August 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Unity rules on state's Supreme Court

McCormack )

By the end of July of every year, the Michigan Supreme Court issues its opinions in cases argued that term.

This term, the court issued 38 opinions, covering 48 cases that were argued, along with several thousand orders disposing of other cases.

These opinions addressed a wide range of issues that affect the daily lives of Michigan residents, from the safety of our families to the size of our paychecks.

Just a few years ago, you could count on one hand the number of unanimous opinions. This term, the court spoke unanimously 15 times – roughly 40 percent of our opinions. What does this mean? In resolving some of the most contentious issues involving interpretation of statutes and our constitutions, the seven justices saw eye to eye.

Moreover, while we categorically reject the notion that justices make decisions based on political background, the data shows that this rejection is warranted. Consider the number of cases decided by a 5-2 majority divided along so-called party lines.

This happened only once and even then the reasons for dissent were different. Now, look at the number of 4-3 opinions. This term, that division only happened five times, and different combinations of justices nominated by both parties came down on either side in each of those cases.

What does this mean? The members of the Michigan Supreme Court are not governed by politics but by the rule of law.

The cohesion and collaborative approach of the court is also evident when examining the level of agreement between justices. For example, the two of us agreed 89 percent of the time. Looking at pairs of our colleagues, the level of agreement ranged from 80 percent to 98 percent. The bottom line is that our deliberations about cases involve spirited debate and discussion, but at the end of the day, most disagreements are resolved — not based on party allegiances but on the law as written by the legislature and signed by the governor.

The record of commitment to the rule of law by the Michigan Supreme Court is but one example of how our judiciary is stepping up and delivering on our promise to work smarter for a better Michigan. A fundamental transformation of Michigan’s judiciary is underway to improve service to the public and cement our position as a trailblazer nationwide. Here is the evidence:

Improving service to the public who visit our courts is our top priority. For the first time, court users statewide were surveyed with questions about their level of satisfaction with trial courts. The result? Out of 21,000 respondents, 84 percent said they got their business done in a reasonable amount of time and 93 percent said they were treated with courtesy and respect by court staff. In addition, 81 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that the way their case was handled was fair.

At the same time, 96 percent of cases in trial courts statewide were concluded within time guidelines established by the Michigan Supreme Court. These performance measures, and others, are posted at www.courts.mi.gov and are designed to provide local trial judges with data necessary to change operating procedures or reassign personnel in order to improve service to the public.

Michigan is leading the nation in reducing the number of its courts to meet the actual workload. While no other jurisdiction in the country has reduced as many as 5 judgeships, we are cutting 40 judicial seats, saving taxpayers more than $6 million annually.

Just as important, more than three quarters of Michigan counties have judicial consolidation plans or are developing them to streamline and create further efficiencies. No other state even comes close to Michigan’s record of success in reorganizing courts to make them more efficient.

We are also using technology to save money and improve service. For example, in 2013, our initiative to install video-conferencing technology in courtrooms in every county saved the Michigan Department of Corrections alone more than $1.2 million in avoiding transportation costs of moving prisoners.

In addition, our new, state-of-the-art MiCOURT case management application will help trial courts statewide be more efficient and do more with less.

When is the last time you recall government voluntarily reducing its own costs and focusing on providing better services? We want our judiciary to impose no cost beyond that which is justified and improve our services. We are doing just that.

Our goal is to assure that Michigan courts are recognized as the best in the nation and other states benchmark their judiciaries against ours because we set the standard. From our commitment to the rule of law to our dedication to efficiency and improved service to the public, we are proud of the role the Supreme Court is playing in helping Michigan succeed.

Robert P. Young Jr. is chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, nominated by Republicans, and Bridget McCormack is a justice of the court, nominated by Democrats.