan, we do two-year terms.

Does that come along with additional administrative responsibilities? What’s the real difference between being chief and an associate justice?

It does. For the decision-making work of the court, the chief has the privilege of herding the cats and figuring out when we’re conferencing, what we have to get done, how we get it done and keeping on top of the work as well as deciding a lot of the incoming motions that are chief justice motions. It’s the administrative work of the courts that’s the significant lift. It’s also in my view the place where we have the ability to impact most people in the most important ways.

I happen to enjoy the administrative side of the job, but like in Texas we have a talented state court administrator. I’m also a huge David Slayton fan, but we have a David Slayton-like person in Michigan who is fantastic as well and a lot of talented people who work for and with him. There’s a lot going on. The administrative part of the job has been significant. I will say that the justices all share in that. A number of them do significant lifting on the administrative side of the job and there are a number of them that seem to enjoy it as much as I do. They have jumped in with both feet and have taken full responsibility for whole areas of administrative work which is an enormous help to me.

I would imagine that it helped a lot to have others helping to row the boat in the same direction when the pandemic hit and there was all this extra stuff that the court had to consider.

What we’ve seen happen in courts has been tremendous. We’ve seen more change in 15 months than 15 decades but it was all born of an emergency. We had to figure out both how to make sure people could continue to access justice and what that means and how to keep them safe. It required of us innovation that provided a tremendous opportunity, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of excellent colleagues. I will say that.

How did the Michigan courts respond to the pandemic?

I’ve been incredibly proud of how the courts have responded. We had a bit of a head start. The supreme court, our administrative office of the courts had purchased Zoom licenses, software and hardware for every trial judge in the state a full eight months before COVID. We were the only state in the country that literally had it ready to go. That doesn’t mean that most of us judges had ever used those Zoom licenses. I’m fairly confident that many had not, but they had everything they needed. With quick training and support from a rapid response group we set up, they were able to transform what they did quickly to remote platforms.

We’ve learned that a lot of what we do in courts translates quite well to this platform and some stuff less well. It’ll be nice when we can start making those choices so that we can use our Zoom courtrooms for the things that work best there and our courtroom courtrooms for the things that work better there. Michigan was able to quickly transform the whole state to Zoom platforms. We picked the YouTube channel for live streaming. We quickly set up a user-friendly directory or a map of the state of Michigan with all the different counties. You could click on any county and in the county see which judges were live in their Zoom courtrooms. You can click directly on the link to watch those courtrooms, which was fun for me. Every day I would watch a couple of judges around the state.

We were in the process of piloting some ODR, Online Dispute Resolution, through an asynchronous platform absolutely free. We had it in 17 of Michigan’s 83 counties and we moved the team to get it in all 83 counties within another eight weeks. We had statewide ODR for free on asynchronous platforms. We’re still the only state that has that statewide. We unleashed innovators. We told everybody, “You were taught in law school that you couldn’t be an entrepreneur but now you can. Have fun. Go for it. See what happens.” It’s been exhausting but also exciting in a lot of ways.

Access To Justice: These online courtrooms literally flipped. The number of people who now show up is as high as the number of people who didn’t show up in physical courtrooms.

Did the court already have rules in place that allowed quick transition to the video platform or did you have to rethink some of that too?

Like many other state supreme courts like Texas, I was following all of the Texas Supreme Court’s series of emergency orders, basically suspending every rule allowing all of this to take off, so we had to do that. We’re in the process of figuring out which of those changes need to be made permanent. How do we support continued transparency, access, and efficiency by the infrastructure that’s built up around what we do so we’re trying to figure all that out.

You had mentioned access to justice earlier. Everyone we’ve talked to about this all agrees that this has a huge potential for changing access to justice in the court system everywhere. I’m sure your state’s the same.

I feel like it’s the breakthrough we needed. The access-to-justice crisis, which is what we have in this country, is the thing that keeps me up at night more than anything else. Like everywhere else, 70% or 80% of Michigan citizens who have a legal problem can’t afford a lawyer in a civil legal case. Obviously, if it’s a criminal legal case, we provide them lawyers but in civil cases, they either try to navigate courts on their own but we don’t make that very easy. We have all these processes. We use this other language. It’s pretty discouraging for people who don’t speak the language or they just give up. The number of people who never showed up when they were served with an eviction notice was incredibly high in most courts in Michigan and that’s true everywhere else. Michigan was not special that way.

