Earlier this month in the cafeteria of Bach Elementary School, four candidates for two spots on the 22nd Circuit Court fielded questions as part of a forum sponsored by the Washtenaw County Bar Association and the Old West Side Association. The nonpartisan judicial elections are for six-year terms.
This write-up includes some of the responses of candidates in just one of those races, described on the ballot at the “incumbent position.” The ballot itself also labels the incumbent, Tim Connors, as “Judge of Circuit Court.” Voters on Nov. 6 will have a choice between Connors and Ann Arbor resident Mike Woodyard, who has worked for the last 10 years as an attorney in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. Before attending law school, Woodyard worked for a time as a newspaper reporter.
Connors was initially appointed to the 22nd Circuit Court in 1997 by then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, to replace judge Karl Fink – the older brother of Jim Fink, who is running in the other race along with Carol Kuhnke for the non-incumbent 22nd Circuit Court judgeship. Before making the circuit court appointment, Engler had previously appointed Connors in 1991 to a seat on the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor.
Vacancies created by resignations, like that of Karl Fink, are filled through gubernatorial appointments – but judges must stand for election at the first opportunity to serve out the remainder of the partial term. After being appointed in 1997, Connors stood for election in 1998, and then again in 2000 and 2006 for successive six-year terms. On each of those three occasions, Connors was unopposed, which is fairly typical for incumbent judges.
At the forum, that’s one reason Woodyard indicated he’s running for judge – not to run against Connors, but rather to provide voters with the kind of contested judicial elections described by Michigan law. It emerged during the forum that in law school Woodyard had taken a trial advocacy course taught by Connors, and had received an A in the class. Woodyard mentioned the class as helpful in one of his first trials, which resulted in getting a “live nude girls” establishment shut down.
The WCBA had prepared questions for the candidates covering standard topics like judicial temperament, experience and what led the candidates to consider a career in law. During the second part of the forum, questions from the audience were entertained as well. The requirement that all questions be suitable for all four candidates led to some grumbling – based in part on the fact that not all four candidates were running against each other.
Local attorney Peter Davis, who indicated he had a question just for Woodyard, responded to moderator Steve Borgsdorf’s enforcement of the rule by saying ”So you want softball questions?” Borgsdorf responded with, “No, they can be fastballs, but everyone’s got to get a chance to bat.” The analogy was apt, as at the time of the Oct. 16 forum, the Detroit Tigers baseball team was handing the New York Yankees a 2-1 defeat in the American League Championship Series.
Woodyard and Connors had previously participated in a candidate forum in June, prior to the Aug. 7 primary and hosted by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. They also responded to five questions for inclusion on the 411vote.org website. Responses from candidates in the other race – Carol Kuhnke and Jim Fink – will be reported in a separate Chronicle write-up.
The campaign finance filing deadline was Oct. 26. According to documents filed with the state, Connors has raised $95,090 in contributions and spent $84,765. Woodyard’s campaign finance report shows contributions of $7,266 and expenditures of $6,830.
These candidates will be on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general election. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website. Additional information about local candidates and other voter information is available on the Washtenaw county clerk’s elections division website.
Mike Woodyard: His background as a lawyer goes back about 10 years, he said. During that time, he has worked as a prosecuting attorney in Wayne County. He began working there after he graduated from Wayne State University. Before he attended law school, he worked as a newspaper reporter for a number of different publications around the country, he said. Before that he was self-employed and “making his way.” He graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1997.
In the Wayne County prosecutor’s office he’s been assigned to a number of areas, Woodyard said. He began on a civil docket that he described as a “quasi-criminal docket” – where he handled nuisance abatement, asset forfeiture, and things of that nature. He moved from there to the domestic violence docket, and was then assigned to the child-abuse unit. He worked for six years with the child-abuse unit, where he developed a specialty in infant head trauma cases. Two years ago he was assigned to the public integrity unit, he said. That’s a small unit handling cases involving wrongdoing by public officials, including police officers, he explained.
Tim Connors: He began by noting the venue, which was the cafeteria of Bach Elementary School. He had attended Pattengill Elementary – another Ann Arbor school. He invited the audience to look at the map of the United States rendered on the back wall, saying it was really kind of neat – because we get all wrapped up in our lives and we lose sight of the things that are really important.
The context of the elementary school cafeteria brought home something that Connors thinks is really important to consider when people visit the courthouse – because it can be really impersonal and scary, he said. It’s important to make it feel like a safe haven for people, he said, and it’s important to keep our humanity.
