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Wednesday, July 28,2010

Debating the 55th seat

by Neal McNamara

On July 8, the four candidates running for Ingham County 55th District Court Judge gathered at the HOM-TV studios in Okemos for a debate. But rather than talk of jurisprudence, most of the debate focused on the efficiency of the court.


Candidates Randie Kay Black, Patrick Crowley and Paul T. Joseph, all attorneys in private practice, alleged inefficiencies, budget troubles and disorganisation at the court. District Court Judge Donald Allen, appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2008 (to replace now-Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina) was left to defend the court, and to excoriate his three opponents’ alleged naivete. (State statistics on 55th District Court show that in 2007, 2008 and 2009, the court took in more cases than it resolved — in 2007 and 2009 there were about 8,000 cases left, and about 4,000 in 2008).


At the beginning of the debate, Joseph proposed hiring a special prosecutor to collect outstanding fines and fees. Allen chided: “We do it on a regular basis. But he wouldn’t know that because he’s not at the court.”


District Court judges, however, have other arguably more imperative duties than administration. They handle civil cases under $25,000, traffic tickets and drunk driving offenses, misdemeanor offenses, preliminary examinations for felony cases and landlord-tenant disputes. To an ordinary member of the public charged with a crime, you would first see a District Court judge. They can also suspend your license, or decide if you get evicted.


Crowley, 36, is running because he likes to “solve problems for the common good.” He proposes technological solutions for improving the court.


“You could go out to Best Buy, buy three iPads, give one to the judge, one to the prosecutor and simply set it up with a chime or blinking light that says we're ready,” he proposed as a solution to make court run quicker. “The things I'm focusing on are trying to save time and money,” he said.


Joseph, 55, owns a law firm, an accounting firm and a coffee and cookie shop in Williamston with is wife. He’s running, he said, because he is negotiating to sell his law firm, does not want to retire and wants to continue in public service.


Joseph has a three-point plan to streamline court. There’s increased collection of fines and costs, plus bringing sobriety and domestic violence court counselors into the court, from which he predicts the court will have a “large surplus.” Finally, he would compare the 55th District Court’s fines and costs to other courts. Though he can’t say which ones yet, he would be in favor of raising fines and costs.


Allen, 53, is a Detroit native and has worked for the state of Michigan for most of his career. After graduating Wayne State with a law degree, he clerked for a federal bankruptcy judge. In 1988, he came to Lansing to be an assistant attorney general. He was later legal counsel for Granholm and then director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, which dispenses money for drug awareness, treatment and enforcement. Allen says, if elected, he would increase enrollment in the sobriety court — an intense, therapeutic court for habitual drunk driving offenders — and that he loves his job.


“We’re continuously graduating graduates as a result of the help they get from the sobriety court,” he said.


Black has been an attorney for 26 years and touts handling “literally hundreds of cases.” She got her law degree from Golden State University in San Francisco after graduating from Michigan State University. She wants the seat because she believes it’s right to serve “the people” from the bench with “honesty, integrity and equality.” She ran for District Court judge in 2004.


Black says she would work to facilitate communication within the court — employees, attorneys, judges and defendants — and she is also proposing a set of five strict organizational rules for the court.


In the midst of the HOM-TV debate, Allen held up a few statistics to show that the court had a 114 percent closure rate in May — more cases resolved than came in. “I would take these numbers to the bank, so to speak,” he said.

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