Michigan Supreme Court hears oral argument in front of students



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

After the Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments at the Gerald R. Ford Museum last Thursday, Supreme Court Chief of Staff/General Counsel Matthew Schneider asked the audience, composed mostly of high school students, to raise their hands if the proceedings were what they expected.

A smattering, perhaps a dozen, of the more than 200 students from five area schools raised their hands.

He then asked if it was more interesting than they had expected, and over 100 hands went up.

Kent County 17th Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald A. Johnston III and Judge Paul J. Sullivan invited the justices to Grand Rapids as part of the  “Court Community Connections” program started in 2007. The hope is that by exposing the general public, and especially young people, to how an appellate court operates, they will gain a better understanding of how the decisions of those courts affect people’s lives.

After five Circuit Court judges filed in, and the distinguished Supreme Court justices were seated, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. addressed the crowd. He explained that the court system is not as they see it in movies and on TV, but it is of overwhelming importance, as the courts set precedent that will become part of case law for the foreseeable future.

In the case under consideration, People v. Minch, Charles F. Justian, a Muskegon County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, contends that if the police turn over firearms to the mother of convicted felon Kurtis Ray Minch the felon-in-possession law, MCL 750.224F, will be violated. The request of Minch’s attorney, Kevin J. Wistrom of Muskegon, was that the legally-owned firearms should be delivered to the mother, and both Judge Timothy Hicks in the circuit court and the Court of Appeals agreed that they should.

Minch had terrified his girlfriend by holding a starter pistol to her head and pulling the trigger while she was under the impression that it was a real working gun. After she called Fruitport Police, they found a large collection of firearms, but it turned out that only one of them was illegal to own. The police department had already confiscated the firearms, and after Minch pled guilty to illegal possession of the one firearm, and to possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, Minch asked that the legal firearms go to his mother. (No forfeiture proceedings were undertaken.) Judge Hicks ordered the police to give them to the mother.

The prosecutor appealed, saying that the court order forced the police to act as agents of the defendant, and that the statute forbade any agent of a convicted felon distributing firearms. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court.

As Justian made his argument thursday, stating, “Under ‘agency principles,’ [Minch] cannot have someone do his bidding, retaining dominion and control over the property,” Justice Brian Zahra asked him a couple of pointed questions, ending with, “Can’t the police transfer the possessions to the mom as a bailee with restrictions?” Justian reiterated that, in particular because the mother has Power of Attorney, that would mean Minch would retain “dominion and control.”

Other justices asked Justian whether the court’s order referred to the mother having Power of Attorney for her son, and Chief Justice Young stated, “The mechanism by which the Police Department is directed to divest itself of the guns isn’t pursuant to the Power of Attorney, it’s pursuant to the court order.” There was a lot of discussion about possessory rights versus ownership rights, during both Justian’s and Wistrom’s arguments.

The court adjourned to make its decision a later day.

After a break, Justian and Wistrom joined General Counsel Schneider to answer student questions. The Supreme Court justices eventually gathered in the back of the auditorium.

Schneider clarified ownership interests versus physical possession by handing Justian his iPad, and asking, “Now is there any doubt that I still own the iPad, even though he has it in his hands?” The students seemed to get it.

A cookies-and-punch reception followed.

Kent Intermediate School District, the Ford Museum, and the Grand Rapids Bar Association all cooperated with the Circuit Court to make the visit a success. Bar association members helped students go over background material supplied by the courts.