High court vacancy an opportunity

Guest Editorial
Rick Snyder has made important decisions as governor — some good, some bad. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway’s Jan. 21 retirement gives Snyder an opportunity to change the state’s highest court for the better.

Calls for reform have grown with the court’s poor public perception. Now that a vacancy has opened up, the governor should apply the recommendations of the Michigan Judicial Selection Task Force.

Last year, the task force asked the governor to appoint an advisory screening commission that would receive applications from judicial candidates, conduct public hearings that consider their qualifications and give the governor a list of the best candidates, one of whom Snyder would appoint.

The proposals were designed to improve the court’s integrity and credibility, and they have a special resonance now in view of Hathaway’s fall from grace.

Hathaway’s decision to leave the bench came after the state Judicial Tenure Commission filed a Jan. 11 complaint that accused her of “blatant and brazen” misconduct and called for her immediate suspension.

Since May, Hathaway has been embroiled in a deepening fraud controversy. After the hardship sale of her home in Grosse Pointe Park was finalized (reportedly mortgaged for $1.5 million), Hathaway is accused of putting a Windermere, Fla., home with a value of about $644,000 back into her name.

Hathaway is alleged to have avoided foreclosure proceedings in the hardship sale and was spared $600,000 in mortgage debt on the house, which sold for $850,000.

In a civil suit, the U.S. Justice Department accused Hathaway and her husband, Stephen Kingsley, of fraud by concealing their net worth by temporarily transferring ownership of the Florida home to a relative. Federal officials sought forfeiture of the home as the proceeds of bank fraud or money laundering.

Through most of this scandal, Hathaway has been silent — despite Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. asking her to “clear the air.” She denied the allegations in response to the forfeiture but conceded she and her husband never told their bank they temporarily transferred the Florida home to her stepdaughter for $10.

Snyder has a chance to set a precedent. Following the task force’s appointment recommendations could help raise the Supreme Court’s standing.

Given the Hathaway scandal, the high court can use all the integrity it can get.