The Gongwer Blog

by Ben Solis, Staff Writer

Background Checks Debated As Safety Tool, Excessive Registration

Posted: March 27, 2023 9:20 AM

Bills with public support creating universal background checks on all firearm purchases are racing through the Legislature in the wake of two mass shootings in Michigan, but the legislation is under criticism from Republicans and gun rights activists who say the bills go further than claimed and lack clear enforcement details.

The bills passed their respective legislative chambers this month, moving the bills in a larger package of firearms regulations closer to the governor's desk. For Democrats and gun control advocates, the legislation is a long-sought common-sense change designed to prevent people without the legal right to purchase a firearm from doing so.

But questions remain on how the bills will act as improvements to the state's background checks system – all firearms purchased from a federally licensed dealer in Michigan require a background check already. Some gun rights activists and Republican legislators say parsing the bills has been difficult because they focus on licensure and registration as a means to effectuate background checks. One of their biggest criticisms of the legislation is it would require all firearms to be registered going forward, a major expansion of the requirement now only for pistols.

There's also questions on how the state would be able to appropriately enforce an added requirement for purchasing licenses on long guns since the bill would only affect future purchases after the implementation date, and not the millions of long guns currently owned by Michigan residents.

Still, Democratic members of the House and Senate – each voting in favor of the bills when they passed – have said that a universal background checks system was a vital measure in keeping guns out of the hands of bad actors who could turn those guns against others resulting in injury, death and more importantly mass deaths.

The party in power in Lansing also believes that inalienable rights come with a high degree of responsibility, and that by creating a framework where every firearm sold must be licensed creates a pathway to automatic or universal background checks on all firearms.

In an interview with Gongwer News Service, Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi), the House Judiciary Committee chair, said the entire idea behind background checks is to curb illegal sales and gun violence, and that she and her colleagues do not want to disarm or take away the rights of average citizens to purchase or keep arms. She did say, however, that HB 4138 and SB 76 would amount to a mere inconvenience for future gun owners.

"What we're talking about here is tantamount to an inconvenience. It is not meant to keep firearms out of the hands of law abiding citizens, but also with personal rights come personal responsibilities. And a vast majority of the gun owners that I know, including members of my own family, they have no problem whatsoever making sure that one their firearms are stored safely to keep them out of the hands of kids," Ms. Breen said. "Most 'good citizens with guns' also undergo safety and training courses. If you want a CPL, you have to (train) but if you don't have a CPL and you just want to own a gun, fine, you're not required to, but I would hope that a responsible gun owner would take the time to understand that with that personal right comes responsibility with how to know and handle those firearms correctly. That's what we're asking for, and is tantamount really to inconvenience."

HB 4138 and SB 76, sponsored by Rep. Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte) and Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-Saint Clair Shores), passed in their respective chambers this month. Both chambers will have to pass the other's respective bills before they can reach the governor's desk for approval. That could come with a flurry of additional hearings with hours of testimony seen with earlier movement on the bills, giving advocates and opponents another chance to lobby lawmakers to either pass or vote against them.

Overall, both bills would create a system much like the one Michigan requires for the carrying of a concealed pistol, which necessitates purchasers and owners to have their weapons licensed. One of the steps toward licensure is a background check. Other guns, like the long guns that have taken center stage in the gun control debate, do not currently require licensure or registration to purchase or own.

Ms. Breen said that bills would institute the licensure and registration requirement on pistols across the spectrum of firearms bought and sold in Michigan, and by proxy requiring background checks on those sales. The bills, she said, would also the require the same on private sales, which are currently left unregulated under state law.

More specifically, Mr. Hertel's bill in the Senate would amend the Handgun Licensure Act to prohibit an individual from purchasing or acquiring a firearm that was not a pistol without a license, specifying that the prohibition would not apply to the purchase or acquisition of a firearm that occurred before the bill's effective date.

It would also apply qualifications a person must have to apply for a pistol licensee to the qualifications that person would need to possess for all firearm licensure; specify exemptions, procedures, and penalties prescribed in the act for pistol licensure to all firearm licensure; and exempt an individual purchasing a firearm other than a pistol who had a federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (or NICS) check performed by a federally licensed firearms dealer within five days of the purchase.

Mr. Hertel's bill would further modify certain circumstances under which a person would not have to obtain a license to possess a pistol or firearm.

