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​History of Michigan's Judicial System


1800—Michigan's First Legal System

Michigan's first American legal system was composed of appointed justic
“Our defense is not in armaments, nor in science, nor in going underground. Our defense is in law and order."
—Albert Einstein
es of the peace who played numerous roles on various courts such as “The Court of Common Pleas” and “The Court of General Quarter Sessions.” In this early period—around 1800—it was very difficult to find qualified men to serve as justices. Language was also a problem as most of the loyal inhabitants of the Michigan region spoke French instead of English.

1835–1860—Early Leadership

From 1835 to 1860, most of Michigan's political and judicial leaders came from New England and New York. This early leadership was characterized at the time as bringing “hardheaded individualism... progress and prosperity…thrift and religion…and a commitment to bringing their superior culture to the wilderness of Michigan.”
  • In 1857 the Michigan Legislature created a permanent State Supreme Court. The early years of the Michigan Supreme Court were marked by the exceptional quality of the justices who have become known as the "Big Four" of Michigan judicial history. The four men, who served together between 1868 and 1875, were nationally recognized scholars and noted for their clarity and fair-mindedness. 
James V. Campbell
was a Marshall Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and was noted as a great teacher and writer.
Benjamin F. Graves
was noted as a tireless worker and a wonderful teacher of young lawyers, particularly with regard to uses of logic and authoritative sources.
Thomas M. Cooley
was appointed to the bench while serving as the first Dean of the University of Michigan's Law School.
Isaac P. Christiancy
was instrumental in formation of the Republican Party in Michigan and was an outspoken critic of slavery. He left the Court in 1875 to become a Senator in the U.S. Congress.

1908—The Justices

The constitution of 1908 provided for a Supreme Court of eight Justices. All judges in Michigan run on a non-partisan ballot. They are not identified as Democrats, Republicans, or members of any other political party. However, Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court are nominated at a party's convention. This hybrid system for nominating Supreme Court Justices is widely criticized as an unwise compromise that has failed to work well. The system's few defenders observe that it provides vigor to the electoral system, since the parties regularly nominate opponents to run against incumbent Justices (incumbent judges of other Michigan courts often run unopposed).

1963—The Courts

Too often the Court found itself divided 4–4. The framers of the 1963 constitution therefore reduced the number of Justices to seven. The eight Justices of the pre-1963 constitution retained their offices until 1968, when Justice Theodore Souris let his term expire. The 1963 constitution created the Michigan Court of Appeals, an intermediate appellate court. Originally a court with nine judges elected from three electoral districts, the court today has 28 judges elected from four electoral districts. The Court of Appeals hears cases in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Marquette. The 1963 constitution also provided that a person must be a lawyer to be a judge. Several probate judges were not lawyers at that time, and those judges were permitted to remain in office until retirement. With its requirement that judges all be lawyers, the 1963 constitution also marked the end of the Justice of the Peace Court, which heard minor matters in many Michigan communities.


In 1968, the Legislature created the District Court to hear misdemeanor criminal cases and some civil matters. A short time later, the Legislature added the Small Claims Division of the District Court, to hear minor matters that could be processed without lawyers, formal rules of evidence, or a later appeal. Through the years, municipal courts have served many Michigan communities. The busiest was the Recorder's Court of the City of Detroit, which the Legislature merged into the Wayne County Circuit Court in late 1997. Municipal courts remain in several communities in northeastern Wayne County .


In 1996, the Legislature created the Family Division of the Circuit Court, which began January 1, 1998. This Division brings together the family-related matters that previously were split between the Circuit Court and the Probate Court.

Administrative Tribunals

In addition to the courts of Michigan, there are administrative tribunals within the Executive Branch of Government. These tribunals decide matters requiring particular expertise. Though these tribunals are not courts, their decisions can be appealed to the appellate courts. The Tax Tribunal, the Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission, and the State (Teacher) Tenure Commission are principal examples of such tribunals. There are others, including the Parole Board, which determines whether prisoners can be released into the community.

​​Michigan Constitution

The Beginning

In 1820, when the federal government sold land for $1.25 an acre, not many people chose to settle in Michigan because they mistakenly believed it to be a land full of swamps, lakes, and sand hills. Thomas Jefferson was told that not enough people would settle in the area for it to become a part of the nation. But when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it was easier for settlers to discover the truth about Michigan and easier for settlers already there to get their surplus crops to Eastern markets. And only ten years later, in 1835, ninety-one delegates met to draft Michigan's first Constitution.

The First Constitution

Recognizing the importance of the Bill of Rights, the framers of Michigan's 1835 constitution used "Bill of Rights" as the title for Article I. The measures safeguarded the fundamental liberties of Michigan's citizens. Other sections of the 1835 constitution provided:
  • Lotteries were prohibited.
  • Legislators were compensated $3 per day.
  • The state could decide where the state capitol should be located in 1848.
  • The elections of governor, lieutenant governor, and senators were on odd-numbered years so as not to coincide with national elections.
  • One duty of the Legislature was to encourage education and make sure that federal funds designated to the state for education would be used as such.


The Second Constitution

As Michigan continued to grow and learn, its citizens saw the need for a new Constitution. In 1850, one hundred delegates met to revise the original one. The new Constitution became twice as long as the first, included far more detail, and placed further limitations on the powers of the legislators and state officials. Provisions included the following:
  • The government was to organize a Supreme Court with a chief justice and three associate justices.
  • Elections for chief state officials were changed to even numbered years—the same as federal officials.
  • The people could vote to change the Constitution every 16 years.


The Third Constitution

Industry brought drastic changes in Michigan. By the beginning of the twentieth century, 70 amendments had been added to the 1850 Michigan Constitution. The people of Michigan decided it was time to revise the Constitution again. But the 96 delegates made few changes, and the Constitution of 1908 remained largely the same until 1963.


The Fourth Constitution

In 1963, over one hundred delegates, men and women, met for eight months to revise the Michigan Constitution. Amid much debate, the delegates agreed on a compromised draft that was narrowly approved by the people of Michigan. A partial recount was ordered, but the results stayed the same. Here are some of the 1963 constitutional provisions:
  • The governor is elected to a four-year term instead of a two-year term.
  • 120 state agencies were consolidated into 20 departments.
  • The Court of Appeals was created.
  • A Civil Rights Commission was created to preserve the civil rights of every Michigan citizen.