New court worries trial lawyers

For injured workers, unions, those discriminated or harassed on the job or anyone who sues an employer for acting illegally, the Michigan Supreme Court election results are deeply disturbing. That's what the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association and others are saying after the Republicans took control of the high court last week.

"I think the people of Michigan are in trouble," says Gary Fralick, MTLA communications director. He describes two of the three justices elected, Republicans Clifford W. Taylor and Maura Corrigan, as "extremely pro-corporate" and "anti-working family." Only one Democrat was elected, giving Republicans a 4-3 majority for only the second time in 42 years.

Taylor, who Gov. John Engler appointed in 1992 to the Appeals Court and in 1997 to the Supreme Court, is considered the most conservative on the bench.

Taylor earned an 81 rating from Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a group which rates judicial candidates on what it terms the "pro-economy" consequences of rulings.

Some of Taylor's opinions include prohibiting unions from suing to protect the health and safety of their members, denying worker's compensation benefits and refusing to apply a law that protects employees who report company malfeasance.

A critical issue before Taylor when on the Appeals Court involved an employment contract which required a worker to arbitrate her sex discrimination claim in lieu of going to court.

This concerns many attorneys, including Deborah L. Gordon, who has been practicing civil rights law for 25 years. She says that the arbitrator would not be bound by the law, but merely the facts of the case and the arbitration agreement.

"Arbitrators decide what is in violation of the arbitration agreement, not what is constitutional," explains Gordon. "It will be a total halt of civil rights law."

She says companies require signed arbitration agreements as a condition of employment because it protects them from public scrutiny if sued. "They pay a fine to the arbitrator and no one knows about it." says Gordon.

Taylor's arguement that arbitration contracts should be honored was outvoted by two other appellate judges. This issue, however, has not gone away.

According to Gordon, in a similar case, Justice Maura Corrigan, whom Engler also appointed to the Appeals Court, wanted to rule like Taylor, but was bound by the previous case. Instead of ruling on the case, the Appeals Court, of which Corrigan was the chief judge, had it reviewed by a special panel. It has not rendered a decision. Corrigan said she could not comment on the case.

Regardless of how the panel rules, the latter case is sure to be appealed to the Republican-
dominated Michigan Supreme Court next year.