Ms. Churches' bill reads along the exact same lines, however, and the adopted substitute stated that current long gun owners would be grandfathered in to ensure that long guns don't need to be retroactively registered.

The current nationwide purchase system requires federally licensed firearms dealers to initiate background checks on the purchaser prior to a sale. As mentioned, the nationwide system does require the same on private sales, data provided by Giffords Law Center shows, but provides states with an option of serving as a point of contact and allows them to conduct their own background checks. Those checks have access to state and federal records and databases. States can also opt to have the FBI conduct the check using only the NICS system, which does not always include state data.

Michigan is a partial point-of-contact state for the NICS database. Background checks requested by licensed dealers are processed directly through the FBI, Giffords Law Center states, which enforces the federal purchaser prohibitions referenced in FBI processes. If a handgun seller is not a federally licensed dealer, Michigan requires the purchaser to obtain either a valid handgun purchase license or a license to carry a concealed handgun, according to Michigan law.

Handgun purchase licensees are subject to a background check as part of the licensing process for each purchase license and for each handgun purchased through the Department of State Police, as directed by statute.

Concealed pistol licensees only have to submit to a background check once every five years, state law dictates, at the time of renewal of their concealed carry license.

In Michigan, a law was enacted in 2015 to require law enforcement to conduct background checks through the state's Law Enforcement Information Network and the FBI's NICS database.

That said, the Giffords Law Center notes that federal law does not require dealers to conduct a background check if a firearm purchaser presents a state permit to purchase or possess firearms that meets certain conditions. The center further notes that, as a result, handgun purchase license holders in Michigan are exempt from the federal background check requirement when buying a firearm.

Long gun transfers by private sellers, however, are not currently subject to background checks in Michigan.

Neither Ms. Churches nor Mr. Hertel responded to multiple requests to be interviewed in the past week about their bills, why the licensing requirement was an important addition to the framework of background checks and what they made of criticism against their bills, which passed with solely party line votes.

Ms. Breen did say, however, that it was her belief that one of the main reasons background checks and licensure haven't been applied to long guns was because of opposition from the previously Republican-led Legislature and that bills addressing long guns were tanked because they were Democratic-sponsored bills.

Republican critics and those engaged in gun rights activism have questioned the need for the new bills at all and have further questioned whether the state would be able to properly enforce not only the background checks requirement but also the licensing requirement on long guns. Some have also criticized the committee hearings and floor debates on the bills thus far for lacking a great deal of analysis and wrangling with the details, instead focusing on testimony from gun violence victims and advocacy groups.

For Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale), the bills would fail to address the types of shootings that likely accelerated the Democratic Party's recent push in Lansing for gun reform, those being the deadly shootings at Oxford High School in 2021 and the shooting on Michigan State University's campus earlier this year.

"This is not just about any one crime, right, but the pistol used at Oxford, the pistol used at Michigan State, many of the pistols used in crimes every day, people already have to go through this licensing process to legally purchase a pistol," Mr. Fink said. "And yet something like 94 percent of acts of gun violence occur with pistols. So, how effective this process is at reducing gun violence, I think you can be skeptical of it based on the fact that we already have it for the very weapons that are used to commit, not all, but the vast, vast majority. Twenty-times more gun crimes are committed with pistols than with long guns."

He went on to say that it was his understanding that a much lower, like four or six percent, of gun crimes area actually committed with long guns, and that statistical noise tends to outshine the effect pistols have had on the gun violence equation.

Mr. Fink also worried about the liability that would be enforced on gun sellers in another bill in the overall package, which would open up gun sellers and manufacturers to civil lawsuits in the instance of malicious injury or death that involved the use of a firearm.

"Why if we trusted background checks, are we putting this additional burden of strict liability on the sellers?" he said. "In other words, you would think if we think the background checks are worthwhile, that the seller would be absolved of responsibility for what the person (with a gun did) as long as he did it right."

Brendan Boudreau, executive director of the Great Lakes Gun Rights advocacy group, told Gongwer that they were opposed to the bills as they were interpreted as infringing on residents' right to own a firearm, among other concerns.

But, as it relates to the background checks question, Mr. Boudreau expounded by saying that the language was deceptive.

"When we're talking about what they're calling the universal background check bill, it is actually more accurately a universal gun licensing scheme. It's not universal background checks, it's a universal permit to purchase," he said. "(Legislators supporting the bills) go even farther and say, well, 'we're not going after law abiding gun owners.' Well, actually they are because specifically in the bill, they're repealing an exemption under current law that would allow a CPL holder, someone who has been trained and someone who has gone through a background check, to now get a purchase permit to go purchase a pistol."