It’s been a real pleasure to serve the legal community as judge, he said. He stated that Washtenaw County is the envy of most of the state’s legal community. That is not by accident, but rather by choice and design, he said. Washtenaw County has some of the best lawyers in the state, he contended, if not the nation. He counted himself as lucky to be associated with them. It has been a pleasure to serve as judge for the last 20 years and he hopes that with voters’ support he would be able to serve for another 12.
Question: What does judicial temperament mean to you? If elected, what type of judicial temperament would you most like to convey?
Tim Connors: He said the most important thing is listening. He said he’s learned to listen – and not just to what is being said, but also to what is not being said. There’s usually something else going on, he said. It’s important to try hard to be patient, compassionate and caring. But in terms of temperament, listening is the most important factor, he concluded.
Mike Woodyard: The two keys to judicial temperament, he said, are being respectful and predictable. Showing respect is related to listening and hearing people. Being predictable is related to human nature. People are who they are. It would be his hope that when people come into his court, they would know that he would act in a predictable manner.
Question: How do you perceive your role as circuit court judge in addressing budgetary challenges?
Mike Woodyard: He began by saying that the financial challenges faced by the Washtenaw County Circuit Court are not unique. The trial court is funded through a blend of different sources, he said. The state provides salary and benefits, and the local entity provides the physical plant and other support.
The court system works with the county board of commissioners, he noted. The court has an understanding with the board that includes receiving a lump sum allocation, which it has to work with. That lump sum has been decreasing, he said, and projections through the year 2015 are that it will continue to decrease. So the idea of doing more with less involves improving various practices, cross-training staff and exploring other efficiencies, particularly with electronic and digital technology.
Tim Connors: He began by saying “I don’t think you can do more with less. I think that’s crazy. You can do less with less. And the question becomes what do you do with what you have.” He has a good history with judges in the county, he said. He’s handled every kind of case in every kind of courtroom in the county, he said. The flexibility and the work ethic among the judges allows work to be picked up and to be done so willingly.
As far as the budget goes, there will be a whole new group of nine commissioners after the election [down from 11 due to redistricting]. Having a personal relationship with the commissioners is important, so that they understand what the court does, he said. As judges, he felt that they need to fill the gaps. He suggested reaching out to law students to have them lend their efforts, given that there are two fine law schools right our own back yard, he said. Summarizing his thoughts in the budget, he said, “It is what it is.”
Experience with Types of Law
Question: The two seats on the court that are being contested are currently held by judges Melinda Morris and Tim Connors. Morris has a current docket that consists of criminal and civil cases, and Connors currently has a docket that consists of civil and family law matters. The chief judge could reassign those dockets based on the experience and expertise of the judges who are elected. Could each candidate please speak to their experience in each of those types of law and how you feel your experience would help you as a judge on the bench?
Mike Woodyard: He reiterated from his introductory remarks a description of his experience with the prosecuting attorney’s office in Wayne County – he felt he has a depth of experience in criminal law. What that teaches, he said, is not just the intricacies of the process of a criminal case – motions, trials, juries. It also teaches you a good deal about human nature, and how people behave one to the other, he said. Having spent some time in court, he’s come to learn a little bit about that.
With respect to the civil docket, Woodyard mentioned that he’d had an opportunity to handle a civil docket early in his career – dealing with assets foreclosure and nuisance abatement. He allowed that he did not have any specific experience in family law. But he observed that the child abuse cases that he’d handled as a prosecutor generally had a parallel case that was proceeding at the same time with the department of human services involving custody. And through that experience, he was able to gain an understanding of that aspect of family law.
Tim Connors: His docket is a civil and family docket, he noted. In the civil arena, he’s assigned a large portion of the docket because that is his specialty, he said. That was his background as a trial attorney. He said that Carol Kuhnke – in her remarks made in response to the same question – was exactly right about civil trials being complex and complicated.
He has been teaching civil trial skills for 19 years and he enjoyed that very much. In the area of family law, anyone has the right in the juvenile court to demand a judge, and if there is a demand for a judge, then he is that judge, Connors said. He’s also been involved with a specialized child welfare docket, he said, and he’s also very much involved in trying to bring peacekeeping principles to the family court. That’s been successful in the tribal community, he said.
Connor’s has become convinced over the years that advocacy in the family court is very different from advocacy in the criminal and civil court. He and his wife, Margaret Connors, have designed a class to teach at the University Michigan law school on that topic.
Experience with Trials
Question: What is your experience as a trial attorney? What’s your experience in civil versus criminal trials and bench versus jury trials?
Tim Connors: As a civil trial lawyer, he tried hundreds of cases, Connors said. He was proud of the fact that as a civil trial lawyer there was a no-fault case he’d tried that resulted in a new interpretation of the law that is still the law today.
