Local and state judicial candidates were the focus of a June 23 forum hosted by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party.
Most of the two-hour session, held at the Pittsfield Township hall, was devoted to two 22nd Circuit Court races. Incumbent judge Tim Connors, who has served in that position since 1997, is being challenged by Mike Woodyard, an Ann Arbor resident and assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County.
There is no incumbent running for another seat on the 22nd Circuit Court – because judge Melinda Morris is ineligible for re-election as she is past the statutory age limit of 70. Four local attorneys are vying for that judgeship: Erane Washington, Doug McClure, Carol Kuhnke and Jim Fink. Coverage of that candidate forum will be provided in a separate Chronicle report.
The four candidates for the open 22nd Circuit Court seat will compete in the Aug. 7 primary to narrow the field. The two candidates in that race who receive the most votes will advance to the Nov. 6 general election.
All other local judicial candidates are incumbents who are unchallenged, and will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot: Cedric Simpson (14th District Court, Washtenaw County); Joe Burke (15th District Court, Ann Arbor); and Darlene O’Brien (probate court, Washtenaw County). They did not take part in the June 23 forum. These non-partisan judicial races are for six-year terms.
At the state level, candidates for Michigan Supreme Court are also on a non-partisan ballot, but they are nominated by political parties. Three positions on the seven-member court will be contested on Nov. 6, currently held by Democrat Marilyn Kelly and Republicans Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra, whose eight-year terms end on Jan. 1, 2013. Kelly is not seeking re-election because she’ll be past the age of 70. Markman and Zahra are running as incumbents, and the third GOP candidate will be selected at a state Republican convention in September.
In March, the state Democratic Party endorsed three candidates for Michigan Supreme Court: 46th District Court judge Shelia Johnson, Wayne County Circuit Court judge Connie Marie Kelley, and University of Michigan law professor Bridget Mary McCormack of Ann Arbor.
Of the three, only Johnson, a Southfield resident, attended the June 23 forum, telling the crowd of about 50 people that this year’s Michigan Supreme Court race is an historic election, and a chance to reverse the court’s current 4-3 majority. It’s the most important race on the ballot, she said, because the court’s decisions – from reproductive rights to environmental protection to emergency managers – affect everyone’s lives.
This article includes Johnson’s presentation at the June 23 forum, but begins with a report of the first 22nd Circuit Court race between Tim Connors and Mike Woodyard.
22nd Circuit Court: Connors and Woodyard
One of the 22nd Circuit Court seats on the Nov. 6 ballot is held by incumbent judge Tim Connors, who has served in that role since 1997. He initially was appointed to the 22nd Circuit Court by then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, to replace judge Karl Fink – the brother of Jim Fink, who is running for the non-incumbent 22nd Circuit Court judgeship. Previous to that, Engler had appointed Connors in 1991 to a seat on the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor.
Connors is being challenged by Mike Woodyard, an Ann Arbor resident and attorney in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office.
Circuit court judges are elected to six-year terms and run as non-partisan candidates. Requirements include being a qualified voter, a resident of the judicial circuit in which they would serve, and an attorney who has been licensed to practice law for at least five years.
In very broad strokes, circuit courts are the highest type of trial court in Michigan, handling felony criminal cases, civil cases involving amounts over $25,000, and civil appeals from administrative agencies. There are 57 circuit courts in Michigan. Locally, the 22nd Circuit Court is part of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, and includes the criminal/civil division and family division (juvenile court, probate court, and Friend of the Court program).
At the June 23 Democratic forum, Connors and Woodyard were each given 90 seconds for opening statements, followed by a series of questions asked by moderator Mike Henry, co-chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. Both candidates ended the session with closing statements.
This report presents the candidate responses in the order they were presented.
Opening Statement: Woodyard
The role of government is primarily to ensure the safety and well-being of citizens, Woodyard said. His belief is that the 22nd Circuit Court discharges that obligation primarily through the administration of the criminal justice system.
Woodyard noted that during this campaign, people will likely hear a lot of claims about experience. But he wanted them to remember that in terms of advocating for victims of crime, of standing up in court for those who have been hurt by criminal wrongdoing, “my experience is second to nobody.”
