Exit interview: Justice Markman's career has stood the test of time


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman has experienced a series of “educations” over  his career – as a campaign manager, as a legislative assistant, as deputy chief counsel of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, as a judge on the state Court of Appeals, and as a justice on the seven-member Michigan Supreme Court.

His new challenge began on January 1, when he officially began navigating the world of retirement.

“It will be an adjustment,” the 71-year-old Markman admitted in an interview last month in Lansing.

Markman is caught in the web of age limits, a constitutional barrier that prevents judges and justices from seeking office once they pass 70. He does not begrudge the fact. Instead, he prefers to see the wisdom of the policy, which he framed within the “will of the people” by virtue of its inclusion in the state constitution.

“Although I have known many colleagues who have ‘aged-out’ with plenty yet to give in terms of public service, I also appreciate the rationale behind the limit, to ensure that advancing age does not become a factor in the proper administration of justice,” Markman said. “It’s important to defer to the judgment of the people in this regard.”

Markman said his path into the law was almost by “default” as he considered his options while a student at Duke University where he majored in political science.

“But I probably had met only one attorney in my life up to that point and really wasn't considering the law as a career possibility, but something must have started to intrigue me about it. I really believe it was my default option at that stage.”

A Detroit native, Markman grew up with parents who were lifelong Democrats. “I can still remember the 1964 Republican Convention at which Barry Goldwater was nominated for president and talking to my dad about the tax issues of the day,” Markman said. “We had some lively discussions.”

Markman served as campaign manager for Michigan Congressman Robert Huber in a 1974 re-election bid, that was lost to James Blanchard, future governor of Michigan.

“Congressman Huber was the former mayor of Troy and also had served in the State Senate,” Markman said. “Unfortunately, as a Republican incumbent, he paid the price for President (Gerald) Ford’s pardon of former President Nixon. There was a real backlash at the polls for that.”

After obtaining his juris doctor degree from the University of Cincinnati, Markman and his wife, fellow law student Mary Kathleen Sites, moved to Washington, D.C. , where he found work as a legislative assistant with Republican Congressman Ed Hutchinson. “He was the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings and he hired me to be his legislative assistant – his only legislative assistant,” Markman said.

The job eventually led to a post with Minnesota CongressmanTom Hagedorn, a full-time farmer before being elected to office.

Markman’s smarts impressed Utah Senator Orrin Hatch with whom he worked for the next seven years, as chief counsel of the United States Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution and as deputy chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. There, in 1980, he was instrumental in helping defeat a Democratic challenge to the Electoral College system.

“It was the first time there was a direct substantive vote on the issue and the proposal fell 17 votes shy of the two-thirds needed for passage,” Markman. “Preserving the Electoral College means that it is far less likely that a ‘regional president’ will ever be elected, giving the nation the assurance of 50 democratic elections.”

The issue, Markman acknowledged, likely will be revisited in coming years, particularly in light of the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections when the winners did not prevail in the popular vote. “It’s becoming a hot-button political issue, which is all the more reason to stay the course with a system that has served the country well for centuries,” said Markman.

In 1985, Markman accepted an appointment from President Ronald Reagan to serve as Assistant Attorney General of the United States, a job he would hold for the next four years. In that post, Markman headed the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy (OLP), “which served as the principal policy development office within the department, and which coordinated the federal judicial selection process.”

It was a plum assignment with regular contact with then Attorney General Edwin Meese and his successor Dick Thornburgh, setting the stage for Markman’s return to his native Michigan in 1989.

That pull included the opportunity to serve as the next U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, where for the next four years he would head law enforcement efforts while overseeing a team of nearly 100 lawyers.

“I was blessed to be leading one of the finest ‘law firms’ in the state,” Markman said of his new assignment that came by way of an appointment from then President George H.W. Bush. “We had a staff filled with outstanding trial attorneys, many of whom were career public servants.”

During his time as U.S. Attorney, Markman served as the lead prosecutor in four cases, including a successful three-week trial in Bay City of a major drug ring.

After his departure from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1993, Markman spent two yearswith Miller Canfield in Detroit, successfully defending the state in a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought against then Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

Markman’s win in that case undoubtedly caught the eye of Governor John Engler, who in late 1994 tabbed Markman for an opening on the state Court of Appeals. It was a call that came “out of the blue,” said Markman.

His four-year stay on the state appellate court led to a case of déjà vu, as Governor Engler had Markman in his judicial sights again when a Supreme Court opening occurred in 1999 following the surprise resignation of Justice James Brickley due to health reasons.

“It was an honor to follow Justice Brickley, who gave me counsel over the years,” Markman said. “I even had the pleasure of swearing in his daughter (Kathleen Brickley) to the Van Buren County Circuit Court when she became a judge.”

As a 1999 appointee, Markman would be forced to seek election to retain his seat a year later.

“It was a quick turnaround and a tough campaign, but I really enjoyed the chance to meet with individuals and groups around the state,” Markman said of the Supreme Court race in 2000 in which he was the top vote-getter.

Four years later, Markman was forced to run again after completing the unexpired term of Brickley’s. His win in 2004 was followed by an election victory in 2012.

Markman served as chief justice from 2017-19.

 During that when he experienced a major health scare  in January 2018 at the Wharton Center on the Michigan State University campus, shortly after Markman delivered a commencement address to Cooley Law School students.

He was diagnosed with a serious heart ailment that sidelined him for several months.

The heart problem came as a surprise to Markman, who in high school was captain of the track team and played pick-up basketball in adult leagues, displaying a sharp shooting eye.  “But not my leaping ability,” he said with a laugh.

Perhaps that talent belonged to his sons, James and Charles. 

 Markman and his wife have four grandchildren, ranging in age from 1 to 5.

 “Our family brings my wife and I great joy,” said Markman, who figures in retirement to perhaps have time for one more learning experience.


“A real possibility,” he said.


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