January 01, 2018

From the Bench: State Supreme Court: Like SCOTUS, at Least in Part

Hon. David Viviano

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The parallels between the work of the Michigan Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, or SCOTUS, are many. Like SCOTUS, the Michigan Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law in Michigan. Like SCOTUS, the Michigan Supreme Court has broad discretion to decide in what cases we will hear argument and issue opinions. Like SCOTUS, the Michigan Supreme Court oversees the promulgation of the rules of procedure that govern our courts (although, unlike SCOTUS, we have the final word). Like SCOTUS, we make all of our decisions as a full court and by majority rule. Like SCOTUS, we hold confidential conferences where we make decisions together about cases. So much for the similarities—I think you may find the differences between a state supreme court and SCOTUS more interesting.

One of the greatest distinctions between the federal and state courts is the number and the breadth of disputes that we see. In an average year, some 30 million cases are filed in the state courts, while only about 1 million cases are filed in the federal courts. Jurisdiction in the federal courts is strictly limited. Thus, in practice, most people who need to have their disputes resolved by a court have them resolved in the state courts.

Diverse Legal Issues

In the Michigan Supreme Court, therefore, we see an incredibly diverse set of legal issues in the applications to our court each term. We are required to be generalists as a result, or at least to be agile enough to learn new areas of the law on any given day. This makes the work interesting—and also demanding.

In the calendar year 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court received 2,007 new applications. We heard 52 oral arguments and issued opinions, with or without oral argument, and dispositive orders following oral argument associated with 71 distinct docket numbers. Getting from 2,007 to 71 required countless hours of hard work, individually in each justice’s chambers and collaboratively at our conference table. Like the SCOTUS conference process, our conference process to determine in which cases we should issue opinions and what those opinions should say is confidential and therefore somewhat of a mystery to the public; but this part is not secret: it is work- and time-intensive.

Even so, we spend a significant amount of time on another of our constitutional duties that is public. The Michigan Constitution charges the Supreme Court with the administration of all of the courts of the state. Mich. Const. of 1963, art. VI, § 4. The amount of time my court spends on administrative matters is another difference between us and SCOTUS. And while our constitution describes us as “one court of justice,” this work has its challenges because our court system is not unified; each of the 242 courts in our state has its own locally elected judges, and these courts receive most of their funding from 164 different local funding units. We do not have many sticks or carrots, therefore, in our work to ensure that the courts across Michigan are serving the public effectively and efficiently. But even with those challenges, this administrative duty provides opportunities for serving the public that are extremely gratifying.

In Michigan, we have focused on enhancing the trial courts’ service with performance measures, innovative technology, and specialty courts. We have made it a priority to measure court performance and to use what we are learning to improve customer service. Our local courts have online dashboards that provide information about how long judges are taking to resolve the cases on their dockets and other metrics such as jury management. We are also surveying our court users regarding their experience with the court system, with surprisingly good results.

We are also working to become a leader in the development and use of court technology. We are in the process of implementing a statewide e-filing system that will allow our citizens to file and serve documents electronically with every court in the state. We have improved our website and social media presence, and are working to provide a better case management system to courts around the state. Many of our trial courts allow traffic tickets to be paid online, and some are experimenting with an online dispute resolution process. Trial judges are also conducting many court hearings using two-way interactive videoconferencing technology. These reforms are long overdue, but they have the potential to radically improve the way our courts operate and interact with court users and the public.

Michigan is a national leader in establishing problem-solving courts that divert offenders into targeted and closely supervised treatment programs instead of costly incarceration. We currently have 172 drug, sobriety, mental health, and veterans’ treatment courts that have, as their collective goal, the mission of helping people to turn their lives around and become productive, law-abiding members of the community. And they appear to be working—our most recent data show that graduates of these programs have significantly lower recidivism rates. In our larger counties, we also have established business courts that are designed for more efficient and consistent resolution of business disputes.

The decision-making function of our court is plainly critical. We bring clarity and stability and predictability to the law so that businesses and families and government officials can plan and conform their conduct to the law’s requirements. But even when we are doing that well, people will need to resolve some of their disputes in our courthouses—usually as a last resort. Whether a person is going through a divorce or a custody dispute, has been accused of or victimized by a crime, has been seriously injured or has lost his or her job, or his or her business is breaking apart—each case is extremely important to the participants and often to the entire community. The way we treat litigants and the public when they arrive at our courthouse doors is going to affect their view of our system of justice and the rule of law itself. We are public servants, and these are the people we serve.

I have been serving on the Michigan Supreme Court since 2013 and before that was chief judge of one of our larger trial courts. In both positions, I have found unique satisfaction in the administrative role I play. The ability—indeed the duty—to provide leadership and support to the courts across the state serving Michiganders is an honor. This administrative function gives the members of our court the opportunity to make an extremely important contribution to the day-to-day interactions Michigan citizens have with their court system.

Hon. David Viviano

The author is a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court.