Even without that caveat, Mr. Boudreau decried the bills because they would be a vast expansion of the pistol purchase permit system in Michigan, which he asserted wouldn't have prevented the shooting at Oxford High School in late 2021 and would severely hinder the free practice of having the right to keep in bear arms in the state.

Specifically, Mr. Boudreau's interpretation was that the background check bills themselves would ultimately criminalize several activities involving firearms which he labeled as "innocent activities."

"Let me give you an example here. It's unclear whether or not someone could loan a hunting rifle or shotgun to a close family member or a hunting buddy without (the receiving party) having to get a purchase permit. How do you how do you do that?" he said. "You could go Up North to a deer camp, and let's say your rifle breaks and your friend wants to loan you a gun. Well, under these packages, it's unclear whether or not that's a crime. That's a pretty innocent thing that they're now criminalizing."

He also used the example of an heirloom hunting rifle handed down to younger generations of family members, saying that because the receiver was not the original grandfathered exempt owner of the firearm, it was now unclear if that heirloom was considered an unregistered illegal gun under the proposed licensure framework.

The process could also add, in his interpretation of the proposals, another layer of what Mr. Boudreau called unnecessary bureaucracy.

Mr. Fink had similar concerns about the language of the bills and them being potentially hard to decipher from both a legal and layman's standpoint. The Senate bill includes a provision that notes firearms purchased or acquired before the effective date of the pending legislation were not subject to the licensing requirements, but the House bill does not include "acquired."

When looking in the bill for a definition of acquired, Mr. Fink said there was not one to be found. Even as an attorney, Mr. Fink said it was hard to know exactly what that meant in the context of the bill.

"We can use it casually. I think most of the time if a person uses the phrase acquire, you don't mean like, I borrowed it for a while," he said. "If I told you I acquired a new guitar, you would think that I had either purchased it or been given it or something like that. I think that's one source of ambiguity. … Purchaser is defined as either a buyer or a giftee. And that that actually does conform to what you might have expected because everybody always knew if your dad gives you a pistol, you still have to go get a license and have it registered. So, we've always known that about pistols. Does that mean that in the House version, the term purchase also means gift?"

Mr. Fink added that he has pointed these issues out to the bill sponsors but has not received a satisfactory response from the sponsors or other Democratic legislators.

For Ms. Breen's part in pushing the various pieces of legislation, the representative and Judiciary chair said she has had conversations with her Republican colleagues and maintains a good relationship with them to try and hear individual concerns. She also said that there was ample opportunity for those opposed to be heard and have a hand in the process of crafting the best legislation.

Ms. Breen cited her ongoing conversations with law enforcement to figure out their concerns, noting that some in law enforcement have come out in support of the background check changes. To concerns that the Democrats were moving too quickly and by proxy could be drafting poorly crafted laws in the process, Ms. Breen said if the bills have to be amended later, so be it – as long as they at least tried and make a dent in the problem of ballooning gun violence.

"Just because we can't solve the entire problem doesn't mean we can't solve part of the problem. You know, we, we can't let the perfect get in the way of good," Ms. Breen said when asked to react to some of her opponents' comments. "And that's another reason why we didn't want to retroactively register long gun is for those very reasons you cited. … Yes, there are millions of guns out there are already. People continue to buy firearms. This isn't something that we see slowing down. This isn't something that's going to stop. People are buying firearms every single day. So, there's no reason in the world why we can't at least prospectively going forward try to make a dent in the problem."

Current, Former Prosecutors Say CCW Plea Deals Are Commonplace

Posted: February 20, 2023 4:40 PM

As lawmakers and gun reform advocates push for stronger laws to prevent future mass shootings, with many still reeling from the tragic incident on Michigan State University's campus this week, it remains unclear if current law could have prevented the suspect from gaining access to and owning a gun even with a prior gun charge on his record.

Several have questioned in the wake of the shooting that left three dead and five critically injured on Monday evening if the suspect, Anthony McRae, should have faced a stiffer penalty that would have barred his legal access to firearms instead of pleading down the CCW charge – a felony – to a high court misdemeanor.

Much criticism has also since been lobbed at former Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon for a policy shift to limit felony firearm gun charges that she said disproportionately affect Black residents.