It’s the opposite in these online courtrooms. It literally flipped. The number of people who now show up is as high as the number of people who didn’t show up in physical courtrooms. It’s the most important breakthrough in access to justice that we’ve had in my career as a lawyer. We’ve all been talking about it for a long time. We all have understood why it matters. The rule of law is only a set of ideas that depends on our confidence in them. If you lose the confidence of a significant number of people, you lose the consent of the governed eventually. This is a pretty fundamental problem. People need to feel like they can have equal access to the justice system. Now we have this opportunity that I don’t know if we would have had without this disruption.

We’ve seen the same thing here. We talked to Judge Emily Miskel, who does family law, and she was saying in 2020 she saw people that she had never seen before, which told her that we clearly weren’t serving the constituents well in the family law arena because there were people that like evictions wouldn’t show up and then all of a sudden now they’re here. She said it’s been amazing how much it’s changed how her docket is run.

Even in some cases where judges were seeing people, they’re getting so much more out of them. The judges in Michigan who have cases where kids are involved, termination of parental rights cases, abuse and neglect cases or juvenile cases, have said regularly that they are getting so much more out of kids on this platform than they ever got. That makes sense,  in retrospect, I feel like courtrooms are intimidating for adults. They can be intimidating for lawyers. Imagine if you’re an eight-year-old kid and you’re in a courtroom. You’re not going to open your mouth but talking into your phone, the judges say all of a sudden, “I haven’t heard a thing from this girl in two years on my docket and now she wants to show me her room, homework and brother.” They’re getting better information which allows them to make better decisions about what the right answer is in these cases. That’s not to say that it’s perfect for everything we do. It’s not. The idea that we might not take the good with us is what I spend a lot of time worrying about.

We’ve talked about this on this show a lot. It’s going to require some tough decisions but the room for people to represent themselves and show up and the room for lawyers to use efficiency to represent people that they wouldn’t have been able to reach before is so tremendous. We’re on the same page. We hope that a lot of the stuff that makes sense sticks around.

I love the language that you used. It sounds like you’ve said these words before that we’ve seen more change nowadays than in the last several decades. That’s a long time for not much change and truly it’s correct. You’ve described yourself some of the big benefits and the changes that we’ve seen but the pandemic truly was a disruption that probably was something like that or on the order of the pandemic probably was required to make us get around the corner on some of these issues we’ve been stuck on for so long.

We’re seeing it in all parts of our lives. I was listening to the U of M economist Betsey Stevenson. There are so many people quitting and leaving jobs, which normally happens. In every economy, there’s some number of people that something disruptive happens in their life and they quit their jobs. All of a sudden, the whole world had the same disruptive thing happen at the same time, so we’re seeing enormous numbers of people leaving jobs. She’s calling it the take this job and shove it phase of the pandemic. It has these interesting economic outcomes that we’ll see where they go but it’s an interesting disruption in the economy. For our profession, we’ve been able to resist change better than any other industry I know. There are a lot of understandable reasons for that. Education is a close second to law.

If you look at the drawings of courtrooms from the 1918 flu pandemic, they look the same as they did in March 2020. We have not changed that much. Some of that is cultural. Lawyers are trained to be risk-averse. The rules of our discipline are tied to history. The rules of the game are what did courts decide in the past and those are important rules to a court’s decision-making, but they’ve ended up playing what I think is a hampering role in the places where we need to innovate. The people who needed to use courts when courthouses, rules and processes were built were a much smaller number of people and they all had lawyers. That’s not true anymore. If this were transportation, Uber would have taken out the taxi industry or made it at least competitive, but in law we’ve been able to, through culture, identity and all these bigger forces, tamper it down until now.

I think about when Texas went to e-filing and the very slow rollout of that process over a period of years. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken or if it ever would have happened that we could go to some remote hybrid proceeding model without not having a choice but to do so.

I don’t think so honestly. I think it was the disruption we needed.

Did your court move to Zoom oral arguments?

We moved to Zoom oral arguments by April of 2020 and we just had our first in-person argument in 2021. It was a long time with months of Zoom arguments.

How did you feel like oral arguments adapted to the Zoom platform?

