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Plans to unify district courts in Ingham County are facing friction from yet another judge who would rather keep East Lansing and Lansing separated from the rest of the county.
Newly elected Lansing District Judge Cynthia Ward urged the Lansing City Council to reject plans to consolidate local district courtrooms.
“Judges should reflect the community in which they serve,” wrote Ward, who sits on the 54A District bench with Hugh Clarke, another opponent to consolidation. “Such a scenario may strain the public’s confidence in our judicial system. A judiciary lacking confidence is a compromised judiciary. When citizens do not trust the courts, they will look to other means to resolve their disputes.”
But mayors Andy Schor of Lansing and Mark Meadows of East Lansing said countywide elections for judges are off the table. Current plans revolve around consolidated courts that maintain separate election districts for Lansing, East Lansing and the rest of the county. And that should quell Ward’s concerns.
“We’re still working on the language, but countywide elections are no longer on the table,” Meadows explained.
Schor confirmed the latest version of consolidation plans would force judges to maintain a home in one of three districts where their courtrooms are located.
But that doesn’t mean plans to consolidate district courtrooms are losing steam, officials emphasized.
“I am supportive of consolidating courts for efficiencies and effectiveness,” Schor said. “I am supportive of voters in Lansing electing their own judges and having juries of those from Lansing. That seems to be the plan on the table. I am supportive of making that change as part of any final deal.”
Initial plans would have also shifted the county’s eight district court judges into a countywide election, pushing Judge Clarke to voice concern that an out-county, electoral tilt would make it more difficult for people of color to adequately represent minority demographics in a diverse city like Lansing.
Ward, who like Clarke is African American, brought up on those same concerns this week, noting that a diverse judiciary “boosts public confidence” within the local court system. But regardless of race, judges ought to live in the area where they work, she said. Theoretically, under the prior plans, every future 54A District Court judge could’ve lived outside of the city.
“I understand some will argue that where a judge lives has little to do with a judge’s ability to administer justice fairly. But let’s remember that the court exists for the people and not the judges,” Ward wrote. “The public’s confidence in our justice system is enhanced when you have judges who are representative of the community.”
Ward also wanted to avoid any “institutional barriers” to a diverse judiciary that could be created through consolidation. Consolidation should be more focused on improving the delivery of “fair and impartial” justice rather than finding any cost savings. She suggested the cities stand aside to leave the decisions to local judges.
“Because merging buildings and a significant cost savings are no longer driving the discussion, let’s respect the historical jurisdictions of our courts and leave the discussion about operation efficiencies to the judges. Let the judges examine what the specific needs of the community are.”
Besides Ward and Clarke, East Lansing 54B District judges Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball have expressed skepticism that the savings will be sufficient to justify consolidation.
55th District Court Judge Tom Boyd, a leading advocate of consolidation, said Ward’s recent opposition is “ridiculous.” He argued that where any given judge lives has no bearing on the adequacy of justice for defendants in the courtroom. Consolidation wouldn’t erode public trust and would do little to change the current representation, he said.
“Up until a couple years ago, I lived in Meridian Township,” Boyd added. “There are no judges that live in Meridian Township and no judges that live in Lansing Township. There are no judges that live in 14 of the 16 townships in Ingham County. Does that mean these places somehow have an inferior level of justice?”
Boyd added: “Consolidation might not get done this year because there are these parochial sentiments being flamed by some of the judges, but eventually this is going to happen. The constitution calls for a neutral and detached arbiter of justice. How neutral and detached are these judges that are just clinging on to their cities?”
Local officials have until November to hash out a formal plan for consolidation before the legislative mechanism that allows the merger expires. Schor hopes to bring a proposal to City Council before October. Officials in East Lansing and Ingham County will also have the final say before consolidation can take place.