That said, sources in interviews with Gongwer News Service asserted that the general inclination for prosecutors is to seek plea deals in first offense of carrying a concealed weapon without a license convictions, much like the one Mr. McRae received for an incident in 2019 in which was arrested for CCW but not in the commission of another crime and with no prior felony or gun offenses.

Mr. McRae also exited his probationary period without incident in 2021, around the same time the policy from Ms. Siemon was implemented. While prosecutors have broad discretion over whether to bring charges, drop them, seek plea deals or convictions at trial, one former defense attorney said aside from the policy, Ms. Siemon's charging policies were not well respected by the law enforcement and legal communities. She has since left office and been replaced by appointed Prosecutor John Dewane, who in January reversed his predecessor's policy on felony firearm, but says that the policy wouldn't have affected Mr. McRae's 2019 conviction.

Former Rep. David LaGrand, who prior to seeking elected office served as an assistant prosecutor in Kent County for eight years, further stated that his read of the reduction offered to Mr. McRae wasn't much of a reduction in sentence at all.

"The reality is, when you say high court misdemeanor … it's essentially the same thing as a low level felony in some context. So, it's not like it was a dramatic reduction here," Mr. LaGrand told Gongwer. "The other thing is, yeah, quite likely, he wouldn't get jail time for that. … I was a prosecutor for years and I don't offhand remember virtually every case, but in the vast majority of cases some offer is made, because if there isn't an offer, the defendant has no incentive not to go to trial."

Even if there was a high likelihood of success for winning at trial, there's no 100 percent guarantee that the prosecutor would win at trial, he added. The inclination is to seek a conviction by the swiftest possible means.

"If you're a prosecutor, you're always confronted with that moment where a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Even a 95 percent chance of conviction has a 5 percent chance the guy's going to walk," Mr. LaGrand said. "So, in that situation, that is a calculus that prosecutors make every single time in every single case, whether it's shoplifting, armed robbery, drunk driving or something else. There will be some kind of offer made, whether it's reduced charges, whether it's a cap on the consequences. 'I'll guarantee the guy goes to jail, but doesn't do prison time,' or something like that."

Mr. LaGrand also said that in those cases, if an offer was not made, the defense attorney would think the prosecutor was being unreasonable and not doing his job. The line that is often drawn, however, is in high profile murder cases where prosecutors often refrain from making a deal.

This is what sets Ms. Siemon apart in that she was known for offering lenient sentences even in murder cases that angered law enforcement and judges.

Midland Assistant Prosecutor J. Dee Brooks said it was not unusual for first offense CCW charge with no priors or carrying in the commission of another crime to be pleaded downward to some sort of misdemeanor firearms charge.

"If you look at CCW, even under the old sentencing guidelines and before some of the criminal justice reforms where they really restricted what a court can do on low level, low guideline offenses, and this would be one of those, it would allow for at most a possible jail sentence in some local jail," Mr. Brooks said in an interview. "And under the criminal justice reform, the restrictions on the courts and what they want them to do, it would be going against those recommendations even to give jail time (and instead give) a lengthy probationary sentence or something like that."

The factors prosecutors examine and weigh before making charging decisions and potential plea deals are numerous, Mr. Brooks said, but often top of mind are considerations for danger to the community and if it appears the arrested individual was contemplating some sort of criminal activity while carrying a weapon.

"I've had situations where people were out hunting, or target practicing, and just didn't bother to do all the procedures that they should have done. Perhaps even forgot about it. They always claim, and sometimes it might be true, that they forgot they even had the gun in the car (for CCW auto charges)," he said. "You're making an assessment of the circumstances. Did they appear to be someone that is a responsible gun owner, generally, but made a mistake? Or does it appear to maybe be somebody that doesn't appreciate the seriousness or potential danger of their situation, their circumstances? We're always concerned with community safety, that always has to be our primary concern."

Mr. Brooks added that charging decisions also weigh what's fair to the arrested subject, balancing competing constitutional rights at the same time. Mental health is also a major factor, but one that's hard to gauge if the person isn't adjudicated and in the system for mental health monitoring and treatment.

"People feel very strongly about firearms rights and some people even say, 'we shouldn't even be requiring any type of permit or licensing requirements.' Then others appreciate that they have the potential to cause lethal harm so quickly and easily," he said. "One of the concerns always is mental health issues, and I think that's part of the problem that we have right now. Unless somebody has been legally adjudicated as mentally incompetent through the court process or has been involuntarily committed, there's no way to check that. There's no way to make a record of that."

