White Lake Township resident Patricia Boyle is a former Michigan Supreme Court justice whose legal career began at a time when it was difficult for women to break into the legal field. Wayne State University-educated mother of four, she was appointed to the state’s high court in 1983 and won elections to the court in 1986 and 1990, serving a total of 15 years and hearing some of the most complex — and emotional — legal issues facing the state at the time, including the infamous Baby Jessica case. “There was no easy answer for it,” she said. “It was a terrible outcome, no matter which way it went.” Now working with Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton, a Birmingham firm she joined in 2002, Boyle is a two-time recipient of National Organization for Women Feminist of the Year awards and a member of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
You have pretty openly spoken about what it was like as a woman entering the legal field at the time you did. Tell us a little about that experience and how you think, if at all, things have changed for women not just practicing law, but in other realms of professional life.
PB: I am just thrilled to see how things have changed for women today. I feel almost motherly with pride and joy when I see they’re, for example, in law school more women than men, in medical school. It’s so wonderful to see those barriers to success come down.
You were also integral in drafting a comprehensive reform of Michigan’s criminal sexual conduct law as a member of the Michigan Women’s Task Force on Rape. Tell us about that process and the changes you helped bring about. Are there other changes you’d like to see made to the laws pertaining to crimes against women?
PB: It’s a great example of what citizens can do to change the law and make it the vehicle that it should be for the protection of citizens. It was the group that started it, the University of Michigan, student-led with some teachers, professors from the law school associating themselves with it, and then the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, of which my husband and I were then members, became interested in it. We joined and were able to add our experience with the law and the way in which it victimized victims. We also had the support ultimately of Gov. (William) Milliken, who was then governor, and his staff. Members of the task force actually went and sat through legislative sessions with their eyes on the legislators to make sure that it got passed. It was one of the best things that I did in my professional life. I count it as my most rewarding achievements.
I would like to see women’s salaries equal that of men for the same work. I do not know for certain, but I see that government statistics say that women still earn 77 cents an hour for each $1 men earn. That stuns me because I can remember having a fund-raiser years ago, it must be more than 20 years ago, which we called the 70 Cent Fund-Raiser. We charged $70 per ticket, which gives you an idea, too, of how far fund-raising has gone. There are so many women who are heads of family and, in this economic time, so many women whose families, even with a husband or partner, desperately need financial help.
We’ve been hearing a lot about what some are calling a War on Women. As a past recipient of two National Organization for Women Feminist of the Year awards, what do you think of that debate and political fracas going on right now? Is it an accurate description?
PB: I really don’t think that I am capable of making a pronouncement on that as a big topic. I would say that I think women have to be careful that they are not taken advantage of in terms of not keeping our eye on the ball so far as what our own goals are. We are not to be manipulated for political reasons. I’m not an expert and that’s the only comment I want to make on that.
In your 15 years as a state Supreme Court justice, what was your most memorable case? What was the most controversial? The most emotionally taxing?
PB: Probably the most memorable case, although there were a lot of very significant cases, was the Baby Jessica case because there was no solemn, right answer to that horrible debate, that terrible problem the court was confronted with of taking a child from the only home they had ever known and letting it go to a place where the law dictated it belonged. When I use the word “it,” that itself is descriptive because it was dehumanizing for this child. It was a tragedy all the way around, and the court — I’m sure this is a little-known fact — took the pain of that so seriously that a few years later, when 60 Minutes did an update on what had happened with Baby Jessica, we got the transcript from CBS and we all watched it together. I know that we were all comforted by the fact that she seemed to be doing so well. I think it was the most emotionally taxing (case). It was the only time during my time on the court that we actually received death threats while the case was pending. There was no easy answer for it. It was a terrible outcome, no matter which way it went.
We sometimes hear people advocate for the appointment, rather than the election, of all judges in Michigan — at least initially, followed by periodic public votes of confidence in the various appointed jurists. What’s your take on the wisdom of such a change?
