Serving as co-chair of a jail and pretrial task force in 2019, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget McCormack had a problem to solve: what was behind the increasing number of people in the state’s county jails? 

What she discovered was a series of legislative decisions that criminalize certain behaviors, like driving with a suspended license. Those decisions were made in good faith, McCormack says, but they came with unintended consequences. 

“Once [those decisions] were made, officers had to make arrests … and they made those arrests in good faith following the law,” she said. “Prosecutors charged those crimes in good faith; judges, in good faith, set bail, and all of a sudden, before we knew it, our jail populations were full of people who couldn’t afford to pay fines and fees and were driving with a suspended license as a result of it.” 

These policies didn’t just lead to an increase in jail populations. McCormack says they also failed to work as intended. “There’s now lots of really good research that shows [this approach] doesn’t, in fact, make our communities safer or stronger,” she said. 

McCormack isn’t pointing fingers or assigning blame, but her experience illustrates the unique perspective judges have on what’s working — and what isn’t — in the justice system. Civic health, she says, begins with a justice system that works for everyone and the judiciary needs a seat at the table. 

“As direct witnesses to the daily experiences of people navigating legal problems, judges have critical information about what reforms are needed, as well as ideas on how such reforms can be implemented,” she wrote in a 2021 article published in the Yale Law Journal. “Indeed, some failed criminal-justice reform efforts arguably failed because they lacked sufficient input from judges; when legislatures and executives act without the perspective of the judiciary, judges often find themselves administering laws with unintended consequences.” 

One of those unintended consequences could be a loss of trust in the justice system, and in democratic institutions more broadly. This is why McCormack situates justice reform at the center of civic health. The rule of law depends on public confidence that justice is being upheld and when people feel like they’re not being treated fairly, trust is broken. 

“If people think the justice system is not fair to them, that it’s only fair to some people and not other people, why would we expect them to to vote?” she said. “Why would we expect them to show up and sympathetically engage with counterargument?” 

Lack of trust in the justice system doesn’t just discourage people from civic engagement. It also drives polarization. 

this wonderfully diverse country we’ve built, but if big portions of it feel like its crown jewel doesn’t work for them, that’s a huge barrier to getting everybody at the table,” she said. 

The task force McCormack co-chaired in Michigan learned that jail populations were expanding for preventable reasons, and the involvement of the judicial branch was an important part of the task force’s success. 

“Go interview any district court judge in Michigan, and she can tell you who’s filling up her county jail and the large number of people who are there who probably don’t need to be there, and probably could be showing up for work and paying their child support and taking care of their family if they were somewhere else,” McCormack said. “[Judges] have a story to tell that nobody else does.” 

McCormack has a long list of justice reforms she’d like to see, but two rise to the top: democratizing justice access and investing in better data collection. The language of law is dense, difficult to understand and nearly impossible to navigate without professional help. But how can justice be equal when not everyone can afford a lawyer? 

“Lawyers don’t scale, so we’re not going to get a lawyer for every single justice problem, but we can find lots of other ways to get people help and information,” she said. In the medical world, McCormack points out, not every problem requires a surgeon. Some medical issues can be addressed by a physician’s assistant; sometimes telehealth can provide a cheap and accessible option. In the same way, she says, access to justice information can and should be democratized. 

“Lawyers have kept a stranglehold on this profession,” she said. “And it’s time we reform that.” 

Data is another issue at the top of McCormack’s reform list. The public should be able to see and understand what’s happening in their justice system, but McCormack says many courts aren’t even collecting that data, let alone making it easy to access. 

“That’s no way to run a railroad,” McCormack said. “The public should know what it is that happens in their justice system. They should be able to see it. They should be able to see it so they can understand it. And it will either reveal to all of us that there are things we might want to tweak or if not, it will give us confidence.” 

Get to Know Justice McCormack

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you? 

My favorite thing to do is ride my bike in northern Michigan between Lake Leelanau and Northport — the rolling hills through vineyards with views of Lake Michigan on one side and Grand Traverse Bay on the other side. It’s a transformative bike ride.” 

What are you reading? 

“Joy, Inc.” by Richard Sheridan. He runs a software company — it’s actually based here in Ann Arbor — that does its work really uniquely, and it’s about how they run their business. 

Who’s your greatest inspiration? 

Over the last couple of years, the treatment court judges in my state have been a real source of inspiration because, through really difficult times, they’ve managed to continue to knock it out of the park by providing tremendous healing to the people and families and communities they serve. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? 

Make sure you’re doing what you love. 

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