Various Republican lawmakers for about the past six to eight years have attempted to eliminate the requirement to obtain a license to carry a concealed pistol and thus eliminate the crime of carrying a concealed pistol without a license. Bills moved to varying degrees but never made it to the governor's desk.

Mr. LaGrand and Mr. Brooks were asked if they believed mandatory minimums for first offense CCW convictions, unpaired with another crime, or blanket gun ownership prohibitions for such offenders should be reconsidered as penalties in the wake of frequent mass shootings – and in cases like Mr. McRae's.

Both said no, citing research and first-hand experience that shows mandatory minimums and blanket bans don't work and are often hard to enforce.

"My experience is that every time they try to do mandatory penalties, it gets blindly effectuated without discretion, and there gets to be some bad examples like the jails or prisons filling up. People will then say, 'oh, well we don't want that. We want to reduce costs and keep people out, or keep them in for shorter periods of time,'" Mr. Brooks said. "I think there is something to be gained by the felony firearm law, which by the way doesn't apply. We can't use it with a CCW charge, so again, the punishment and penalties that we get out of CCW charge, even as a five year felony, are pretty insignificant. … There should be some discretion as to how it is applied."

Gongwer requested interviews with prosecutors in Kent, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to ask how prevalent it was for prosecutors to plead down first offense concealed weapons charges if that individual had no prior convictions and was not committing another offense – let alone another felony.

Neither Macomb's nor Oakland's offices of the prosecutor responded to interview requests. Kent Prosecutor Christopher Becker's office notified Gongwer that he was out of the office and was not available for comment before publication.

Wayne Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined the interview request and further declined comment on the matter in a statement provided to Gongwer. Ms. Worthy also stressed that her office would not be comparing its process to another prosecutor's, nor would did she intend to criticize the policies or discretion decisions of another fellow prosecutor. She did, however, call for stricter gun laws.

"While I understand why you may want this information, any comment I make will be construed as a comparison, and every case we as prosecutors review are independent from each other. So, I will not be commenting on this," Ms. Worthy said adding that society and leaders need to face the broader conversation of gun law reform. "There needs to be a deep dive regarding Michigan's nonexistent and necessary gun law reform. I have personally called for changes for nearly eight years. I was always told that gun reform will never happen in Michigan. It is way past time for action on that front."

Mr. Brooks agreed that a conversation was now warranted on gun reforms.

"I think there are some things that we can do with the background checks, with being able to keep track of all the firearms out there and who's amassing them, in terms of mental health checks. We're much better now at being able to track criminal histories, but even sometimes those … are lacking," he said. "We've been promoting a safe storage law for a while that we think makes a lot of sense, and I do think that the red flag laws, that's going to be interesting, but I certainly am interested in taking a look at that. We want to be careful about protecting people's rights and making sure that due process is provided for, but I do think this latest example at Michigan State … does show that there are situations where something like that could be effective. We can figure out a fair, constitutional, legitimate way to do it."

As to whether his former colleagues in the new Democratic-led Legislature's call for reforms were timely and warranted, Mr. LaGrand said yes but with a caveat that there needs to be more than legal reform to help solve the scourge of gun violence and mass shootings.

"I think that in America, we have to realize that there has to be a cultural shift on guns. Unless we put pressure on people to not hyper saturate the community with guns, no amount of legislation is going to actually significantly reduce the saturation of guns in the community," Mr. LaGrand said.

He also said society can't "fall into the trap of thinking politicians have to save us from all of our problems."

"We the citizens of America have to solve our problems and be accountable for our own behavior. Legislation is by definition coercive. It's forcing people to do something," Mr. LaGrand posited. "And this has got to be a cultural conversation, where we achieve a cultural shift, and that's probably not going to be most effective if it happens coercively."

Clement As Chief Justice: Independence Is At The Core Of Who I Am

Posted: January 23, 2023 9:15 AM

Throughout her career, Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement has endeavored to keep an open mind, to listen first and talk later and to hear every voice at the table before making a consequential decision.

And, as she takes the reins of the state's judiciary as the high court's newly elected chief justice, the same mantra remains at the heart of her work: to better the lives of those who interact with the courts – particularly in the mode of juvenile justice, elder abuse and data sharing.

It also allows the newly elected chief to further exhibit her reputation as an eagerly independent jurist and a reliable swing vote that is always ready to buck her party's minority to side with its majority Democrats, and often vice versa, depending on the legal challenge and arguments presented.

