Snyder picks Wilder for Michigan Supreme Court

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday appointed Kurtis Wilder of Canton Township to the Michigan Supreme Court, promoting the appeals court judge and securing his own personal majority on the state’s highest court.

Wilder, 58, will replace former Chief Justice Bob Young, who retired last month but is considering a run for U.S. Senate. Wilder will finish a term that runs through the end of 2018, when he would have to win re-election to remain on the bench.

“He’s built a long, successful track record of being a good rule-of-law judge, and I think it’s exciting to put him on the court,” Snyder said in an afternoon press conference in his executive office building. “I think we’ve been privileged to have the best court in the United States… so I view this as an opportunity to continue that path.”

With the Wilder selection, Snyder has now hand-selected four of seven justices on the Michigan Supreme Court, a rare feat that he said may be a first in state history.

Former Gov. John Engler appointed Wilder to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1998. He won elections for the bench seat in 2000, 2004, 2010 and 2016.

Wilder previously served as chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court and practiced law with the firms of Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith in Lansing and Butzel Long in Detroit.

“I am going to continue to be dedicated and devoted to a fair and reasonable interpretation of all the litigation that comes before me, each statute, each constitutional provision,” Wilder said.

“That is really the job of a judge. Courts ought to say what the law is, not what it ought to be, and in so doing we are respecting the policy decisions that have been made by the legislative branch, as well as the executive branch… but also in respecting the will of the voters who elected those legislators and executive members.”

Wilder graduated from the University of Michigan law school in 1984. He’s a member of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan and the Federalist Society, according to an official appeals court biography.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Markman celebrated Wilder’s appointment, noting his roughly quarter century of experience at the trial and appellate level.

“Equally important, he brings what has been a consistent commitment to the equal rule of law and unwavering support for the values of the constitutions of the United States and the State of Michigan,” Markman said in a statement.

Wilder’s track record on the bench and at the ballot box made him a front-runner for the appointment, said Republican insiders, who had predicted his selection prior to the governor’s announcement.

“I think he’s got a pretty solid record on the Michigan Court of Appeals,” said Bob LaBrant, a judicial observer and attorney with the Sterling Corporation in Lansing. “He’s run a number of times in contested races, and that’s always a plus when you’re going to get thrust into running a statewide campaign the very next year.”

Tom Shields, a Republican consultant with the Marketing Resource Group in Lansing, called Wilder “an attractive candidate” who deserved the promotion.

Snyder is probably not done picking state Supreme Court Justices. President Donald Trump on Monday nominated Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Snyder first appointed Larsen to the state’s highest court in 2015, plucking her from academia at the University of Michigan Law School, and she won re-election last year. Her confirmation would create another opening for Snyder to fill.

Michigan Justice Brian Zahra, appointed by Snyder in 2011 and re-elected in 2014, has “emerged as the leading candidate” to fill an opening on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, LaBrant said.

Snyder’s personal majority on the state Supreme Court is already “an unusual situation,” LaBrant said. “Engler would have salivated.”

Snyder said he intends to go through another “rigorous” selection process if Larsen and Zahra do end up moving to the federal courts, but he noted it is early in the process. Trump’s nominations could take several months to go through the Senate.

The second-term governor acknowledged he did not anticipate he would have the chance to appoint four or more state Supreme Court justices when he took office in 2011.

“I thought it’s possible you could have some openings on the Supreme Court, but circumstances created this condition, and I think we’ve had very much a merit-based process,” Snyder said. “The caliber of our appointments has been outstanding, particularly today.”