For 10 years he’s been an assistant prosecuting attorney in Wayne County. In that time, he said he’s investigated and issued about 800 criminal arrest warrants, and he’s tried about 100 cases, most of them felonies. He’s appeared in front of 27 different circuit court judges and in 20 different district courts.
Woodyard said he’d bring his passion and commitment to justice to the courtroom when he’s elected. [Link to Mike Woodyard campaign website]
Opening Statement: Connors
Connors began by thanking the crowd for the privilege of serving them for the last 21 years.
He said he takes the job very seriously because the decisions affect people’s lives, oftentimes profoundly. But he tries not to take himself too seriously, because a judge needs to bring a measure of humor and compassion to the situation.
On the 22nd Circuit Court, Connors said his work covers the civil and family docket, not the criminal docket. The cases he hears involve disputes between individuals and organizations, or between different organizations in the community. The family docket is a microcosm that, he said.
Connors said he believes that judges should be healers of controversy. The law should help and restore, not hurt. The powerful and the powerless should have an equal playing field in the courtroom, he concluded. [Link to Tim Connors campaign website]
Mike Henry, the forum’s moderator and co-chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, then launched into a series of questions submitted by the audience.
What’s your philosophy regarding a person’s right to a jury trial versus instances where summary disposition (a ruling made by a judge) is appropriate?
Connors: He said he holds the right to a jury trial very dear – it’s one of the greatest things about the American system. A number of other countries are now considering using jury trials on a limited basis. Some representatives have come to the University of Michigan law school to learn about that, and have come to local courtrooms to observe, Connors said. He’s had Korean judges from the Korean Supreme Court come over and sit in on a jury trial to learn about it. It is a fundamental right that makes the U.S. legal system the best, Connors said.
Woodyard: In the civil justice arena, the vast number of cases are disposed of through summary disposition, he said. Decisions by the judge are made based on law, and are decided before a case goes to jury trial. In cases where there’s a genuine question of fact, he said, the defendant is entitled to a trial. Of course, a jury trial is a fundamental right, he said. In the criminal arena, there’s no such thing as summary disposition, he noted. Most cases are set on a trial track. However, recognizing the responsibilities of the judge when addressing summary disposition is important, he said, because most civil cases are disposed of in that manner.
What activities best demonstrate your commitment to civil rights, equality and justice? Give specific examples.
Woodyard: He cited his work on behalf of the Democratic Party. As an example, Woodyard pointed to his volunteer work as a poll watcher/challenger. In the 2008 election he worked at a poll in northwest Detroit. He said he was there from the time the polls opened at 7 a.m. until they closed that night, and described it as a great opportunity to see democracy in action.
Connors: Looking at the work he’s done is the best way to demonstrate his commitment to these issues, Connors said. He handled a class action lawsuit for 15 years involving the treatment of 800 female prisoners in the state Dept. of Corrections that had been sexually abused by guards. He referred forum attendees to an appellate decision about it that they could read. [The high-profile case, Neal et al v. MDOC, resulted in a class action settlement.] Most of his work now focuses on child welfare, and he said he’s fought hard for the rights of American Indians not to have their children taken by the state. There’s a specialized docket for that in Washtenaw County, he said, noting that he’s worked closely with justice Michael Cavanagh of the Michigan Supreme Court to improve the tribal/state court relations.
What Michigan Supreme Court opinion in the past 20 years has been the most significant to Michigan jurisprudence in a negative or positive way?
Connors: In a positive way, Connors cited the recent In re Morris and In re Gordon decision, a unanimous ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court – “Do you know how rare that is these days?” he asked. Connors described the decision as telling trial court judges if they don’t follow the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, the case goes back to the trial court and they do it over again. That is an incredibly important decision, Connors said, to make sure that the state’s trial court judges handle those cases correctly.
Woodyard: Woodyard didn’t give the name of the case, but described it as a criminal case relating to protections against double jeopardy, and what a prosecutor is permitted to do when a judge – without authorization – grafts an additional element onto the proof requirement. [Woodyard was referring to People v. Evans.] That decision sets up the prosecutor’s right to try a case according to the law, he said, not what a judge thinks the law is. A second case he cited was People v. Watkins, regarding a man who had sexually abused several children. Woodyard said the case came out of the Wayne County prosecuting attorney’s office and affirmed a recent legislative enactment that allows other acts of child abusers to be introduced against them at trial. It gives the prosecution an important tool, he said, allowing a prosecutor to argue that a person is disposed toward sexual attraction to children.