Oral arguments do fine on the Zoom platform. I prefer the courtroom and most of my colleagues do. I’m glad we learned that we have this tool for the cases where it’s an emergency and we have to do something somewhat quickly. That happens, especially in election years. For some reason in 2021 we’re still seeing election emergencies and I don’t understand why but we are. Those cases sometimes need to be decided quickly and it’s going to be hard to get everybody in one place at one time and now we have this extra tool. For the intermediate appellate court, there are a number of cases that they hear regularly where they’re seeing better participation from lawyers than they did in courthouses because lawyers are not compensated for some of those cases.

For example, in termination of parental rights cases, they’re not compensated for the hours they spend doing an appellate argument. They’re much more likely to do it when they don’t have to drive a couple of hours to a courthouse and park. They can tune into a Zoom argument. We see the benefits but we do so few of them that we’ll hope for courtroom arguments most of the time and then use the platform when it makes sense for a lawyer or the court, depending on what the issue is.

What about with the trial courts there in Michigan? Have you started heading back toward live juries or did you ever do anything with virtual juries? What’s been the approach?

Some courts did virtual jury selections during different periods of the pandemic. Michigan was hit hard in the beginning and then at the end we were the last state to emerge from the worst parts of the pandemic. There were times in the middle where there were parts of the state that could proceed with jury trials but they had to figure out jury selection. Some courts did it on the Zoom platform and then by the time they got to the 12 or 14, they would then bring them into the courtroom and spread them out. It was the selection part that posed the challenge. I very much hope they continue that because what we’ve learned which is what people have learned in other places where they’ve done it is a lot more people were willing to show up and be considered for jury service. Like everything else, it removed a barrier for some people who were being excluded. That’s important to the rule of law.

There are very few places where citizens have the right to put a direct check on their government and the jury trial is one of those. The more people who get to be part of that, the greater we grow public confidence in our branch of government. I strongly consider counseling lawyers and judges to continue to experiment with at least the Zoom part here. If you want them in the courtroom after that great, but let’s see if we can get more people included in the process.

To your point, when you were talking about a multi-member court, the more diverse and different backgrounds you can bring to jury service, the better decisions that you’re going to get because you don’t have the category of people who can show up, come downtown, park and take time off from work, the traditional veneer versus people who might not have had those opportunities.

That’s a different slant on the access to justice observation. Justice means more than allowing someone access to the courtroom as a litigate. It means participating in the process, doing your civic duty as a juror.

The YouTube thing, you had mentioned that earlier. From a lawyer and a nerd perspective, I love it because I can drop in on courts anywhere in Texas and see what they are doing in hearings in El Paso, even though I would have to take a plane to do that in real life. I love that part of it and even though we have open courts, they’ve never been open in the sense that anybody could take time and take their day down there. Long gone are the days where you’d go to the courthouse square for entertainment. I love that more people can tune in from all over the world and see that stuff.

Access To Justice: We need to innovate. Courthouses, rules, processes were built when there was just a much smaller number of people, and they all had lawyers. That’s just not true anymore.

My very first job out of law school was as a public defender in New York City in Manhattan and there were these court-watchers like the criminal courts in Manhattan. They are fascinating, tragic, hilarious and everything all-in-one. There were lots of people who would show up and go from courtroom to courtroom. Those people are still out there. They just now get to watch online. More of them can see what’s happening. Honestly, I believe if more people saw what’s happening, they would grow trusting the government. I want them to see.

I’m jealous of that interactive map, though, to be able to have a map of the state and say, “What’s going on over here?” That is pretty neat.

It’s a great tool.

We need to send some suggestion boxes to OCA or the supreme court.

David Slayton has seen it many times.

It may not have made circles on Twitter or the internet. It has that David is leaving us in Texas and is taking the job with the National Center for State Courts.

It’s good for me and bad for you.

He has done a lot to advance the cause of technology and justice here in Texas and he’ll do well in his next post. We certainly wish him well. I wanted to have him back. He was a guest on our show but I may wait until he gets settled into his new gig and see how that goes for him.

He’s going to be a huge asset to the National Center and to all of us in state courts across the country who rely on the National Center. David and I have chaired the National Center’s Post Pandemic Planning Technology Committee and he’s a visionary. I’m sorry for Texas and to Chief Justice Hecht but the rest of the country needs him.

