Toward the bottom of every November election ballot sit the candidates for judges in local courts. These nonpartisan races rarely get headlines because judicial ethics prevent judicial candidates from taking legal positions on issues that might appear before them on the bench.
Here is what we found out about the candidates in three races that will appear on local ballots in next Tuesday’s general election.
Lansing’s 54-A District Court
District courts hear matters such as misdemeanor criminal cases, civil cases under $25,000 and landlord tenant disputes. The district courts in Michigan are the first stop in a prosecution for felony charges, where defendants have an opportunity to begin to hear the case against them before being sent over to the circuit court for trial.
In Lansing, three candidates are vying for six-year terms for two seats. They are Judges Kristen Simmons and Tony Flores and City Councilmember Brian Jackson.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Simmons in 2019, and she was elected in 2020 to complete the remainder of the term of Hugh B. Clarke, which ends Dec. 31.
Simmons, 41, obtained an undergraduate education at Hampton University in Virginia. She graduated from Western Michigan Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She served in the offices of the Lansing City Attorney and the state Attorney General and was chief litigator for the Michigan Department of Corrections before her appointment to the bench. Her website is votejudgesimmons.com.
Simmons wants to expand so-called specialty courts, which deal with such problems as alcohol and drug abuse.
“I am also working with our criminal justice and community partners to pilot a community court specialty court that would serve to be a problem-solving court to address criminal actions that stem from poverty or lack of resources in a more effective and result driven manner.”
Campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state on Oct. 28 show Simmons has raised $24,275 and spent $22,047.24, leaving her with $2,227.76 on hand for the last two weeks of the election. Simmons donated $2,500 to her campaign and received donations from Alderson ($500), attorney David Mittleman ($1,000), 30th Circuit Judge Lisa McCormick ($250) and Edwar Zeineh ($150). Zeineh was implicated in the scandal that occurred before Clarke resigned. It was Zeineh’s female employee who alleged engaging in a sexual liaison with Clarke in the City Market building bathroom as a requirement to keep her job. The allegation resulted in a police report and referral to the FBI, but no charges ever arose.
Brian Jackson is in the middle of his second term representing the 4th Ward on the Lansing City Council. Jackson, 38, did his undergraduate education at Indiana State University in criminal justice. He also obtained a master’s degree from Indiana State University in criminal justice. He obtained his law degree from Howard University. Aside from serving on the Lansing City Council, Jackson works for the Ingham County Public Defenders Office. He was an Ingham County assistant prosecutor and a Lansing assistant city attorney. His website is briantjacksonforjudge.com.
Jackson also wants to expand specialty courts as well as further remove them from the criminal court process.
“Specialty courts should be expanded as there are not enough spaces available and too many limitations for entry,” he told the League. “I would advocate to expand access to Specialty Courts and to establish a new Housing Insecurity Specialty Court to help people who commit crimes as a result of housing insecurity. A true alternative Court would be even further removed from formal Court. Restorative Practices have been used in many settings and focus and repairing the harm caused by offending.”
Among Jackson’s donors are local attorneys, as well as state representative candidate Penelope Tsernoglou and Jessica Yorko, whom he replaced on the City Council. Both donated $50. Jackson’s campaign reports, filed Oct. 22, show he raised $10,530, spent $10,360.09, leaving him with just $169.91 for the remaining weeks of the campaign.
Whitmer appointed Flores in March to complete the term of Louise Alderson, who retired.
Flores, 58, received an undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Colorado and obtained his law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He’s worked as assistant prosecuting attorney for Mecosta County and Ingham County. In addition he has served as a professor at Cooley and University of Michigan Law School. His website is retaintonyfloresforjudge.com.
“Alternative courts and specialty courts have allowed the bench to reach out and serve members of the community who are in need of specific services,” Flores told the League of Women Voters. “In many instances, alternative courts allow services which may specifically serve those afflicted with alcohol, drug, mental health, veterans court, and anger management issues. These courts allow the available services to be tailored to the issues of the individual which decreases the use of incarceration.”
Flores’ filings show attorneys Jamie White and Andrew Abood each pitched in $1,000 for Flores’ campaign, and he himself gave the committee $12,095.12.
Flores reports, filed on Oct. 25, show he raised $25,498.65 and spent $25,260.78, leaving him with $237.87 for the last two weeks of the campaign.
30th CIRCUIT COURT
Circuit courts address felony criminal cases and civil matters with a value of over $25,000.
Ingham County’s 30th Circuit Court has two seats up on Nov. 8. In one race, incumbent Joyce Draganchuk is running unopposed. In the other, the candidates are attorneys Morgan Elizabeth Cole and Christopher Wickman, who would replace Clinton Canady III, who is retiring. Both positions have six-year terms.
Draganchuk has served since 2004 and is presiding judge of the criminal division. She is unopposed in this race. As a result, she was not asked to complete a questionnaire by the League of Women Voters. In October 2010, her campaign received a reporting waiver. That means that she did not expect to raise or spend more than $1,000 in any upcoming campaign. As a result, she has not had to file campaign reports since that time. Draganchuk served as an assistant Ingham County prosecutor. In 2001, Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III elevated her to chief assistant prosecutor. She remained in that post until being elected to the bench in 2004. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan at Dearborn and obtained her law degree from the Wayne State University Law School.
Cole, 36, is a graduate of West Virginia University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She is the Ingham County probate register/court administrator and has served as Friend of the Court conciliator/investigator for the 30th Circuit Court and chief deputy Circuit Court clerk of the 30th Circuit Court. Her website is morgancoleforjudge.com.
Cole is an advocate for supporting and expanding specialty courts — such as sobriety and veteran’s courts — according to her website and her answers to the League of Women Voters survey.
“These specialized courts allow our system to provide individualized services and resolve cases outside of the traditional criminal justice system,” she wrote in her League response.
According to her Oct. 24 campaign finance report, Cole pumped $82,000 of her own money into her candidacy. That money is identified as loans to the committee. In total, her campaign report shows she raised $100,913.45, spent $52,720.28 leaving her with $48,193.17 cash on hand for the final weeks of the campaign. She took an in-kind contribution of room rentals at the Lansing Country Club for $1,133.45 from Zeineh.
Wickman, 36, received an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University in politics and has a law degree from Temple University. He is private practice focusing on civil, family and criminal law. His website is electchriswickman.com
Wickman too supports specialty courts, but said he wants to evaluate to make sure there is no undue power dynamic in the use of the courts, which he called the “best system in the world.”
“I am open to exploring all alternatives from community partners to better serve our community,” he wrote to the League, “though I would want to make sure that there are proper safeguards in place for such and making sure the power dynamics that sometimes permeate criminal cases do not force the use of alternatives to the detriment of one party.”
Wickman lists $42,500 in personal loans to the campaign committee, with Court Judge James Jamo ($150), Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon ($150) and attorney David Mittleman ($1,500). His total fundraising as of Oct. 28 was $51,670 including his own loans. He’d spent $39,486.83, leaving him with $12,183.17 cash on hand.
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