Which of the current or past Michigan Supreme Court justices do you most admire?
Woodyard: He cited Patty Boyle, who served on the Michigan Supreme Court from 1983 to 1998. Woodyard said she’s a graduate of his law school alma mater, Wayne State University. She had been a prosecuting attorney and U.S. attorney in Detroit, and was involved in the court system at a time when it was hard for women to get ahead, he said. She had been appointed to the federal bench, then ultimately to the Michigan Supreme Court. When she was a prosecuting attorney in Wayne County, she spearheaded an effort to rewrite sexual assault laws to benefit victims, Woodyard said. Her work clarified the law to allow victims to have their day in court, he said.
Connors: On the Michigan Supreme Court, Connors said he greatly admired justice Michael Cavanagh. He’s known Cavanagh for 21 years and worked closely with him. [Cavanagh, a Democrat, was first elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1982. His current term ends Jan. 1, 2015.] On the U.S. Supreme Court, Connors cited William Brennan. Brennan served over 44 years with a number of chief justices who weren’t always thrilled by his views, Connors said. But Brennan was able to convince others of his position and write significant opinions during his tenure.
Have you ever been disciplined, suspended, or disbarred from the practice of law, reprimanded by the attorney general, or brought before an attorney grievance commission?
Both Connors and Woodyard gave the same answer: No.
Why do you want to be a judge?
Woodyard: His experiences as a prosecuting attorney have profoundly shaped him, Woodyard said, especially the opportunities he’s had to meet and get to know people who are at an extremely dark moment in their lives – through no doing of their own. He’s learned that a judge has a profound effect on the way that justice is administered – through demeanor, judicial disposition, and the inherent biases that everyone has. His hope is that he’ll be able to serve the people of Washtenaw County in a way that evokes his commitment to those innocent victims.
Connors: Connors reported receiving a call from a judge in whose court he’d appeared. Connors didn’t know him well, but the judge said he admired Connors’ work. Connors reported that the judge wanted to recommend Connors to the governor to replace him, and wondered if Connors minded. “I wasn’t expecting it, but I was touched – it just happened, and here I am,” Connors said. [Connors was first appointed judge of the 15th District Court in Ann Arbor in 1991 by then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican. Engler later appointed Connors to the 22nd Circuit Court position in 1997.]
What’s your background as a student? How did you work your way through school?
Connors: Initially Connors was uncertain about what kind of response was expected, and wondered how far back he was supposed to go – high school? Mike Henry clarified that it wasn’t necessary to go that far back in his work history. Connors reported that he had spent a year in New York City, bartending at an Irish pub. He also cleaned stalls for his aunt and uncle for years, did yard work and an assortment of other jobs that he couldn’t recall.
Woodyard: There was about a 13-year period between high school and getting an undergraduate degree, Woodyard said. During that time he worked primarily as a self-employed house painter, but also did some bartending and waiting tables. He attended classes sporadically, but said he finally put his nose to the grindstone and got an undergraduate degree from Eastern Michigan University. He said he graduated with merit, and worked at the school newspaper, the Eastern Echo.
What kind of car do you drive?
Woodyard: A 2011 Chevy Cruise, which he noted had just been the subject of a recall. “If you see a car on fire in the parking lot, that’s probably mine.”
Connors: A Chevy Silverado. [Mike Henry expressed approval at these answers, noting that both candidates drove American vehicles.]
What are the most important challenges as a judge, especially in considering how to handle both sides of a case?
Connors: The biggest challenge is ensuring that both sides of a case feel they’ve been heard and listened to. That can be difficult if there’s an imbalance of power, and if one side has more resources or a stronger personality. You have to make sure there’s an even playing field. That’s a big challenge, and stressful. He recently had an attorney comment on the negative energy and psychic tension in the courthouse. When Mike Henry followed up by asking if there was ever a time when a case kept him up at night, Connors responded: ”Are you kidding? Has there ever not been a night?” At the end of the day you go home and say you did the best that you could, Connors said. But you also say, “I bet I could have done better. You try to get a good night’s sleep, get up and do it again.”
