Several of my friends have told me I should write about my years in Lansing, Michigan, 1972-81, spent working as the administrator for the state court system, a job created in the Michigan Constitution. The title of the job was state court administrator and my immediate boss was the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. The entire Court was in essence my “Board of Directors.”
At the time, there were approximately five hundred judges and several thousand court employees handling criminal and civil matters throughout the state.
When I began the work, then Chief Justice Thomas M. Kavanagh and Associate Justice and former Governor G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams summoned me to the Chief’s office to talk about how they wanted to modernize court management. Before appointment to the job in Lansing, I had been working with Justice Williams in the Detroit office on several projects involving the use of computer systems to streamline case flow, reduce or eliminate paperwork, and generally improve court management by putting reliable information systems in place.
In Justice Williams’ words: “We need to change how the business of the state courts is managed. We need to modernize our court system.”
Chief Justice Kavanagh added that he wanted a more specific set of definitions and policies regarding the Court’s constitutional supervisory authority, and that he expected the state court administrator to develop recommendations and projects that would achieve those results.
As I agreed with those words I remember thinking: Wait a minute. That’s me! The full import of the job started sinking in and all of a sudden I thought I may have taken on too big and too important a job.
Despite my initial panic, during the decade of the 1970’s, we did make some changes that carried out Chief Justice Kavanagh and Justice Williams’ expectations. Please don’t think I’ve lapsed into the “royal we.” All that was accomplished in my Lansing years depended on the expertise and help of dozens of excellent judges and court staff, and my only intent is to include them with my use of “we.” Just to name just a few of the judges whose help was greatly appreciated: Bill Peterson, Horace Giulmore, Al Horrigan, Mike Cavanaugh, Joe Sullivan, John Murphy, James Ryan, Blair Moody, Jim Lincoln, and dozens more. In the state administrative office: Herb Levitt, John Mayer, Doris Jarrell, Norm Paelke, and Don Riggs, Dolores O’Brien, Jack Crandall, Art Chettle, Don Sherburne, Dennis Catlin, Terry Nafisi, Bill Rye, Judy Bartell, Dick Wilhelm, and Bruce White, and many others. My everlasting thanks to all.
In retrospect I believe the most important change was the Court’s adoption of the Chief Judge Rule we proposed, which created the job of chief judge in the trial courts and set out the authority and responsibility of the job.
In typical fashion, when we started developing a proposal for the new rule, we gathered a representative group of judges, court staff, and others to help us in the state office develop a proposed rule.
As the process progressed, it became apparent that having a strong chief judge was going to be a rude awakening for many of the trial courts. When one of the judges advising us objected to some of the authority we want to give chief judges, I did my best to defend the whole idea by loosely quoting Warren Berger, then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: “It is as useless to believe the courts can function effectively if everybody just does his job, without having someone in charge, as it is to believe an aircraft carrier can function effectively with no skipper as long as everybody does his job. Courts are complex social and government institutions that need skilled persons in charge of their management.”
One of our judges, whom I will always think of as an able and decent man, responded by telling me that: “I’m all for progress, but I’m against change,” a good-natured and universally true human sentiment that always makes me smile.
It took a long time and many drafts, but the Supreme Court adopted the Chief Judge Rule – I think it was in 1978.
Yet to be described: information systems, working with the legislature and the executive budget office, regional support offices, Michigan Judicial Institute, sentencing guidelines, court reporter certification, consulting services for trial courts, public information materials, court facilities study, and more.