Is that the function of the National Center though to help coordinate? The name implies it but coordinates among and between the states on the judicial functions.

Yes. The National Center supports the conference of chief justices and state court administrators so that we can communicate, collaborate, share resources and support. The National Center does fantastic work but I will say since 2020, it’s done especially excellent work. It stepped up to be a clearinghouse for both the problems and solutions that state courts were facing through the pandemic.

It was a wild ride with all of that and then Texas. Poor David had the added benefit of having to deal with the ransomware attack right in the middle of that too. I’m sure he’s ready for a little bit of a change.

I’m not sure it’s going to be an easier job though.

His country needed him.

While we’re on the topic of transparency in courts, I wanted to shift gears a little bit and talk about social media because I think a lot of our readers probably know you because you’re fairly active on Twitter, which is not unique, but there are fewer judges on Twitter than a lot of other places. What got you started doing that social media platform?

I started Twitter like a lot of people do when I was running for office. In 2012, I got my first Twitter account. I was on Facebook because everybody was. I should say I was mostly on Facebook so my parents who live in other places could see pictures of my kids at that point. Twitter, I first got on for election purposes but like lots of other, especially appellate lawyers and appellate judges, I found this fun community there and made friends. Judge Dillard and I have become very good friends. We like each other a lot as well as a number of other judges. I do my show with a number of other women justices who I met on Twitter. My gateway drug was an election and then I got hooked and enjoyed the community there.

That article with Judge Dillard, was that the tweeting Judges’ article?

It is. It’s about social media and why we think judges should use it. Obviously, judges have limitations when on social media and those are important as well. Nowadays, that’s where most people get their information, not just on Twitter but social media platforms. We think people have a right to know who their judges are and what their courts are up to. Having their judges engaging on social media is the equivalent of going to the Knights of Columbus dinner or the community picnic, which isn’t to say that we don’t want to go to those things too but a lot of people are on these platforms and we work for them.

Particularly with you having a statewide constituency, it’s probably a lot harder to reach people on all the corners, especially in the UP and areas that you don’t go necessarily as frequently.

It is. Michigan is enormous and even to get between Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Detroit in a day, I’m going to be in my car 5.5 hours and that’s somewhat inefficient. We now know we have these tools for making what we do more transparent. I regularly tweet whenever the court has oral arguments, so people have the live feed. I tweet them the link to the summaries of the cases we’re going to hear as well as any other work the court is up to or doing. The court itself has a very active Twitter account, which is important and does the same thing.

Todd and I are both appellate Twitter members and that’s how we started this show. We got connected on Twitter, so we’re big proponents of judges and particularly appellate judges using social media because it benefits all of us, we think.

It’s been great to get to know and chat with judges from other states and see that they are so much the common mind even though you’re separated geographically. There’s a general agreement among the people, especially those who are doing it right, that it’s something that you should do as judges, which is to reach out and touch the constituency, let the people know what the court is up to and the judges don’t need to be afraid of it. They need to know a few basic ground rules, which are things you already know anyway. Your judicial canons are the overarching control of what you do in your public life.

If you wouldn’t do it at the local town hall meeting, don’t do it on social media. It doesn’t feel that hard to me. It means there are things judges shouldn’t talk about on social media, but you wouldn’t talk about them at a local public in-person meeting either. I’m always a little bit confused by judges who think there’s an extra scary level about social media. It worries me about what they’re doing at their in-person meetings. “What are you doing? I want to know.”

You had mentioned your show and we wanted to highlight that because it’s a great show and it’s a great resource. It’s Lady Justice: Women of the Court. I’ll let you tell us what it is and who’s on it.

It’s been a fun project. It’s a show I do with Rhonda Wood, Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, and Beth Walker, Justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court, and former Justice Eva Guzman from the Texas Supreme Court. We wrapped our first season as it were. Justice Guzman is no longer Justice Guzman, so we have to figure out if we’re going to replace her, go with three, have a rotating fourth in season two, and we’re talking about that. It’s been a fun show because even though we have the same job, our courts do things differently, constitutions are structured differently, norms are different and then we have lots of things that are quite similar. We’ve talked about all of those topics and then some. We had a whole episode about mental health and resources for lawyers and judges. It’s been a fun conversation to have with these amazing women who have the same job I have but in different places.

