Snyder taps staffer for Mich. Supreme Court

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday appointed his chief legal counsel Beth Clement to the Michigan Supreme Court, cementing a personal judicial legacy that could last for decades.

Clement, who was worked for Snyder in various roles since he took office in 2011, is his fifth state Supreme Court appointee and one of four now serving on the bench.

At 40 years old, Clement is the youngest active justice and could theoretically serve for more than 30 years — if she wants to and if she wins re-election multiple times, starting with a planned 2018 campaign for a full eight-year term.

Michigan’s constitution prohibits judges from seeking re-election after they turn 70. Other current justices appointed by Snyder range in age from 45-58.

“He’s had more opportunities to appoint people to the Supreme Court than I believe John Engler did in three terms,” said veteran Republican attorney Bob LaBrant. “John had a lasting impact on the Michigan Supreme Court, and Snyder promises to have perhaps even more.”

Engler, a Republican who served as governor from 1991 through 2002, picked a series of high-profile justices and used his political clout to help elect others. His appointees included current Chief Justice Stephen Markman and retired Justice Bob Young, who is now running for U.S. Senate.

“Engler was able to reshape the court and reconstitute it, and that was the model. But I’d say Snyder has taken it to a new level,” said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP lawmaker and longtime political pundit.

Snyder has simply had more opportunities than most governors, Ballenger, said, attributing his five appointments to a “revolving door” at the state’s highest court.

“I think Rick Snyder’s mark on the court is profound and will far outlast his governorship,” he said. “A lot of it just depends on whether these people really are in it for the long haul or whether they want to move on for any reason.”

Snyder did not have to look far for his latest pick, plucking Clement from his own office. A longtime executive office aide and former cabinet secretary, Clement has served as the governor’s chief legal counsel since a staff shakeup in April 2016.

She replaces former Justice Joan Larsen, a fellow Snyder appointee who was promoted to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals by President Donald Trump. Justice Brian Zahra, also a Snyder appointee, remains under consideration for a federal bench, meaning Snyder may end up appointing his replacement as well.

Clement has never served as a judge and has primarily worked behind the scenes in the governor’s office, so little is known about her legal philosophy. But Snyder said she will be an excellent “rule of law” judge on the state’s highest court.

“I’m convinced of that. I’ve seen her legal mind work in a number of ways,” he said during a press conference in downtown Lansing.

With the appointment, Republican nominees again hold a 5-2 majority on the court. Clement will complete a term that expires at the end of 2018 and intends to seek re-election next year.

Asked whether she would recuse herself from Flint water crisis cases or other legal matters involving past actions by the governor’s office, Clement said she would consider each case individually.

“There will be conflicts,” she acknowledged, “and I will look at each and every case as they come in. I’m aware of those potentials.”

While operating under the guidance of Snyder-appointed emergency managers, Flint switched its drinking water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014 as it prepared for a transition to the upstart Karegnondi Water Authority.

A failure by state environmental regulators to insist on adding corrosion control chemicals resulted in lead leaching from aging city pipes, contaminated the water and prompted a state emergency declaration in January 2016.

Clement was joined at the press conference by her husband, Tom, and their children. The family lives in East Lansing.

She vowed a “fair and impartial interpretation of the law as written.”

“I will honor this great opportunity with my strongest commitment to hard work every day,” Clement said, “and I will treat all persons who come before the court with respect, patience and my utmost attention.”

Travis Weber of Lansing, who had been serving in a deputy role, will replace Clement as Snyder’s chief legal counsel. Frederick Headen of Haslett, a legal adviser who was former head of the Treasury Department’s Local Government Services Bureau, will join the office as senior legal counsel.

Justices Zahra and David Viviano were originally appointed by Snyder but have since won re-election. Justice Kurtis Wilder was tapped to serve an open seat in May and is expected to seek re-election next year.

Larsen’s departure had temporarily left Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, a Democratic nominee, as the only woman on the court.

While Snyder chose an internal candidate for the post, he said his appointment process remains “merit based” and that Clement was a top recommendation of judges and others in the legal community.

Clement previously worked as a legal counsel in the state Senate and has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Michigan State University and her juris doctor degree from the MSU College of Law.

“She’ll now complete the trifecta,” Snyder said. “She spent time in the legislative branch. She spent time in the executive branch. And I’m going to miss her, but I’m excited she’s going off to the judicial branch of government because I know she’ll do a great job.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justices earn $164,610 a year.

Chief Justice Markman welcomed Clement to the court ahead of oral arguments scheduled for December.

“As a lawyer and counselor to our state’s governor, as well as to legislative branch leaders, Beth brings remarkable legal experience, respect for the rule of law, and a reputation for judiciousness to the court,” Markman said in a statement.