Woodyard: What Connors said is largely correct, Woodyard stated – he didn’t disagree at all. A judge has the Sisyphean task of dealing with competing, antagonistic advocates. When he was sworn in at the Wayne County courthouse, his father came to the ceremony. Afterwards, his father asked how he could stand to come to work in that building every day – it’s unremittingly antagonistic. A judge has to preside over that somehow, Woodyard said. A judge has to make sure both sides of the case are heard, but the overriding concern is that justice is served. Keeping an eye on justice for the defendant and the victims of a crime is important, he said.
Closing Statement: Connors
Connors began by thanking the crowd for the privilege of allowing him to serve. He believes what’s done in the courtroom affects the community in profound ways – not just the people who are in court, but also the community’s health, whether people have confidence in the community. Going forward, he said he plans to spend the rest of his career trying to improve the child welfare system. “We don’t look too good right now.” It’s under federal oversight in this state, he noted. Connors said he’s had preliminary discussions with the county sheriff, school board members, and deans of the law schools. The plan is to develop a pilot program that’s pro-active to help the community’s youth before they get into the system, Connors said – he’s very proud of that. He said he looked forward to the support of individuals at this forum, and hoped he could continue to serve – it’s been his honor to do that.
Closing Statement: Woodyard
Woodyard said he was happy to hear about Connors’ interest in protecting children – they share that interest. Woodyard cited his background as a prosecutor primarily in the child abuse unit, and his work on a statewide panel that reviews the deaths of children in the state’s protective services and foster care system. He’s seen firsthand how essential the consent decree was – a reference to the federal oversight that Connors had mentioned – and how important it is to move beyond that. He said he’s been fortunate to find a calling in the law, and he has a passion for justice and for those who’ve been hurt, especially kids. It’s his sincere hope that this is something he can continue to develop and grow in this community.
22nd Circuit Court: Coda
After the session with Connors and Woodyard ended, an audience member asked that the moderator, Mike Henry, “push a little harder” on the important issues of the day. The speaker said he had no idea where either candidate stands on the issue of reproductive rights, for example. He said he knows it’s hard to be a moderator and ask tough questions, “but please do.”
For the second panel of 22nd Circuit Court judicial candidates, Henry asked candidates about reproductive rights, among other issues. That panel coverage is handled in a separate Chronicle report.
Michigan Supreme Court Election
Candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court will appear on a non-partisan ballot on Nov. 6, vying for three seats on the seven-member court. Those three seats are currently held by Democrat Marilyn Kelly and Republicans Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra, whose terms end on Jan. 1, 2013. Kelly is not seeking re-election because she has passed the age of 70 – the state constitution prohibits people over 70 from being elected or appointed to a judicial office.
Justices are elected for eight-year terms. Unless they are incumbents, candidates for Supreme Court are nominated by political parties. The current court has a 4-3 Republican majority of Markman, Zahra, Mary Beth Kelly and chief justice Robert P. Young, Jr. Democratic justices are Marilyn Kelly, Michael Cavanagh and Diane Hathaway.
Republicans Markman and Zahra do not need to be nominated – their status as incumbents allows them to appear on the ballot simply by filing an affidavit of candidacy. They will be identified on the ballot as incumbents. Both men initially got their positions on the court through appointments by Republican governors. Markman was appointed by Gov. John Engler in 1999, and subsequently elected as an incumbent. Zahra, a Northville Township resident, was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011, and will be seeking his first re-election as an incumbent.
The Republican Party will make Supreme Court nominations at a convention in Grand Rapids on Sept. 7-8. Seeking a GOP nomination are Oakland County Circuit Judge Colleen O’Brien and Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jane Markey.
At its March 10, 2012 convention, the state Democratic Party endorsed three candidates for Michigan Supreme Court: 46th (Southfield) District Court Judge Shelia Johnson, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Connie Marie Kelley, and University of Michigan law professor Bridget Mary McCormack.
