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Bridge Michigan
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Meet the judge keeping abortion legal in Michigan (for now)

Elizabeth Gleicher
Elizabeth Gleicher, chief judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, is in the middle of Michigan’s fight over whether abortions will continue to be performed in the state. (Courtesy photo from the Michigan Supreme Court)

Update: 1931 Michigan abortion ban can be enforced by county prosecutors, court rules

Elizabeth Gleicher is a 67-year-old grandmother from Oakland County. She loves to travel, cook pasta, and is a bit of a workaholic.

And, for now, she’s the only thing keeping abortions legal in Michigan.

The chief judge on Michigan’s Court of Appeals issued a temporary injunction May 17 suspending enforcement of the state’s 1931 law criminalizing abortion except to save the life of the mother. 

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That law would have gone into effect Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the federal judicial precedent that had made abortion legal nationwide for 49 years. While Gleicher’s temporary injunction remains in place, abortions continue to be performed in 27 clinics in 13 counties.

The ruling was not without controversy — and not only because abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in American history. 

Gleicher, who has been a judge since 2007, issued the injunction after disclosing that she donates annually to a plaintiff in the case, Planned Parenthood. She also represented the group as a volunteer lawyer before becoming a judge.

Gleicher has a long family history of championing progressive causes, and she’s never made her advocacy a secret. But friends and fellow judges say she strives for neutrality.

“(She) always wants to be fair. She’s a true scholar. She comes in on the weekends (to work),” Mike Talbot, retired Court of Appeals chief judge, told Bridge Michigan.

“She always cares about the case she’s assigned and wants to think about it multiple times to be fair to both sides.”

Gleicher’s temporary injunction, written over 27 pages, suspends enforcement of the 1931 law until the court can hear arguments on the merits of the case. Gleicher wrote that Michigan patients would “face a serious danger of irreparable harm if prevented from accessing abortion services.”

It sounded unequivocal, but it nonetheless prompted some confusion since Roe fell. Some hospitals initially announced they would no longer perform abortions before changing their mind, while two Republican prosecutors contended the injunction doesn’t apply to them.

In the wake of the confusion, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday urged the state Supreme Court to quickly rule on the constitutionality of the 1931 law.

Anticipating the reversal of Roe, Planned Parenthood filed the lawsuit challenging Michigan’s old law in the Court of Claims, claiming it violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Michigan Constitution.

The case was randomly issued to Gleicher, who also serves on the Court of Claims. She has not ruled on the larger issues of the case but issued an injunction by reasoning  Planned Parenthood has a "strong likelihood” of winning the case.

After the ruling, critics castigated the veteran judge for having conflicts of interest that should have led her to recuse herself from the case. 

Right to Life of Michigan suggested she violated her oath of office by hearing the case, but neither the group nor other abortion opponents could seek her recusal because they were not a party in the case. 

Before issuing the injunction, Gleicher only disclosed “yearly contributions to Planned Parenthood of Michigan” but said she could rule fairly.

She also won a “Planned Parenthood Advocate Award” for her work in a 1997 case that  argued unsuccessfully that Michigan Constitution protected abortion rights.

“If you make annual contributions to an organization and tout in your bio that you've received an award from that organization, that might be a clue that you shouldn't decide a case filed by that organization,” tweeted Ed Whelan, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank.

In an effort to intervene in the case, Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Catholic Conference wrote in court papers that Gleicher served as a lawyer for the ACLU and represented Planned Parenthood in challenging a Michigan law requiring minors to obtain the consent of their parents before obtaining anabortion. In 1991, Gleicher served as a lawyer for the ACLU in challenging a Michigan law that prohibited the use of public funds to pay for abortion unless abortion was necessary to save the mother’s life.

David Kallman, one of the attorneys representing Right to Life and the Michigan Catholic Conference, told Bridge that recusals are always a judgment call.

“We’re not impugning her integrity,” Kallman said. “She made the call and I accept her word that she believes she can be impartial. But … judges should avoid the appearance of impropriety. The average person looking at this would say, ‘Yeah, that’s too much, she should not be on this case.’”

Pasta and liberal causes

Gleicher did not return a request for an interview, but Bridge spoke to her husband and several people who have worked with her through the years. 

Gleicher grew up in metro Detroit and graduated from high school in Southfield. Her father, Morris Gleicher, was a former president of the Michigan ACLU, and often took cases that left other attorneys scratching their heads.

“I knew her parents – that’s how old I am,” Mike Talbot, retired Court of Appeals Chief Judge, told Bridge Michigan. “Her mother was Italian and her father a Jewish humanist. He was always interested in liberal causes, and would take on campaigns for people who were sometimes a lost cause. I don’t know if he always got paid, but he’d be there for them.”

Elizabeth – who is known to friends and colleagues as Lisa – “saw that example, and she embodies that example,” Talbot said.

Talbot, appointed to the court in 1998 by Republican Gov. John Engler, and Gleicher, appointed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, often disagreed on legal issues. 

“We’d bang heads,” Talbot said, “but we’d both come to the same conclusion about trying to do the best for people.”

Not infrequently, legal arguments would carry over to dinners at the Oakland County home of Gleicher and her husband, Mark Granzotto.

The pair met while students at Wayne State Law School. Friday, the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe, was their 43rd wedding anniversary, Granzotta told Bridge.

Granzotto, an appellate attorney who often argues before the Michigan Supreme Court, and Gleicher both love to cook, and their dinner table often includes other lawyers.

When the couple’s three boys were growing up (now all in their 30s), “they’d make family dinner every night, no matter how busy they were,” said Helene White, a judge in the U.S. Sixth District. “I can’t tell you how often we dropped over for dinner. There was always pasta, usually something on the grill. The adults were always talking law. It must have been crazy for the kids.”

“She is a true Jewish mother,” Talbot said. “She talks to her children all the time. There is nothing more important to her than family.”

Gleicher spent the first half of her career as a trial attorney, representing people in medical malpractice lawsuits. 

In 2001, she was honored as a “Champion of Justice” by the State Bar of Michigan for her work in cases that gave breast-cancer patients the right to receive stem-cell transplants and to have insurance carriers pay for that treatment.

Her transition to being an appellate judge in the Court of Appeals was a struggle, former Court of Appeals colleague Talbot said.

“She came from a background as an advocate for plaintiffs,” Talbot said. “It’s hard to turn that off after 30 years and take a step back. I think she found herself, and perhaps still does, caught up in the advocacy mindset and has to be careful.”

Granzotto, her husband, said Gleicher received several threatening emails after she issued the temporary injunction. Granzotto didn’t offer details of the notes, other than “they said they hope she doesn’t procreate, but it’s too late for that.”

You develop a thick skin quickly as a judge, said White, the federal judge and longtime friend.

“One side is going to think you’re the best judge who ever lived and the other side is going to think you’re the worst judge who ever lived,” White said. “You have to decide what is right under the law.

“Most of us, that’s why we gravitate to it. We want to give everybody a fair shake.”

That still doesn’t make it easy, particularly in high-profile cases that can affect so many people like the case Gleicher is presiding over now.

“We all come from a background. Everything that came before comes to that case,” Talbot said. “So you bring all that, and we try to do our best to be fair to both sides. That’s all you can do.”

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