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Michigan Supreme Court Justice Caves to Criticism, Accepts Resignation of Formerly Incarcerated Clerk

by Kevin W. Bliss

On January 5, 2023, new Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kyra Bolden announced she had accepted the resignation of her formerly incarnated clerk, Pete Martel. In doing so, the justice bowed to complaints that Martel, who served 14 years for shooting at police during a 1994 robbery, had too much access at the court to sensitive material concerning the cops.

Martel was released from prison in 2008 after serving time for armed robbery and assault during a Genesee County convenience store robbery that ended in a shootout with cops. Once released, he became an advocate for improving prison conditions while working as a mitigation specialist, helping convicted felons with legal matters for the State Appellate Defenders Office in Lansing.

“He should use his experience in an advocacy role to try to make a difference,” declared Justice Richard Bernstein, whose criticism of Bolden for her choice of clerk led to Martel’s resignation. “That’s the crucial thing here: He can do great things as an advocate, but this court should not be advocates.”

These are extreme arguments. Bernstein said because someone once shot at a cop – even though he served his time for the crime – he doesn’t deserve to work at the state’s highest court. He also said because that person now advocates for others still in prison, he doesn’t deserve to work at the state’s highest court. As if to make sure no one missed his condescension, the justice added: “I wish him only the best in his future endeavors.”

Michigan held elections in November 2022 to fill two seats on the state’s Supreme Court. Bolden ran on the Democratic ticket for one seat against Republican Brian K. Zahra but lost. Later that month, however, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) appointed the also-ran to a seat opened by the retirement of Chief Justice Bridget McCormack. 

For her part, McCormack said it was a mistake to let Martel resign. She was his instructor in a 2017-18 access to justice class at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and she said that “[h]e’s been open about his past and his regrets about it, and how he’s eager to be an example for others, to show them at you don’t have to be defined by your past … I honestly can’t think of anything in a justice system that we value more – we should support people who succeed at redemption.”

Unfortunately, Bolden couldn’t muster as much courage. She accepted Martel’s resignation on January 5, 2023, saying: “I respect his decision and do not intend to comment further.”

Bernstein, who is also a Democrat, became the court’s first blind justice when he was first elected in 2014. On April 18, 2023, he announced that he would miss oral arguments while he sought treatment for an unspecified mental health problem.

Sources: The Detroit News, Michigan Bridge