Mike Woodyard: He said he tried about 100 cases. Most of them had been jury trials and some of them had been bench trials. When he was assigned to the civil docket in nuisance abatement, as an intern he had worked on a nuisance abatement for an old-fashioned “live nude girls”-type facility. It was one of the last such establishments like that in southeast Michigan, he said, describing it as a really filthy place. So as an intern, he was trying that case before judge Michael Sapala on the 3rd Circuit Court. The defendant brought in a high-profile defense attorney, he said, but the case all boiled down to the evidence. He said he was able to muddle through the rules and present the case, and the establishment was shut down.
Woodyard added that he owed a debt of gratitude to Connors, because he had taken Connors’ trial advocacy course at Wayne State University – and had received an A in the class. And he was able to take the skills he learned in that class and apply them to that case. He had experience in criminal cases, he said, and he had developed a real expertise in child abuse head trauma cases. Such cases are incredibly and extraordinarily complex, he said – involving a social work aspect, search and seizure issues, and access to medical records and issues of that nature.
Vocation to the Field of Law
Question: Why are you a lawyer? Why did you choose this profession? As part of your answer, identify a mentor or a role model who ought to be credited with where you are today.
Mike Woodyard: He began by saying that he did not have any lawyers in his family. He’s a lawyer because of his father, he said. But his father is not involved in the legal profession – rather, he’s a professor at Wayne State University. Ever since he was old enough to accompany his father to Detroit, his father would take him along to participate in programs involving food distribution or helping people in other ways. His father had taught them how important it is for people who are lucky – like all of the people in the room, Woodyard noted – to give back and to devote themselves to the improvement of others. So to that extent, he would identify his father as his role model.
Tim Connors: When he was growing up, he said, his mother was a TV anchor. And he recalled a TV program he participated in, when the moderator had gone around and asked all the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. His answer was “a lawyer,” and his parents about fell over, he said. They asked him where that answer had come from. He told his parents that they’d never asked him that question. He said he had no idea why he wanted to be a lawyer, but for some reason he just had the sense that that’s what he was supposed to do.
Argument for Yourself, Against Opponent
Question: What do you see in yourself – in quality or experience – that you would bring to the bench that’s either absent in your opponent or that you’d be better at than your opponent. What’s unique to you that you would bring?
Mike Woodyard: He stated that “I really appreciate the question and I will absolutely not answer it!”
Woodyard stated that he’s not running against Connors. Rather, he’s running because he’s qualified. He’s running because since 1954, Michigan law has contemplated contested judicial elections, he said. If the elections are not contested, he felt that sets up a disservice to the community.
If the community has an opportunity to look at his commitment to public service, and his commitment to justice and his commitment to the rights of people who appear before the court – plaintiffs, defendants or people in family court – and they think that Connors would do a better job, then they should vote for Connors, Woodyard said. But if people think he would be a person to better serve the community than Connors, then they should vote for him. Serving as judge is a terrific opportunity to give back to his community, Woodyard said, in a meaningful personal and professional way.
Tim Connors: He said he was taught that you shouldn’t talk about yourself and why you are better than somebody else, so he indicated he wouldn’t be elaborating more than that.
Judicial Bypass: Abortion
Question: An audience question came from local attorney Tom Wieder. Wieder noted that one of the matters that can come before the circuit court is a so-called “judicial bypass case.” Those are cases where a minor wants to have an abortion and cannot obtain the consent of a parent or guardian, he explained. There’s been about 125 of those cases in last four years, Wieder said, which were decided on the circuit bench. Wieder then framed a question specifically for Jim Fink: “Mr. Fink, you’ve been endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan, a condition of which is that you agree to oppose abortion except in cases where the life of the mother is at stake. Given that pledge, aren’t you effectively saying to any young woman who came before you in a judicial bypass case, unless her life were endangered, you would not grant a bypass?”
[Fink's response was essentially that he'd not pledged that, and is described in more detail in the separate report of his and Kuhnke's responses. Other candidates responded to the general topic of the kind of judicial bypass case that Wieder had highlighted.]
Tim Connors: He noted that on the 22nd Circuit Court, the waiver of parental consent questions are handled by judge Donald Shelton. Connors is the backup judge for those questions, Connors said. He noted that he had never turned down a request. In every case, he felt that there had been good counseling given – and because such cases were held in closed session, he did not want to provide a lot of details about those cases.
Mike Woodyard: He brought the question back to one of the keys that he identified for judicial temperament – respect. A young woman who has the courage to ask the court to support her decision deserves respect. The law sets up a model to be followed and it needs to be followed, he said.
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