PB: The courts have been involved in a study under the leadership of Justice Marilyn Kelly and former justice James Ryan, who just recently has taken senior status from the (U.S.) 6th Circuit (Court of Appeals), both of whom I served with. I’ve always been an advocate of the elected judiciary for one vital reason, among others, but the most vital reason is because it forces judges to be in contact with constituents. I was a federal court judge and you do have the luxury there of sort of retiring from the world. That’s a luxury, but it’s also isolating, in a sense. I think, at least in my experience, it’s a great growth opportunity for you as a judge and for your participation in a collegial process of judging, to remain in touch with your peers. You have to be out there. You have to know what’s going on. You have to make judgments about policy matters, about everything. All of that is your experience that you bring back to the table when you’re deciding questions of law. I had always been an advocate of the appointed judiciary. I am waiting for the results of this study, but I am not firmly any longer in favor of an elected judiciary simply because money has become so influential in who gets to be on the bench. It used to be maybe you could start out with a grassroots effort, as I did, but now we’re talking about raising over $1 million for every Michigan Supreme Court race, $100,000 just to start out in an Oakland County race for circuit judge.
The state current prohibits a person from running for a judicial position if they will turn 70-old-prior to or on election day. Tell us why you do or don’t support age restrictions for judicial candidates.
PB: I think probably that age restriction needs to be rethought, just as the federal government and other organizations with age restrictions have rethought them as the population ages with better medical care. But I can remember when that became part of the Constitution, and it became part of the Constitution because we had a very old judiciary. Being a judge is hard work, it is taxing work. It’s mentally taxing and it’s physically taxing. I do still support it. Actually, the requirement is that you can’t be over 70 as of the filing date. So what that actually means is that, if you talk about terms of six or eight years, someone could actually be 76, 78 and still be serving on the bench.
Much is made in some political circles about what they perceive to be problems with so-called “activist judges.” What’s your take on that characterization?
PB: “Activist” depends on whose ox is gored. One side says it’s an activist judiciary when they lose, and they are following the law when they win. When you talk about activist judges, you have to be talking about judges at the highest level because judges at trial court level or the Court of Appeals level are really obligated to follow the law as they can best define it, as the Supreme Court is directing them to follow. That means that a judge, if you’re talking about the highest court, by definition the court must act in uncharted territory, or the case would not be before the U.S. Supreme Court or the Michigan Supreme Court. They are acting in gray areas. My own experience, and I can speak with an authoritative voice on that, is that almost all the justices with whom I worked followed what they thought the law directed them to do. They weren’t wildly out there, reforming the world as they thought it should be. My definition of an activist judge is one who would reform the world in the way they think it should be. To me, that’s arrogance, not wisdom.
Although judgeships are supposed to be apolitical, oftentimes political ideology does, for better or worse, get thrown into the mix from both sides of the spectrum. How would you characterize the political situation on the Michigan Supreme Court during your service there, and what are your thoughts on that issue relative to its current roster?
PB: The only insight that I can give relative to the current situation is that I see the justices. For example, last week we had a meeting of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society and many of the justices were there. I do know all of them, and I’m on terms enough with them, that I understand that there is a good, healthy, collegial atmosphere there right now, which is a blessing… which is to be desired, because they set the tone for the entire legal profession. When they are spatting and that’s out in public, that’s not good for anybody, and not good for the health of the profession, either.
We got along very well. There were times that we didn’t get along, but I described it as… those times were like being in a bad marriage, but you can’t get a divorce because, if you want your job, you have to go back to the table. We tried to avoid scorched-earth opinions — in other words, where you would really blast the other person. That’s (avoiding those) part of the job of the chief justice. Justice (Dorothy) Riley was wonderful at keeping us respectful toward each other, and so was Justice (G. Mennen) Williams. Justice Riley… was really marvelous. She was removed from the bench by her colleagues. Then she ran and was reelected, so she came back to a very difficult situation. She and Justice Williams together — she was a Republican and he, of course, was a Democrat — they never let it interfere with building collegiality on the court. Two great people. I was blessed to know them.
What’s one state or U.S. Supreme Court case that you didn’t help determine that you would have liked to, and why?
PB: Citizens United, I think. Because I fancy myself a good lawyer, I have to add that I didn’t read the arguments, I haven’t read the arguments, and I would have to read them and attend to them carefully. But I think that it is one of the most destructive results in modern times in terms of its impact on the political process.