TRAVERSE CITY — Justice Elizabeth Weaver, of Glen Arbor, whose frequent battles with fellow Republican justices over the past decade exposed deep political and personal rifts on the Michigan Supreme Court, plans to resign today.
Weaver, 69, decided to step down after she secured Gov. Jennifer Granholm's promise to appoint a northern Michigan jurist to replace her on the state's highest court.
"I have done all that I can do as a justice and now believe that I can be of most use as a citizen in helping further the critically needed reforms of the judicial system," Weaver said in an exclusive interview with the Record-Eagle. "Now I will be able to work and speak freely."
Weaver said she would not have resigned without Granholm's agreement to select a northern Michigan replacement. A justice from northern Michigan brings independence and a different perspective to a court currently dominated by justices from the Detroit to Lansing beltway, she said.
"I think I'm proof of the pudding; I'm independent," she said. "That independent-thinking judge is not agenda-driven and does not hold to political party lines."
Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd said Weaver expressed an interest in retiring for some time, but just recently notified Granholm of her decision. Boyd would not disclose the identity of Weaver's successor, but said Granholm would make an announcement at noon today.
A judicial appointment is Granholm's to make, and does not require legislative approval. Weaver's departure comes two days before Republicans and Democrats select their nominees for election to the Supreme Court.
"The governor is always interested in appointing a well-qualified person for the judiciary," Boyd said. "The governor shares Justice Weaver's belief that the court have geographic diversity and an appointee from northern Michigan is very important."
Weaver, fellow Republicans often at odds
The decision likely will give Democrats an incumbent candidate to put on the November ballot, as well as an edge in both parties' efforts to gain a 4 to 3 majority on the increasingly partisan court.
Weaver often served as the court's swing vote, particularly since Diane Hathaway, a Democratic nominee, defeated Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, a Republican nominee, in November 2008.
Taylor's defeat crumbled a block of Republican justices known as the "Engler Four" who dominated the Supreme Court for much of the past decade. Former Republican Gov. John Engler appointed three of those justices to the Supreme Court and a fourth won a top court seat after an Engler appointment to the court of appeals.
Weaver broke from the Engler wing after her fellow Republicans ousted her from the Chief Justice post in 2001. Weaver often, though not always, opposed the Engler group's decisions and the sides frequently fired shots at each other in written opinions or through the media.
Weaver called her decision to resign now "fair" and dismissed concerns that allowing Granholm to appoint a successor will anger Republicans who twice nominated her for the court.
"I do not make my decision based on whether or not somebody else is going to be happy or unhappy," Weaver said. "One of my principles of living is do right, fear not.
"I don't owe anything to any of the parties, but I owe everything to the people," Weaver said.
Was ready to run again
Weaver's independence and willingness at times to side with the court's Democrats upset some Republicans and put her nomination at risk. She filed in June to run as an independent without party backing. She said she wanted to keep her options open, and at the time planned to run and win.
She was ready to go with updated brochures and yard signs leftover from her 2002 race.
She said she frequently runs into supporters who wanted her to continue on the court, sentiments that made her decision difficult, she said.
"It's hard for me to get into an elevator and have someone tell me 'Justice Weaver, we're so glad you are running and we appreciate your courage," she said as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Voters elected Weaver to the state's high court in 1994 and again in 2002. She previously served eight years on the state court of appeals and 12 years as Leelanau County's probate court judge.
Granholm thanked Weaver for her service on the bench and dedication to children's issues.
"For 36 years Justice Weaver has been a fighter for fair, common-sense justice," Granholm said in a prepared statement. "Justice Weaver has been a tireless advocate for Michigan's children and families and a strong proponent of an independent and balanced judiciary. I join the citizens of Michigan in thanking her for a lifetime of service and wish her only the best."
Weaver called the present system of party nomination of justice candidates who then stand for election "deeply flawed." She pledged to continue her battle to reform the court and make it and campaign funding of judicial races more transparent.
"The open discord on this court over the last 10 years is not really so much about clashes of strong personalities, but rather is the result of the formation of power blocks of justices usually joining together with a majority of four votes to promote agendas of political parties and special interests; personal interests, philosophies, and ideologies, and biases and prejudices," Weaver said. "It's important to civilization where the public has a place they can go to get a fair shake, where judges are not in the pocket of anybody.
"Independent justices that don't go along to get along; they can't be bullied," she said.
Weaver said she hasn't decided yet how she'll work as a citizen to bring about court reform, and recognizes her message may lose clout coming from a former justice, as opposed to an active one.
But she said that's a question for a later day.
"The first thing I'm going to do is take a full day to float down the Crystal River," she said.