I enjoy getting to know about the way the different states approach very similar issues in different ways but they all work in their unique settings. One of the great things about state courts is you can do things very differently and still come to some good resolutions.

Judge, we’ve been so blessed to have you as our guest and we’re coming toward the time that we usually allocate to do this. We want to make sure that you have plenty of time to handle your ordinary business for the day, but you’ve been so gracious with your time.

Thank you so much.

Access To Justice: Justice means more than just allowing someone access to the courtroom as a litigate. It means participating in the process, doing your civic duty.

I do want to give you the opportunity, though, as is our tradition to discuss maybe an advocacy tip or a war story from your time on the bench if you had one that you might care to share with us.

I’m not good at war stories because I always feel bad for the losing warrior a lot and whatever happens in the hall of justice stays in the hall of justice except it doesn’t because it’s all on the Supreme Court’s YouTube channel, so it’s right there for everybody to see. The most important tip I have for people who are arguing in the state’s highest court is to show up ready to be a thought partner with us. We only decided to hear your case because it was hard and so we’re there with some questions that we’re not sure about.

The sooner you let us get to those and be ready to help us work through those hard questions, the better. I can’t tell you how many times I leave the bench and go to conference and can say, “I think this is what the rule of law should be.” I don’t know what that means about who wins. I don’t know if that means, “If somebody help connect the dots for me, it might mean this side wins but I’m not sure.” We are only hearing your case because there were some hard questions. The sooner you can get to those and you like the hard ones, the better for us.

That’s a wonderful piece of advice. It makes me think how I might approach it differently next time I have an argument because as an advocate, it’s not always the thing you want to deal with right up-front. It’s the hard question. It’s great advice because that’s right. I love that phrase, “Be our thought partner.” That’s something I haven’t heard before. Thank you for sharing that with us and for sharing that tip as well. Thank you again so much for your time. We sure enjoyed this with you.

This was a fun conversation. Thanks for having me.

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About Chief Justice Bridget McCormack

Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack joined the Michigan Supreme Court in January 2013, and became Chief Justice in January 2019.

Before her election to the Court in November 2012, she was a law professor and dean at the University of Michigan Law School.  Since joining the Court, Chief Justice McCormack continues to teach at the Law School.

Chief Justice McCormack is a graduate of the New York University Law School, where she was a Root-Tilden scholar.  She spent the first five years of her legal career in New York, with the Legal Aid Society and the Office of the Appellate Defender.  In 1996, she became a faculty fellow at the Yale Law School.

In 1998, she joined the University of Michigan Law School faculty.  At Michigan Law, she taught criminal law, legal ethics, and various clinical courses.  Her scholarship focused on the professional benefits of clinical legal education.  She also created new clinics at the law school, including a Domestic Violence Clinic and a Pediatric Health Advocacy Clinic.

In 2002, she was named Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs.  Responsible for the continuing development of the law school’s practical education, she continued to expand the clinical offerings at Michigan Law School, launching a Mediation Clinic, a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, an International Transactions Clinic, a Human Trafficking Clinic, a Juvenile Justice Clinic, and an Entrepreneurship Clinic.  In her capacity as professor and associate dean, she conducted and supervised civil and criminal litigation at all levels of the state and federal courts.  The University of Michigan Law School’s clinical programs are now recognized nationally as one of the best places to be trained as a lawyer.

In 2008, then-Associate Dean McCormack cofounded the Michigan Innocence Clinic, in which students represent wrongfully convicted Michiganders.  The clinic has exonerated over 22 people so far, and has shined a light on the important justice issues underlying wrongful conviction.

In 2014, the Attorney General of the United States appointed Chief Justice McCormack to the National Commission on Forensic Science.  In 2019, Governor Whitmer appointed her as Co-Chair of the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration.

Chief Justice McCormack is an editor on the ABA’s Litigation Magazine, a member of the ABA Council on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, a board member of the Washtenaw County Chapter of Families Against Narcotics, a member of the University Musical Society’s National Council, and a board member of Kids Kicking Cancer.

Chief Justice McCormack publishes regularly in professional journals and media.

As the Chief Justice, McCormack has promoted statewide initiatives devoted to improving the courts service to the public, and in particular on improving equal access to justice.

Chief Justice McCormack is married to Steven Croley, a partner at Latham and Watkins.  They have four adult children and enjoy frequent family trips to west Michigan.​

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