Minnis Minute: Who best to replace Corrigan on high court? How about Frank Kelly?

By John Minnis
Legal News

With Gov. Rick Snyder’s appoint of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan to head of the state’s Department of Human Services, many in the legal community are wondering who the governor will appoint as her successor on the court.

The appointment will be crucial, not only in terms of political ideology (the conservative GOP majority will likely want to pick a like-minded Republican to replace Corrigan) but also in terms of electability.

“He hasn’t asked me for my opinion,” said Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, “but I can tell you priority No. 1 would have to be someone who can get elected in 2012 to the unexpired portion of Corrigan’s term.”

The appointee would have to face another statewide election two years later, in 2014, when Corrigan’s seat expires. Two statewide elections in four years is daunting, especially today as Supreme Court races have become hotly and, in some cases, nastily contested.

Court watchers are reluctant to go on the record to name likely candidates. As one retired judge told me, “I would earn four friends and make 20 enemies.”

Nevertheless, several names of possible candidates to replace Corrigan have been mentioned: Pat M. Donofrio, Kirsten Frank Kelly, Christopher M. Murray, Kurtis T. Wilder and Brian K. Zahra, all state Court of Appeals judges.

Ballenger likes Kelly: “Is that a good political name or what? We could have a court full of Kellys.”

While in jest, Ballenger is not too far off.

Mary Beth Kelly was just elected to the Michigan Supreme Court last November, beating out incumbent Alton T. Davis, who was appointed last year by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to replace Elizabeth Weaver, who retired from the court. Kelly became the second Kelly on the court, along with Marilyn Kelly, who just ended her term as chief justice. If Frank Kelly were appointed by Snyder, she would become the third Kelly on the court.

In the 1980s, there were two homonymic justices — Thomas Kavanagh and Michael Cavanagh, the latter of whom is still on the court. (Of course, the appointment of appellate Judge Mark J. Cavanagh would add another homonymic justice to the court, along with Michael F. Cavanagh, but since the former is a Democrat, it is not likely.)

While Gov. Snyder hasn’t asked for my opinion either, there are a lot of similarities between Frank Kelly and Corrigan. Besides being women, both hail from the same town, Grosse Pointe Park, and both are big supporters of families.

Corrigan has been deeply involved in child protection issues, such as foster care and abuse prevention. Frank Kelly, while with the Third Circuit Court, was presiding judge of the Family Division.

Frank Kelly further believes in judicial restraint. In 2006, she told the Eastside Republican Club that the role of a Michigan judge is to apply the law without creating new law. “We are bound by legislation and precedents the Supreme Court gives us,” she said. “Policy decisions do not belong to the judicial branch.”

Frank Kelly was appointed to the Wayne Circuit Court by Gov. John Engler in 1994. In 1997, Chief Justice Conrad Mallett, a Democrat, appointed her presiding judge of the Family Division of the Wayne Circuit Court.

Frank Kelly and her husband, William B. Kelly, have three children.

While, as of this writing, Gov. Snyder likely has a candidate in mind, I think Kirsten Frank Kelly would be a good pick to maintain the balance on the court -politically, philosophically and gender-wise.

We welcome your thoughts. Email me at jminnis@legalnews.com or call (313) 967-5535.