An Era of Unanimity on the Michigan Supreme Court?

by Jonathan Keim

In a Detroit News op-ed, Chief Justice Young and Justice Bridget McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court explain an interesting trend on their court: 

Just a few years ago, you could count on one hand the number of unanimous opinions. This term, the court spoke unanimously 15 times – roughly 40 percent of our opinions. What does this mean? In resolving some of the most contentious issues involving interpretation of statutes and our constitutions, the seven justices saw eye to eye. 

Moreover, while we categorically reject the notion that justices make decisions based on political background, the data shows that this rejection is warranted. Consider the number of cases decided by a 5-2 majority divided along so-called party lines.

This happened only once and even then the reasons for dissent were different. Now, look at the number of 4-3 opinions. This term, that division only happened five times, and different combinations of justices nominated by both parties came down on either side in each of those cases.

What does this mean? The members of the Michigan Supreme Court are not governed by politics but by the rule of law.

The cohesion and collaborative approach of the court is also evident when examining the level of agreement between justices. For example, the two of us agreed 89 percent of the time. Looking at pairs of our colleagues, the level of agreement ranged from 80 percent to 98 percent. The bottom line is that our deliberations about cases involve spirited debate and discussion, but at the end of the day, most disagreements are resolved — not based on party allegiances but on the law as written by the legislature and signed by the governor.