In a wide-ranging interview with Gongwer News Service, Ms. Clement detailed the moments that kept her motivated to serve on the state's highest court, her views on the partisan nature of judicial nominations in election years and why it was important to maintain collegiality on the bench even after a rocky start to the latest term – one that saw two of the bench's Democrats have a public spat over the hiring of a clerk with a criminal history.

Ms. Clement has come to be known as the high court's most reliable wildcard, but she also said that her penchant for fierce independence was neither for show nor a sign of philosophical inconsistency, saying instead that it was at the core of why she got into public service.

"I think I have a reputation from when I was in the Legislature and when I was working in the executive branch of being open minded and being a listener more than a talker. Someone that wanted all of the information, wanted to hear every voice, and take all of that in and make really thoughtful decisions and recommendations," Ms. Clement said. "And I brought that experience with me to the court starting day one as a justice. … I had never been a judge before, but I think the experience that I had prior to that really made it a transition that that felt natural. At bottom, the role of the judiciary is to be independent."

The new chief justice was tapped to fill in as chief justice during the end of former Justice Bridget McCormack's tenure after the latter announced her retirement in November 2022. Last week, with the installation of Ms. McCormack's immediate successor, Whitmer-appointed Justice Kyra Harris Bolden, the new bench voted unanimously again to elect Ms. Clement as its leader.

She will now hold the post for the entirety of the current two-year term.

The selection is significant because Ms. Clement is a GOP-nominated justice, who was first appointed to the bench by Republican former Governor Rick Snyder, and the Supreme Court has a 4-3 majority of justices nominated by Democrats.

Justice Richard Bernstein, the bench's ranking Democrat, in a previous interview with Gongwer, noted Ms. Clement's independence as a key factor for his vote but also her previous work in the other two branches.

That, too, is a strength Ms. Clement said she possesses that will guide her as chief justice. She served in various capacities as a Republican legislative staffer before becoming the chief counsel to former Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who later appointed her to the bench before she won election to an eight-year term in 2018.

"I think when it comes to being the chief, I think that experience really brings something to the table that I'm excited about," she said. "I know how the other two branches of government work, having extensive experience in them, and also having five years on the court, seeing how our court interacts with those other branches."

That experience will undoubtedly be useful as the judiciary furthers its goals in data sharing, expanding reforms and enhancements to the juvenile justice system and efforts in elder abuse – all things Ms. Clement has championed during her time on the bench.

She credits much of that effort to work of Ms. McCormack, however she was part of the group that developed recommendations for juvenile justice reforms and has worked in child welfare for the better part of her career.

A major focus for the judiciary will be to implement its data sharing goals by creating a statewide data repository of pretrial data to better inform judges and prosecutors and assist defendants as they face decisions on bond or pre-trial incarceration (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 9, 2022 and Gongwer Michigan Report, November 12, 2021).

With money in the 2023-24 budget to make that a reality, or at the very least implement its first steps, Ms. Clement said the judiciary was "incredibly fortunate to have the support of the governor and the legislature to create a statewide case management system, which is really going to be transformative."

"It's a huge appropriation that we received. It's one of the things that we're working on day in and day out to get implemented. The goal is to make the courts more understandable and user friendly to all of the individuals that use the court system and to expand our educational and other resources so that so that the public is able to access and conduct business successfully, whether they're in person or virtually. That's one of the things that is at the at the very top of our list."

Ms. Clement said the judiciary is still at the preliminary stages of identifying the systems that work and the best approach to either growing or overhauling the current system.

"Once that decision is made of how we're going to move forward, it is it is going to be a multi-year project," she said. "I'll say that I don't know that we have an end date in mind of when we can say we have a statewide system that is usable to all of the users of that system. But I can tell you, with the appropriation that we got and with the team that we have in place, this being one of our very top priorities, we're putting an extreme amount of resources behind getting that up and running as quickly as we can, because it's so important."

Those issues with data extend to the juvenile justice system, and that too is a priority for Ms. Clement.

Ms. McCormack was, by and large, one of the biggest supporters of the project. She had a knack for getting stragglers on board with something that could mean massive change in the way that the court inputs offender data and disseminates it across the state. Asked if any of the support has faltered with Ms. McCormack's departure, Ms. Clement said she wasn't seeing any regression.

