Death on the Court

The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend prompted me to review Michigan’s history of justices who have passed away while still in service to the Court.

In the early part of the last century, there was an unprecedented string of deaths of sitting Michigan Supreme Court justices. Beginning with Justice Frank Hooker’s death in 1911, ten justices died from 1911-1929. In fact, half of the justices who were sitting on the Court in 1905 would go on to die while in service to the Court. Besides Hooker, this list includes Justices Charles Austin Blair, Aaron McAlvay, and Russell Ostrander.

Of the justices who died at the end of this period, four — Ernest Snow, John Bird, Richard Flannigan, and Grant Fellows — died in the three year period of 1927-1929. Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of the day that Justice Flannigan died, and his memorial notes the unusual circumstances of these many deaths.

The last person to die as a sitting justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was Justice Blair Moody Jr. on November 26, 1982. The appointment of Moody’s successor by Governor Milliken would later be contested by incoming Governor James Blanchard, resulting in the ouster of Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley after two months and one week on the Court.

Michigan’s connections to the current Supreme Court don’t end there. Jack Lessenberry has proposed that the President appoint Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack to the vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death; click here to listen. If it were to happen, Justice McCormack would be the third person from Michigan to ascend to the U.S. Supreme Court following Justices Henry B. Brown (1891-1906) and Frank Murphy (1940-1949).