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Larsen named to Supreme Court

October 6, 2015

Joan Larsen, a University of Michigan professor and dean for student and graduate activities, was named Wednesday by Gov. Rick Snyder, a U-M alum, to the state Supreme Court, replacing Justice Mary Beth Kelly, who is stepping down Thursday for a private sector job.

Larsen, of Scio Township, is a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and U.S. deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel. Sources described Larsen last week to MIRS as the leading candidate to succeed Kelly. 

“Joan is a superb attorney who brings experience from the highest levels of government, private practice and academia to the state’s highest court,” Snyder said in a statement. “She is highly regarded by her peers, and is a nationally recognized constitutional scholar. I’m confident she’ll be an invaluable addition to the Michigan Supreme Court.” 

Larsen is the third Supreme Court appointment Snyder has made in his nearly five years as governor. Snyder appointed now-Justice Brian Zahra to succeed Maura Corrigan and now-Justice David Viviano to replace disgraced former Justice Diane Hathaway. 

An emphasis was put on Snyder appointing a woman to replace Kelly to preserve a diversity of opinions on the court, since Kelly’s departure would leave only one woman on the seven-person panel. 

MIRS has learned that Chief Justice Bob Young became a strong advocate for Larsen after he met her. Justice Bridget McCormack, with whom Larsen worked with at U-M, also was a chief advocate for Larsen.  

Larsen called McCormack “an old friend and colleague,” who told her “tremendous things” and “was probably my biggest cheerleader for why I should want to do this job.” 

The selection came after multiple individuals forwarded Larsen’s name to the Governor’s office. Snyder described the pick as being part of a “merit-based process” that stemmed from the work of “a great team of people.” 

Among those gathering names and organizing the process for Snyder was his chief legal counsel, James Robert Redford, himself a 2014 Supreme Court candidate. 

Asked if his own name was suggested as part of the process, Redford said, “We have a great justice that we have selected and she will serve the state of Michigan well.” 

The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies listed Larsen as one of its speakers at two forums in the last 10 years, including one event that also featured Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). 

Larsen acknowledged that she is on the Federalist Society’s speaker list and did some events for them, but wasn’t sure if she was an actual dues-paying member to the organization, known for its conservative or “textualist” viewpoint. Before the day was done, she provided an answer when the governor’s office apparently asked for a clarification. She had been a member when she was in college, but left the organization in 2004. Her husband continues his membership.  

On her judicial philosophy, Larsen described it as, “I believe in enforcing the laws as written by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Enforcing the text as written. I don’t think judges are a policy-making branch of government.” 

Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms. Larsen will have to seek election in 2016 for the remainder of Kelly’s term that expires at the end of 2018, and could run in 2018 for a full eight-year term. 

Larsen conceded that running in an election would be new to her. When asked about ruling on litigants who’ve contributed to her campaign, Larsen said she didn’t see it influencing her decisions one way or the other. 

“I expected to be fair and impartial,” she said. 

Pushed as to whether she would disclose any “dark money” that could be spent to support her election, Larsen said she would give it “great thought. It is not something that I have had the necessity to give great thought to, yet.” 

Larsen is married to Adam Pritchard and the couple has two children, Elizabeth “Liza,” age 15, and Benjamin “Ben”, age 10, all of whom where at today’s press conference announcing the pick. 

Pritchard is also a law professor at the University of Michigan, who happened to be on sabbatical this term. With his wife moving to the Supreme Court, Pritchard has agreed to pick up Larsen’s classes mid-term. 

Under Article VI, Section 23 of the state constitution, the appointment belongs to the governor alone. 

Larsen performed well in her introductory press conference. The only crack came when she was asked by Michigan Radio’s Rick Pluta when she last argued a case in front of a court. 

“Years and years and years. I’m not sure why that matters,” Larsen said, before immediately catching herself. “Not to be disrespectful. I hear your voice on my radio almost every morning.” 

To answer that question, Larsen said what she does in law school is like what happens in the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court in that law students present what is essentially oral arguments during class. 

“It’s very much a give-and-take,” Larsen said. “We’re taking apart cases, doctrine, statutes, working down through the precedents, about how this case fits in with the overall frame of the rule of law, try to get what we think would be the right result.” 

Larsen also taught at Northwestern University School of Law. Larsen began her career as a law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She then served as law clerk to Scalia for two years. She followed her clerkship into private practice with the law firm Sidley & Austin in Washington, D.C. 

Larsen has written extensively on the Constitution, international law, the judicial system, and separation of powers. She is a member of the State Bar of Michigan and the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Larsen earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa in 1990 and received her law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1993, ranking first in her class. 

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