"I've got a very strong relationship with those various stakeholders in the system. And I think that they know my approach and me taking up the priorities of the court. These are not just my priorities because these are priorities that have been expressed by the Supreme Court," she said. "That's not to say that there may be judges or court staff or other partners in the system that maybe want to want to see us do things differently or may not be supportive of some of these efforts. But I'm not hearing that there's that there's been a shift since Bridget has stepped down as chief and is no longer with the court."

When Ms. McCormack spoke to Gongwer in her final interview last month, she said she gave little to no advice to Ms. Clement because she didn't need it, adding that she was eminently capable, equipped and ready to take on the role.

One thing that seems to be common between the two – aside from their close personal relationship and reverence for judicial independence – is their view that collegiality and public trust are what keep the court relevant and viable as an arbiter of law, a backstop for constitutional rights and a check on the other branches.

Collegiality appears to be a major focus for Ms. Clement. The commitment will be even more important as the Clement court got caught in a snag last week when Mr. Bernstein publicly lambasted Ms. Bolden's choice of a clerk in the press, leading to that clerk's resignation. It is unclear whether the two have fully moved on outside of statements to Gongwer that show they've moved on – at least professionally – from the situation (See Gongwer Michigan Report, January 6, 2023 and Gongwer Michigan Report, January 5, 2023).

Although she had to put out a few fires within her first week, Ms. Clement said she was committed to keeping the court's streak of collegiality going. Despite that bump in the road, she said she didn't believe that the Supreme Court, nor its lower state and local courts, were affected or influenced by the same kind of blind partisanship sometimes seen on the national stage with the federal courts.

"I have read and seen things that do cause me concern, whether it's actual or whether its perception, or in outside pressure trying to bring politics into the judiciary. I definitely can see that on the national and federal level. I do not see that in our state courts," she said. "I work with my colleagues on the Court of Appeals, and our in our trial courts, and these are dedicated jurists that that are going to work every day and understand that the people that are before them, this is their day in court. And I truly believe – and I am sure there may be an exception that someone can raise – but when I look at the judiciary as a whole and I look at my colleagues, I do not see partisan politics or politics in general in play in in the judicial branch."

That said, Ms. Clement has had a particular distaste for party politics even before she joined the high court bench and even though she was a partisan actor as the chief counsel to Ms. Snyder.

Although she was appointed by the former Republican governor, Ms. Clement found herself in hot water with MIGOP delegates and activists when she was one of five justices who ruled that a ballot proposal changing the state's redistricting process could go before voters.

That measure eventually passed in 2018 and created the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The body's mission was to create fairer maps than the state had before by virtue of the process not being handled by the Legislature, but its work was mostly derided by Republicans who saw it as creating an advantage for the state's Democrats.

The Democratic Party went on to gain a narrow majority in both the state House and Senate during the 2022 elections, the first year the new maps were in play.

Rewind to 2018, when Ms. Clement faced enormous pressure from outside Republican activist groups to rule against the proposal, which Ms. Clement labeled then as bullying and did not cave. That led to her being removed from election door hangers in certain targeted areas, with the hangers instead carrying information on the MIGOP's other judicial candidates. She also received boos and jeers at the party's nominating convention that year.

In retrospect, Ms. Clement said the process of the parties nominating candidates for Supreme Court justice and the Court of Appeals was flawed.

"I thought this before I went through it, but it was demonstrated to me in my experience. I think it's an unfair system for the public to have to have your highest court nominated by a political party and then, immediately after that nomination, that that nominee becomes a candidate that is on the nonpartisan section of the ballot," she said. "I have had conversations and thoughts what the what the better way is, but I'm not going to say the 'right way' because I don't know that there's a perfect solution to this."

The Court of Appeals candidates run on the nonpartisan primary ballot. Nonincumbents must collect sufficient signatures from registered voters to gain ballot access. Incumbents can simply file an affidavit of candidacy.

Despite the 2018 anger among some Republicans, Ms. Clement was the top vote-getter among the justice candidates, proving her abilities as a strong candidate and as a justice the people wanted returned to the bench.

"What that told me is that, because of my experience and because the media took an interest in what was going on with my campaign, I think people were informed and I think people said, 'We do not want justices that are connected or beholden to partisan politics," Ms. Clement added. "We want justices that make independent decisions based on how they read the law and leaving any of those other relationships or connections or past experiences out of that decision making. And I think the fact that I was successful in that election really speaks volumes of the people of the state of Michigan that saw through that."

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