State of Judiciary – Riley

Thursday, April 28,1988
The Capitol, Lansing, Michigan
Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley*

Governor Blanchard, Lieutenant Governor Griffiths, Speaker Owen, Majority Leader Engler, Members of the House and Senate, Distinguished Alumni of the Michigan Supreme Court and of this Joint Legislative Convention. Today my brothers and sisters of the bench join me in this report to you and to the people of Michigan.

“To understand what is happening today or what will be happening in the future, I look back.”

I look back nearly two decades, to May 1, 1969, when the tradition of these joint sessions began. This State of the Judiciary program is a celebration of that occasion and those who made it possible: Speaker William A. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Emil Lockwood, and Chief Justice THOMAS E. BRENNAN.

It is also a celebration of those who followed and forged strong working ties between Michigan’s legislative and judicial branches of government: Speaker Bobby Crim and our present Speaker Gary M. Owen; Senate Majority Leaders Robert Vanderlaan, Milton Zaagman, William Fitzgerald and our present Majority Leader, Senator John Engler, and our Honorees, Chief Justices THOMAS MATHEW KAVANAGH, THOMAS GILES KAVANAGH, MARY STALLINGS COLEMAN, JOHN W. FITZGERALD and G. MENNEN WILLIAMS.

Since that first judicial address by Chief Justice BRENNAN on Law Day, 1969, we have come a long way together, through many legislative sessions and terms of Court. For as you well know, the law we live by, like history, is cumulative. It does not begin nor does it end with one session of the Legislature or with one term of Court. Rather the laws of tomorrow are borne of the successes and failures of the laws of yesterday and today.

In each of the State of the Judiciary messages since 1969, my predecessors have spoken of the importance of balance among the three branches of state government. They have asked you to give consideration to our concerns, to share our pride in programs often made possible only with your help, and they have urged you to join us in seeking solutions to the complex societal problems left on our courthouse steps.

Chief Justice BRENNAN persuaded you that the Wayne County Courts required special “crash” programs to deal with their criminal docket problems.

Chief Justice THOMAS MATHEW KAVANAGH successfully urged that you put in place a State Court Administrative Office and begin to build a Judicial Data Center. Chief Justice THOMAS GILES KAVANAGH worked with you to implement a committee to study Court congestion and court facilities, and to put in place the Michigan Judicial Institute. Under the leadership of Chief Justice MARY STALLINGS COLEMAN you enacted legislation to revamp the Detroit/Wayne County Court structure and to put in place the State Judicial Council. Chief Justice JOHN W. FITZGERALD assisted you in the implementation of the reorganization of the Wayne County court system. And working with my former colleague, Chief Justice G. MENNEN WILLIAMS, you strengthened court administration and assisted us in examining and instituting significant reforms to provide equitable, timely, and efficient justice.

True, there was much that the chief justices urged that was left unfinished. But I am here today to tell you that my colleagues and I still view May 1, 1969, as an important date in our state’s legislative and judicial history, because it marks our first full recognition of the interdependence as well as independence of each branch of government.
I am also here to acknowledge our honorees who faithfully and steadfastly over the past nineteen years built upon the foundation laid on Law Day, 1969. And, I am here to assure you that my colleagues and I will do whatever we must to maintain the vitality of this working relationship, while preserving the independence and integrity of our “one court of justice.”

The constitutional responsibility of the judiciary is to provide a forum in which disputes can be resolved by unbiased application of legal standards to the facts. An independent judiciary, constitutionally bound to decide cases without fear or favor, whether the case is between branches of government, between citizen and state, or between citizen and citizen, assures that this responsibility will be carried out.

To the extent that courts are accessible to the people, and resolve disputes quickly, economically, and fairly, we are successful. But today, there are massive strains on our judiciary’s ability to function effectively.

Ask any of Michigan’s 565 judges (more than one hundred of whom I am delighted to say are in the gallery with us this morning), and they will tell you that while we have accomplished much together, much more remains to be done!

Certainly the agenda which you have already outlined for yourselves—criminal law, tort and juvenile justice reform, to name a few—will greatly affect the quality of justice that Michigan’s citizens can expect in the future.

Thus, as you continue to address the critical problems whose solutions define the quality of life in Michigan, I ask you to work with the judicial and executive branches in tackling one more significant reform. I ask you to review with us the very structure of the judiciary itself. Fifteen years ago a joint commission to study article 6 of the 1963 Michigan Constitution looked at the organization of the judiciary and made significant recommendations. On the basis of those recommendations, you established a Court of Claims, abolished the Common Pleas Court, established the 36th District Court for the City of Detroit, and strengthened the powers and duties of the Judicial Tenure Commission.

It is time, now, to reexamine article 6 of our constitution, and the statutes which implement it, in light of today’s problems, and I urge that we do so. You have spent considerable time in recent months enacting bills to combat the growing crime
problems related to trafficking of illegal drugs. You have made adjustments in the powers and responsibilities of law enforcement and correctional agencies. I ask you to also focus on the effect which these problems have on the judiciary.

Further, in reviewing article 6 to draw the blueprint for a more effective judiciary, I urge you to explore what the basic structure of the Michigan court system should be. Should there be a single trial bench with special divisions? Should there be regional courts? A family court? How many judges should there be? Which cases should they hear? Where should they be located? And ultimately, who should fund them?

Numerous sensitive and complex social issues come to the courts for resolution—child custody, support, and visitation, child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and mental health protective processing, products liability, and personal injury cases, to name but a few. I urge you to consider how the judiciary can best be structured to insure
equitable, timely, and efficient justice for the parties in each of these cases.

