Snyder picks UM law professor Larsen for Supreme Court

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder appointed University of Michigan adjunct law professor Joan Larsen on Wednesday in a move that continues the Michigan Supreme Court’s 5-2 conservative majority.

Larsen, 47, is special counsel to the UM law school dean, and her appointment to replace retiring Justice Mary Beth Kelly means three of the seven justices have no prior judicial experience. She joins a seven-member court that includes Justice Bridget McCormack, also a former University of Michigan law professor, and Justice Richard Bernstein, a former private-practice attorney in Farmington Hills.

Larsen reportedly was recommended by Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., but Snyder said “her name came up from multiple sources. She’s well-respected and well-known.”

She officially joins the state’s highest court after noon Thursday. Young called her “a perfect fit with a court that is second to none in its commitment to the rule of law and legal scholarship.”

Larsen was a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the sharp-witted conservative jurist, and a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general in 2002 and 2003 who provided legal counsel in President George W. Bush’s Justice Department.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Michigan branch challenged Larsen and Snyder to disclose any role she had in developing Bush administration policies regarding the rights of detainees, wiretapping, torture and other terrorism-related issues.

“While it’s unclear the general role Larsen played in crafting policies, the ACLU has learned through ongoing litigation that Larsen co-authored a secret memo in March 2002 regarding detainees’ right to habeas corpus, the constitutional right to challenge one’s detention in a court of law,” the ACLU said in a statement.

During the press conference, Larsen answered a general question on the subject and said she wasn’t involved in the preparation of communications advising Bush about enhanced interrogation methods.

“Only certain people were read-in ... and I wasn’t one of them,” Larsen said. “I read about them in the newspapers, just like you did.”

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel added that any specific memos or communications involving Larsen while at the U.S. Justice Department “remain privileged unless or until the client (the Justice Department) waives that privilege.

“Just like all lawyers, she is bound to confidentiality, and it would be an ethical violation for her to comment further without client authorization,” Wurfel said.

Larsen replaces Kelly, who surprisingly resigned in mid-August to return to private law practice and was usually aligned with the court’s conservatives.

Snyder, a UM graduate, admitted to having “a little bias” in making his selection but said Larsen has tremendous legal experience.

“I’m confident in her legal scholarship that she is going to represent Michigan well,” the governor said.

Larsen said she will be a strict constructionist on the court.

“I believe in enforcing the laws as written by the Legislature and signed by the governor,” she said. “I don’t think judges are a policy-making branch of the government.”

She said it has been “years and years” since she has argued a case in a courtroom. But she said her lack of judicial experience isn’t a handicap because law professors and their students dissect and argue real cases every day.

“What we do in law school is very much like the (Michigan) Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court,” Larsen said.

As a replacement appointee, Larsen must stand for election in 2016 to fill Kelly’s remaining two years and, if elected, run again in 2018 for a new eight-year term. The Michigan Constitution requires Supreme Court appointees to be confirmed by voters in the next statewide general election.

She said she was unsure how she will deal with “dark money” — unreported, unregulated spending by independent groups — when she is a candidate.

“I’m going to want to give that great thought,” she said. It’s not something I have had the necessity to give great thought to yet.”

She was joined at the announcement by husband Adam Pritchard, a University of Michigan professor who teaches corporate and securities law, and their two children.

Pritchard, who has been on leave, will take over the classes she has been teaching, Larsen said.

“He will be giving up the one thing most dear to any academic — his sabbatical,” she said with a touch of humor.

She said McCormack, one of the two Democrat-nominated justices, is a great friend and “probably the biggest cheerleader for why I should want to do this job.”

Larsen said Scalia and U.S. Appeals Judge David Sentelle, for whom she clerked, helped her launch her legal career and were among several role models.

This is Snyder’s third appointment to the state’s highest court. His first two — Brian Zahra and David Viviano — were judges at the state appellate or circuit court levels and have since been elected to their posts.

Larsen has appeared in programs of The Federalist Society, a group of conservatives and libertarians who promote a strict interpretation of the law and a preservation of constitutional freedoms. She said she is on the speakers list for the organization but isn’t certain if she is considered a member.

She moderated a 2008 Federalist Society panel at the University of Michigan and participated on a 2007 panel with then-Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, now one of the state’s U.S. senators, on the U.S. Supreme Court agenda for that year.

In a Sept. 23, 2006, commentary for The Detroit News, Larsen defended Bush from criticism by the American Bar Association and argued presidents can interpret the laws they sign. She wrote that presidential signing statements give the commander-in-chief’s view of his constitutional commitment on a law and is part of the Constitution’s separation of powers.

“The president’s independent vision of what the Constitution requires is critical. Denying the president a constitutional voice is the real threat to our system of separated powers,” Larsen said.

Larsen earned her law degree from Northwestern University and worked with the firm of Sidley and Austin in Washington, D.C.