In 2007, Grand Rapids attorney Jane Beckering was named to the Michigan Court of Appeals, replacing Judge Janet Neff, who was elevated to the federal bench. This year, Beckering has, once again, been tapped to replace Neff: this time on the Western District of Michigan.
56-year-old Beckering was born into a family of Michigan lawyers, with her father, grandfather, and great uncle all practicing. See James Prichard, Lawyering Runs in Beckering’s Family, A.P., Sept. 27, 2006. Beckering received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1987 and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1990. After graduation, Beckering spent two years at McDermott, Will & Emery LLP in Chicago before moving to Grand Rapids to found Buchanan & Beckering PLC with her brother. See id.
In 2007, Beckering was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals by Governor Jennifer Granholm to fill the vacancy left by Judge Janet Neff’s elevation to the federal bench. Beckering still serves on the court, having won re-election unopposed in 2008, 2012, and 2018.
History of the Seat
Beckering has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. This seat opened on March 1, 2021, when Judge Janet Neff moved to senior status.
Beckering worked in private practice for approximately seventeen years before being appointed to the bench, the vast majority of it at the firm of Buchanan & Beckering PLC in Grand Rapids. While working in private practice, Beckering specialized in medical malpractice work representing both plaintiffs and defendants. See James Prichard, Lawyering Runs in Beckering’s Family, A.P., Sept. 27, 2006.
In addition, Beckering also worked as a mediator for the Kent County Circuit Court and was active with the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association.
In 2006, Beckering was nominated by the Michigan Democratic Party to be a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court. See Kathy Barks Hoffman, Democrats Choose Williams for AG, Sabaugh for Secretary of State, A.P., Aug. 27, 2006. Beckering lost the election, however, coming in third behind incumbents Michael Cavanagh and Maura Corrigan.
Beckering has served on the Michigan Court of Appeals since 2007, issuing rulings and opinions in hundreds of cases since then. Some of her noteworthy decisions, opinions, and dissents are summarized below.
In her rulings on criminal law, Beckering has generally interpreted statutes narrowly, holding ambiguities against the government. For example, in 2010, Beckering held that the Michigan Sex Offender Registry Act did not require an individual who has homeless to register with local police as they lacked a habitual residence. See Todd A. Heywood, Appeals Court Says Homeless Sex Offenders Not Obligated to Register, Michigan Messenger, Feb. 5, 2010.
Notably, in 2012, Beckering wrote for the court in overturning Jimmie Nelson’s murder conviction for killing Cherita Thomas in 1980, ruling that the evidence was insufficient for the conviction. Mich. Court Strikes Murder Conviction in 1980 Case, A.P. State & Local Wire, Aug. 24, 2012. Earlier this year, Beckering joined a unanimous decision making a juvenile prisoner who had spent nearly 50 years in custody eligible for release. Ed White, Juvenile Lifer Locked Up For Nearly 50 Years Could Go Free, A.P. State & Local, Jan. 22, 2021.
In civil rights cases, Beckering has generally interpreted protections broadly. For example, Beckering wrote for the court in holding that a northern Michigan bar could be sued for failing to call the police when a black patron was attacked based on his race. Ed White, Bar Can Be Sued For Attack on Black Man, Michigan Court Says, A.P. State & Local, Apr. 23, 2021.
In one of her most notable decisions, Beckering partially dissented from a panel decision throwing out a lawsuit brought by prisoners suffering from sexual violence and abuse in the prison system. See Dana Leibelson, Court Decides Civil Rights Protections Don’t Apply to Kids in Prison, Huffington Post, Aug. 28, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/civil-rights-kids-prison_n_55e0a663e4b0b7a96338df8c. In her dissent, Beckering argued that the law governing the dispute, a 1999 statute excluding prisoners from civil rights protections, was unconstitutional, stating:
“The Legislature could no sooner enact an amendment [excluding] prisoners from the scope of the statute as it could…blue-eyed individuals, African-Americans, or anyone named, ‘Steve.’”
In contrast, in 2014, Beckering joined a unanimous decision throwing out damages awarded to a black state employee who had a 5-foot tall stuffed gorilla placed in her cubicle, finding that the 3-week long presence of the animal was not sufficient to prove a hostile work environment. Ed White, Black Worker Loses Appeal Over Stuffed Gorilla, A.P. State & Local, June 27, 2014.
Beckering’s rulings in civil cases have generally read both liability and damages expansively. In 2011, Beckering ruled that a Michigan homeowner whose house was destroyed after 400 gallons of heating oil were mistakenly pumped into it could recover $100,000 in non-economic damages for the loss, finding that a plaintiff could suffer mental anguish from losing their home. See Ed White, Court Backs Verdict in Home Lost to Oil Mess, A.P. State & Local Wire, Aug. 26, 2011. In another case, Beckering joined a 2-1 decision held that a parking lane falls under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Transportation and that the agency could be sued for injuries in such lanes. Woman With Broken Ankle on M-22 Can Sue MDOT, A.P. State & Local Wire, Dec. 24, 2012.
In her time on the Court of Appeals, Beckering has had the opportunity to opine on a number of agency decisions and regulations. In 2011, Beckering joined a panel decision upholding a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality regulation governing the amount of manure that factory farms could put in waterways. Appeals Court Upholds State ‘Factory Farms’ Rule, A.P. State & Local Wire, Mar. 30, 2011. In contrast, in 2012, Beckering overturned a $37 million rate increase imposed by the Michigan Public Service Commission, finding that the agency failed to provide evidence to support the increase. See Dan Testa, Mich. Appeals Court Rules Against Detroit Edison Rate Hike for Smart Meters, SNL Energy Finance Daily, Apr. 13, 2012.
In a notable ruling with Second Amendment implications, Beckering joined a 2-1 ruling holding that a public library exceeded its authority in barring patrons from carrying weapons on the premises. See Michael Kelley, No Guns in the Library: Curbing the Second Amendment in the Stacks, Library Journal, Jan. 1, 2013.
While a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court, Beckering detailed her judicial philosophy, stating that the role of the courts are to remain “nonpartisan” and to “protect the minority against the majority when they have overstepped their bounds on civil rights, on constitutional rights, on that which the law is there to protect them. See James Prichard, Lawyering Runs in Beckering’s Family, A.P., Sept. 27, 2006 (quoting Jane Beckering). Beckering also criticized the conservative majority of the Michigan Supreme Court for “taking a very literal interpretation of the language” of statutes and stated that she would “apply a commonsense interpretation of the statute or the law which we are interpreting and have it make sense.” See id.
Having three decades of legal experience under her belt, Beckering would come to the federal bench well-prepared for its rigors. The flip side of this experience, however, is that Beckering has a long record to be parsed by senators. Expect Beckering to get questions about the judicial philosophy she expressed during her Supreme Court run, as well as her many decisions on the Court of Appeals. In the end, Beckering is likely to attract conservative opposition, but will likely still be confirmed to the federal bench.