Many of these concerns are already before you either in specific bills which you have introduced, or by implication from bills which would adjust the jurisdiction of the existing court structure. I urge you, therefore, to establish by concurrent resolution, the advisory body necessary to thoroughly review these issues and, when you have heard their recommendations, that you act to establish a court system for our “one court of justice” that is both structurally and fiscally sound.

Now I address a problem which I believe is gnawing at the very foundation of society as we know it today. I pose the question: Who will save our children? I am not talking about the Legislature, or the executive, or the judiciary saving them, but I am talking about all of us as public servants stepping up to the responsibility of providing the safe, nurturing environment to which each child in our state is entitled.

The need for a compassionate society to recognize its moral duty to provide for its children has never been more eloquently expressed than by G. Campbell Morgan in his work “The Children’s Playground in the City of God.”

God’s purpose for the child and God’s ideal for the child build the condition of public life. Everything in the life of the coming city will depend upon the little child. Everything will be carried forward in the interests of the little child. Among other things, the streets will be fit for children to play in. When you have a city with streets fit for children you have a city with streets fit for adults. If the child is safe everyone is safe.

When will we act to make our streets safe for our children? In 1987 alone, over 85,000 cases of neglect, abuse, or delinquency came before probate courts, and sixty percent of our children in the inner cities dropped out of school. As of April 15 of this year, seventy-six children had suffered or died from gunshot wounds in the City of Detroit. You know these numbers as well as I do. Many of you have had to face grieving parents, families, and classmates and tell them that you are trying to change things but, you say, “It takes time. It takes money.”

But they are hollow words to high school seniors who see the empty seats around them and know: Johnny’s dead; Mary dropped out; Bobby’s in prison; Betty’s in the youth home; Kenny’s at a crack house…What can we do about the situation where fifteen-year-old boys tell their counselors that they feel safer in detention facilities than they do in the streets of their own neighborhoods. These problems may seem far removed from these chambers where our laws are made but it is here where we must begin.

And we have all begun. Just a year ago this month, the probate Court task force report commissioned by the Michigan Supreme Court called for the establishment of a twentieth department, the Department of Children and Family Services, to assure that a minimum level of services would be available to any child no matter where he or she resides in the state. The Court’s motivation in establishing this task force and developing such recommendations arose out of its desire to more effectively serve children and families who come or may come within the court’s jurisdiction. We found a crazy-quilt pattern of service delivery around the state, with some jurisdictions receiving adequate services through the creative genius of judges and administrators, despite confusing state-level organization and funding. Unfortunately, in many communities, resources are such that not even well-schooled administrators and judges can cut their way through the jungle that we call the service delivery system to provide much needed services to children and families.

But we, in the judiciary, are not the only ones concerned about children and families! Senator Jack Welborn began last summer with a committee to explore this twentieth department concept. In November, 1987, Representative Teola Hunter’s Ad Hoc Committee on Early Intervention and Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency recommended the establishment of a TYPE I agency to provide the necessary coordination and collaboration of services. And just this past January, the Governor’s Human Services Cabinet Task Force on Youth Services called for the establishment of the Michigan Center for Children and Families within the Michigan Department of Social Services.

I review this history merely to show that we all agree that our problems are serious. We agree—across branches of state government—that we can and must serve our children better. We agree that we each must continue to examine our own delivery systems, but, even more strongly, we agree that we must work together on a continuing basis.

Perhaps optimistically, I believe we can close the 1980s with a much improved service-delivery system for children. Over the last year, many experienced and dedicated people from each of the three branches of government have together created the necessary yearning for a better system. I urge you, therefore, in conjunction with the executive and judicial branches to establish a permanent commission on children’s issues. It is time that we bring together those individuals from our three branches of government who are responsible for providing services to our children and their families to serve as Michigan’s conscience. Only in this way can we hope to achieve a consensus on those changes needed to insure the future of our children.

I realize that these are ambitious undertakings that I urge, but I would not urge them if I did not sense a willingness on the part of members of the Legislature and the people of this state to support efforts to secure a structurally and fiscally sound court system and to meet our moral commitment to our children.

History will tell what progress was made in the pursuit of justice in Michigan in the 1990s. Judgment of whether we here today have improved or impeded the administration of justice will be reserved for those sitting in your seats in the next decade. Let their hindsight praise our foresight. If this crusade is to have a beginning—let it be now.

Thirty-nine years ago, when I was graduated from law school, I found myself struggling to find a job. Wherever I turned I was told that I should not expect to find a position—after all, I was a woman, my father worked on the line at the Ford Motor Company, and I did not know any of the right people. While I cannot say that they were factually wrong, I can say that they were ultimately wrong—because they had not reckoned with my dream.

You see, I concluded that I would accept any opportunity given to me, but that I would not settle for it, I would earn better; I would not allow my reality to fall short of my dream.

Finally, I would like to thank you for supporting our 1987-88 budget request, enabling us to begin our efforts to computerize the Court, and for providing a beginning in establishing the Office of the Chief Justice to improve our ability to supervise 200 courts and 565 judges, and to deal with the day-to-day control of expenditures.

The third branch thanks you for the continuing opportunity to work with you for Michigan’s future, for we know that the strength of Michigan’s future is in her past.

 * Reporter’s Note: The annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature is prepared and delivered by the chief justice after consultation with the justices of the Supreme Court. The views expressed in the address, however, do not necessarily represent those of all the justices.