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Young leaves rule-of-law legacy on Supreme Court

Michael Gerstein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — After 18 years of championing the rule of law on the state’s highest court, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. said Wednesday he will retire in late April.

Young will return to private appellate practice at the Dickinson Wright law firm after retiring on April 30 at the latest, according to the court. He is part of the majority of five Republican-nominated justices on the seven-member court and is the only African-American serving on it.

“I’ve always believed that sometimes you just know when it’s time to move on to another challenge,” Young said in a statement.

The 66-year-old justice’s influence will linger for years as a chief justice who helped cement a conservative legal philosophy on the court following years of political “unpredictability,” said Michigan State University law professor Kevin Gentry. Colleagues and others lauded Young for helping create a new era of collegiality between Democrat-nominated and GOP-nominated justices.

The planned retirement comes after serving 18 years on the Michigan Supreme Court, including an unprecedented three consecutive two-year terms of being chosen chief justice by his colleagues. He was the fourth black justice to serve on the high court, but the first appointed by a Republican governor, John Engler.

Young’s time as chief justice, which started in 2011 and lasted until early January, was marked by more collegiality between Republican and Democrat-nominated justices who regard him as a fierce and intelligent questioner, including Justice Bridget Mary McCormack.

“At the time I joined the court, it was marked by acrimony,” Young said in his statement. “When I became chief justice, we proved that good people who may differ in their opinions can come together and accomplish important things for the people we serve – and we do it amicably.”

McCormack had nothing but praise for Young on Wednesday, noting he was always civil even when they disagreed.

“More than anything I’m going to miss his analytical give and take and his good-natured ribbing,” said McCormack, who ran as an independent before receiving the Michigan Democratic Party’s nomination and getting elected in November 2012. “On a personal level, it’s sad for me.”

Young convinced her to change her mind, “and I have also convinced him he was wrong,” McCormack said. “And that’s all a credit of … him being committed to the way this place should work, which is, you have to be a good listener to be a good colleague. And Bob Young has been a very good listener to me for the last six years.”

Young’s term would have run through the end of 2018, but Gov. Rick Snyder will now appoint a replacement for the remainder of his term. That person could run for election in 2018 if the individual is not 70 or older on Election Day.

Current Chief Justice Stephen Markman also lauded his longtime colleague.

“Young’s leadership as chief justice of this court has been of lasting significance in rendering the judiciary of our state leaner, more efficient and accountable, and better focused upon serving ‘we the people’ of Michigan,” Markman said. “His impact in furthering the equal rule of law in Michigan will be felt for many years to come.”

Even critics, such as Wayne State University law professor Robert Sedler, stress Young’s influence as they question whether justices who use a “textualist” approach to interpret the law still have ideological biases.

“We’ve disagreed over a number of things, but I want to emphasize that he was a very influential conservative voice on the court during a period when the court moved in a very conservative direction,” said Sedler, who has been involved in litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

McCormack doesn’t question Young’s accomplishments, but doubts that his personal political leanings affected his rulings or the standing of any party.

“He has certainly been committed to the rule of law throughout his career as a justice and a judge on the Court of Appeals before that,” she said. “And he’s consistent and clear and … whatever the law is is what the right answer is. That doesn’t necessarily do any work for conservatives or liberals.”

She added that she and the other justices will miss him.

“I am absolutely positive I can speak for everybody and say that everybody feels the same way about that,” McCormack said. “He’s one of a kind.”

Snyder did not give an idea of what kind of candidate he hopes to select to replace Young but praised the justice’s time on the court.

“He helped make the court system more affordable and more accessible for all Michiganders,” the Republican governor said. “And he was a leader in the formation of a specialty court system that has helped address the cause of people’s crimes to prevent future offenses. His steadfast leadership of the judiciary in Michigan will be missed but never forgotten.”