- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michael Cavanagh is retiring from the Michigan Supreme Court as the second-longest justice in state history, one whose 32-year tenure led to his participation in just over 2,000 opinions in which the court typically set legal precedents.

He was involved in high-profile national cases - upholding a state ban against physician-assisted suicide spurred by right-to-die advocate Jack Kevorkian and ordering 2-year-old “Baby Jessica’s” return to her biological parents in Iowa. His first year on the high court, 1983, he wrote a unanimous decision expanding the power of appellate courts to review criminal sentences.

Cavanagh said he wants to be remembered as a fair judge not “slavishly locked into a particular point of view” but “open-minded enough to entertain opposing views.”

“That’s the most important role a court can play in a lawsuit, is to make sure that the parties go away believing that they had a chance to be heard and that their argument was listened to,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Wednesday was his last day as a justice. He was succeeded by Richard Bernstein, who like Cavanagh was a Democratic nominee to what has been a Republican-controlled court almost all of the last 15 years.

Cavanagh, 74, could not seek another eight-year term because the state constitution bars judicial candidates from running once they turn 70. He will join the Lansing law firm Alane & Chartier, reuniting with two of his former law clerks who founded it.

A number of 53 lawyers who served as his clerks compiled a review of cases he heard. As a justice, he wrote 120 majority opinions, 95 concurring opinions and 277 dissenting opinions.

Cavanagh probably would have run again - saying many federal judges capably serve beyond age 70 and he is in good health - but also said the mandatory age limit brings “new faces, new blood, new energy” onto the bench.

Supreme Court races are on the nonpartisan end of the ballot, though the candidates have the backing of political parties. Cavanagh, who favors letting voters choose judges, said his mother had the “great, good wisdom of marrying a guy whose last name was Cavanagh.” Having an Irish surname is considered a big plus in judicial elections.

He said he supports no longer nominating high court candidates at political conventions, which he said might improve the public’s perception of the court. A task force in 2012 recommended an open primary election for candidates.

“It’s a real miracle how you can be nominated by the Democratic or Republican Party and miraculously walk out the door and become nonpartisan,” he said.

Cavanagh’s older brother was the late Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. After graduating from the University of Detroit Law School in 1966, he worked for the city attorney’s office in Lansing. He never left the area and credits his 42 years as a judge to a fortunate series of events, including the creation of a new Lansing district court seat and new state Court of Appeals judgeships.

The East Lansing resident served on the district court for two years and the Court of Appeals for eight before winning a Supreme Court seat.

Cavanagh served with 21 justices, including a former governor, a former U.S. senator and a future Detroit mayor. He said the once-deeply divided court is more cordial of late, pointing to a significant uptick in unanimous opinions in the last two terms.

“It is hard for me to imagine this court without Mike,” said Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. “It’s fair to say our friendship has developed over time. I don’t think in the bad old days it was nearly as collegial as we have become. But he’s our historical memory. It’s always wonderful to have somebody remember this is why it is the way it is.”

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Associated Press writer Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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