Chief Justice John Roberts calls for end of confirmation gridlock

By John Minnis

Legal News

Gov. Rick Snyder named Appeals Court Judge Brian Zahra of to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Monday, Jan. 10, appointment fills the vacancy of Maura Corrigan, who left the court to take over as director of Michigan Department of Human Services.

Zahra, 51, was appointed to the appellate court in 1999 by Republican Gov. John Engler and was elected to the court in 2000 and re-elected in 2006. Prior to serving on the Court of Appeals, Zahra was a Wayne County Circuit judge from 1994-98 and an attorney and partner at the Dickinson Wright law firm from 1989-94.

A conservative, Republican who shares the philosophy of Justice Corrigan and the majority on the Michigan Supreme Court, Zahra fulfills Snyder's vow to appoint a rule-of-law justice.

The appointment maintains a 4-3 Republican majority on the court, but not the gender balance. Zahra will be the fifth male on the court, along with two female justices, Mary Beth Kelly, a freshman Republican, and Marilyn Kelly, a Democrat who just ended her term as chief justice.

Robert P. Young Jr., recently elected by the court to serve as chief justice, was pleased with Zahra's appointment.

"This is an excellent choice, and I am delighted to add my personal welcome and congratulations to Justice Zahra," he said.

Young said he has known Zahra almost since he began practicing law and cited Zahra's remarkable career as a lawyer and as a judge. He said Zahra is widely recognized as one of the state's top jurists and believed that the state high court has adopted more of Zahra's decisions than those of any other sitting lower court judge.

"Justice Zahra will bring not only his considerable intellect but also his experience as a judge at all levels of our system," Young said. "As a jurist committed to following the rule of law, he is a worthy successor to my dear friend Justice Corrigan, who is departing to take on the challenge of protecting Michigan's abused and neglected children."

Zahra earned a bachelor's degree in general studies at Wayne State University in 1984 and his J.D. at the University of Detroit School of Law in 1987. He was a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff, Eastern District of Michigan, from 1987-89, and he served as adjunct law professor at U-D Mercy from 1994-2001.

He is married to Suzanne Casey. They live in Northville Township and have two children.

While Zahra was on the short list of possible Snyder picks to replace Corrigan, some court watchers thought the governor may seek to keep the gender balance on the court with the appointment of someone like Kirsten Frank Kelly, also a Republican Court of Appeals judge from Wayne County.

Grand Rapids appellate Judge Jane Markey, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination Michigan Supreme Court last summer, also vied for Snyder's appointment. She, too, bills herself as a rule-of-law advocate.

Nevertheless, she said she not only considers Zahra a colleague on the Court of Appeals, but also her friend. She said he will make a fine Supreme Court justice.

Markey points out that currently all the state's highest court justices hail from either the greater Detroit or Lansing areas, unlike the 28 judges of Court of Appeals that are elected from four districts.

"It really is incongruous that the highest court lacks that same balance and diversity," she said. "It makes a difference, and it's healthy for the courts and the administration of justice."

Zahra will have to run for election in 2012 to keep the appointment and again in 2014, when Corrigan's term expires.

As the fate of Alton T. Davis makes clear, an appointee's "incumbent" designation on the ballot does not necessarily mean getting elected. Davis, a Democrat, was appointed last summer by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to replace Republican Justice Elizabeth Weaver who resigned. He lost in November's election to Republican challenger Mary Beth Kelly.

by Kimberly Atkins

The Daily Record Newswire

In his year-end report on the state of the judiciary, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. called on Senate lawmakers to stop stalling judicial nominees as a political maneuver.

While lauding progress that has been made in cost savings, improved efficiency and reduced backlogs, Roberts said there are still obstacles keeping the judiciary from fully reaching its potential.

''Two stand out at the beginning of this new year: an economic downturn that has imposed budgetary constraints throughout the government, and the persistent problem of judicial vacancies in critically overworked districts,'' Roberts wrote in the report.

Roberts noted that ''budgetary constraints are nothing new for the judiciary'' - he has perennially called for cost-saving measures as well as boosting judicial pay scales to attract the best judicial candidates since assuming the top judicial post.

But in the latest report, Roberts focused more on the problem of judicial nominees being stalled or blocked in the Senate, usually as part of a political maneuver.

''Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes,'' Roberts wrote.

''This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts.

"Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads.

"I am heartened that the Senate recently filled a number of district and circuit court vacancies, including one in the Eastern District of California, one of the most severely burdened districts.

"There remains, however, an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.''

Published: Thu, Jan 13, 2011