Profile in Brief-- State Rep. John Walsh Judicial Chairman

By John Minnis

Legal News

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, State Rep. John Walsh spends a lot of time thinking about medical marijuana and guns -- the laws governing them, that is.

Elected to his second term in November, the Livonia Republican was appointed to head the Judiciary Committee, as well as serve as vice chair of the House Tax Policy Committee. In both roles, his job will be to make sure Michigan laws and policies are consistent and predictable for citizens and taxpayers, residential and business.

Walsh was an earlier-on signer to the "Republican Guiding Principles" to reform state spending, taxes and regulations.

"The House Republican Guiding Principles are the foundation for restoring Michigan's economy," he said. "In order to make our state more inviting for businesses, we must first remove stumbling blocks such as the MBT surcharge, which make it difficult for start-ups and others to do business in our state. Changes that reform our tax structure, our operations and our regulations will result in solid progress toward fixing Michigan."

Medical marijuana became a thorny legal issue in November 2008 when Michigan voters approved its use. Since then, nearly 50,000 medical marijuana users have been registered with the Michigan Department of Community Health. At $100 a registration, that's $5 million to administer the Michigan Medical Marihuana Program.

Under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, registered users and caregivers may possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana or 12 plants per patient. It gets more complicated when talking about caregivers, who may have, say, five patients and a crop of 60 plants. Where does one get the seeds to begin with? Further, plants must be secured in a theft-proof environment.

Another question is whether patients can form growing cooperatives, Walsh said.

To compound the problem, federal law prohibits the possession and use of marijuana for any reason. Only a memorandum from the acting attorney general prevents U.S. attorneys from prosecuting medical marijuana users, regardless of what state law may say.

"These are all the ambiguities we're going to have to address," Walsh said. "Cities are afraid people will use marijuana for illegal purposes. Police are unsure about growers' intent."

Even the ACLU has gotten involved. In Grand Rapids, the civil rights group hs filed suit against Wal-Mart for firing a registered medical marijuana user. Under the law, employers are not required to accommodate registered medical marijuana users during drug screenings. The ACLU is also fighting bans on medical marijuana use in Walsh's hometown, Livonia, as well as Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.

"We have a whole bunch of people interested in this," Walsh said. "Doctors are interested in this. This issue is coming up sooner than I expected."

There is not a lot of case law to go by on medical marijuana use.

"A judge will eventually get to it," Walsh said of ironing out the unsettled questions in the medical marijuana law, "but we should be able to get to it through legislation."

Minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines are another area for the Judiciary Committee to consider, though Walsh said he is not getting a lot of call for change.

"We're never going to get it black and white," he said. "We have to have some gray areas for judges' input and for prosecutors and defense attorneys. Good sentencing guidelines add predictability and stability."

On becoming chief justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, Robert P. Young Jr. vowed to reduce judicial costs across the state. For years, the State Court Administrative Office has called for reducing or combining trial court judgeships where appropriate and for reducing the number of Court of Appeals judges.

While the number of judgeships can be temporarily reduced through attrition and the governor's willingness to not appoint replacements, permanently reducing the number of judgeships would require acts of the Legislature.

Judgeships and the cost of the state's court system would fall under the Judicial and Appropriations Committees, Walsh said.

Three-quarters of the cost of a judge falls on local governments.

"It's tough to look at right now," Walsh said, "but with long-term savings, we can look at it."

Where concealed weapons can be carried is another matter before the Judiciary Committee.

"It's in the committee right now," Walsh said. "My powder's completely dry on that. We weren't here when that was adopted. Until I hear testimony, I can't say."

The Judiciary chairman is also undecided on the issue of whether legal advertising should be allowed to be posted electronically rather than in official newspapers.

"The Michigan Municipal League has a valid financial argument," Walsh said. "But the third party (legal newspapers) provides a crosscheck. I'll keep my powder dry on that one too until I hear from citizens."

Published: Thu, Feb 17, 2011

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