Elizabeth Weaver, controversial Michigan justice, dies at 74

prev
next

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Elizabeth “Betty” Weaver, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice, has died at age 74.

Her death was confirmed Wednesday by Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Traverse City. No other details were immediately available.

Weaver served on the Supreme Court for nearly 16 years until summer 2010. She was a Republican from northern Michigan’s Leelanau County but was not as conservative as other Republican justices.
Her motto was “Do Right and Fear Not.”

Critics of Weaver may have questioned her desire to carry out the former, but few if any doubted her resolve in accomplishing the latter.

As proof, look no further than a book she co-authored two years ago with David B. Schock. Even for a self-published book, it’s hard to ignore the breadth of the title: “Judicial Deceit: Tyranny & Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court.”

Weaver, who served on the Supreme Court from January 1995 until her retirement in August 2010, was never shy about voicing her opinion, a trait that charmed some and infuriated others over the course of her career on the high court. In fact, in the opening chapter of the book, Weaver contended that an evil force held sway on the court during the early part of the new millennium.

“How do you hijack a state supreme court?” Schock asked in the opening line of their book. “In Michigan, it took a confluence of factors at the turn of the century (the 20th to the 21st), including the unchecked appointment powers of a Governor who was determined to control the courts (as he did the executive and legislative branches) and justices beholden to him who were willing to ignore the common law, the state Constitution, and
common sense.”

Throughout the book, Weaver drove home that their acts often would be “deceitful” and “tyrannical,” and carried out in “unnecessary secrecy” to the detriment of the public trust.

“That took some doing,” Schock asserted. “After all, the justices usually arrived at the high court by the process of election. But in Michigan, when a justice resigns, the Governor steps in to appoint whomever he or she chooses. That happened three times — well, three and a half — in a span of two years in the last half of the 1990s.  The result was a stacked court. And a stacked court whose appointees were less than qualified — through lack of experience or judicial temperament — for their new jobs. Oh, they were plenty smart, but that wasn’t enough.

“It’s probably happened before in this state, certainly it has in others, but we might not know about individual stories that make up this larger narrative unless there was someone on the inside who was keeping track,” Schock wrote.

That person, of course, was Justice Elizabeth “Betty” Ann Weaver, a former state Court of Appeals judge who served as chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1999 to 2001. Weaver, who grew up in New Orleans, earned her bachelor and law degrees from Tulane University in the Crescent City. Following graduation from law school, Weaver took a job as a title specialist for Chevron Oil. But a desire to “broaden my horizons” led her to a job as a counselor and French teacher at the private Leelanau School in Glen Arbor northwest of Traverse City.

Before long, the transplant from the Bayou would begin to call northern Michigan home, a place where she would combine a teaching and legal career en route to a run for a probate court judgeship in Leelanau County in 1974. In that race, in which she took on an incumbent, Weaver won by 400 votes, setting the stage for a 12-year stay on the county bench.

It would be the first of a series of election victories for Weaver, three at the county level and five more in state appellate court races. She was proud to say that she “was elected and re-elected — never appointed — by the people of Michigan to each judgeship.”

After serving for eight years on the Michigan Court of Appeals, Weaver decided to run for the state Supreme Court in 1994 with the backing of Republican Governor John Engler and Lieutenant Governor Connie Binsfeld. As a candidate from the sparsely populated northern region of the state, Weaver was considered somewhat of a long-shot in the race, which also included incumbent Supreme Court Justice Conrad Mallett Jr., and two well-known judges, Richard Griffin, the son of retiring Justice Robert Griffin, and Donald Shelton, a circuit judge and former Eastern Michigan University regent. Despite the competition, Weaver captured one of two openings on the court, tallying the second highest number of votes in the five-candidate race. She would be re-elected twice to 8-year terms in office.

“I felt a sense of duty to bring the truth to light about the court and its operation, and it has been gratifying to receive so much positive feedback from those who have read the book,” Weaver said about her book. “This is not a tell-all book. It’s more in the frame of what in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Toto and Dorothy did in pulling down the curtain to reveal deceit and tyranny. I’ve always believed that if you are a steward of something, such as the judiciary and the public trust, and you see a danger, then you have a duty to give warning or you are to be held responsible for the outcome.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.