McCormack, an Ann Arbor resident who is co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, had attended a Jan. 16, 2012 meeting of the Ann Arbor Democrats, where she and other local judicial candidates met with potential supporters. [See Chronicle coverage: "Aspiring Judges Visit Ann Arbor Dems."]
Michigan Supreme Court Election: Shelia Johnson
McCormack and Kelley did not attend the June 23 Washtenaw County Democratic Party forum. The only candidate for that race who spoke at the forum was Johnson.
Johnson, a Southfield resident, told the crowd that they might remember her from the 2010 race, when she also ran for a supreme court seat. This year, she said, she’s one of three candidates who received the Democratic nomination – they’re calling themselves “The Supremes.”
Johnson described her background, reporting that she’s serve as district court judge for about 10 years. The 46th district serves the communities of Southfield, Lathrup Village, Bingham Farms, Beverly Hills, Franklin and Southfield Township. Before that she was in the community working for the average person who didn’t have a voice, she said. She graduated from the University of Michigan law school, then served as a clerk in federal court – and that’s where she said she learned to understand the balance of being a good judge. Later, she worked in private practice, doing both civil and criminal litigation.
Johnson noted that Michigan’s current Supreme Court is split 4-3 with a conservative majority. She referred to a list of court rulings posted on her campaign website, saying that most of the rulings are tilted to the right. The court isn’t in the middle, where the people of Michigan deserve it to be, she said. Justices should be from diverse backgrounds and make rulings based on the law, not on special interests or political agendas, she said.
All three of the Democratic supreme court candidates are running to make a change, Johnson said, and to ensure that people get a fair shot. Even if a decision doesn’t go your way, you should still feel like your side was heard. All three of the Democratic candidates have a total of more than 78 years of legal experience, she noted, on both sides of the bench.
Decisions on the Michigan Supreme Court trickle down and affect every individual in the state, Johnson said, and individual rights are being limited. That includes women’s rights in the workplace, environmental protection, and the right to try to recover damages in an auto accident.
Johnson told the crowd that there’s an opportunity to take three seats on the Supreme Court, and make a change. It’s an historic election, she said. Even though the presidential race is important, the supreme court race is the most important one on the ballot. If elected, the three Democratic nominees would bring a balanced view to the court through 2020, she said. If not, it will be more of the same.
A 2008 University of Chicago study showed that the Michigan Supreme Court had the worst reputation in the country, Johnson said. [This frequently-cited study specifically ranked the Michigan Supreme Court last in the category of judicial independence, for example.]
The Supreme Court rules on many issues, she said, from women’s reproductive rights, the emergency manager law, redistricting – even font size on a petition. Johnson cautioned that as a candidate, she has to be neutral and can’t comment on how she’d stand on a particular issue – that wouldn’t be appropriate. But people need to know that they share the same broad-based philosophy, she added. ”I’m one of those people you can trust. I have your backs and best interest in mind.”
When you think of justice, Johnson said, the image of Lady Justice with the balanced scales comes to mind. Lady Justice wears a blindfold, she said, and doesn’t have a peephole in it to see what the special interest groups want. Johnson asked the crowd to help put the blindfold back on Michigan jurisprudence, so that it can be the best system possible now and into the future.
Michigan Supreme Court Election: Shelia Johnson – Q&A
There were only two questions for Johnson from the audience. The first question related to Johnson’s childhood. Johnson said she grew up in Detroit, though she spent a few years in the south – her mother’s family is from Mississippi, and her father is from Tennessee. But she went to school in Detroit, attended Cranbrook Kingswood, attended Dartmouth College, then returned to Michigan to attend the University of Michigan law school. She was a U.S. District Court law clerk in Grand Rapids, then worked in private practice for 18 years before being elected to the district court.
The second question was posed by Thomas Partridge, who had earlier introduced himself to the crowd as a Democratic candidate for state representative in District 53 (Ann Arbor). [Partridge is challenging incumbent Democrat Jeff Irwin, who is seeking his second two-year term.] Partridge’s question related to Johnson’s commitment to helping people gain access to affordable housing, health care, education and jobs.
Johnson noted that of the three branches of government, it’s the legislative branch that has the ability to pass laws affecting those issues, especially jobs. Of course, she said, the experiences and backgrounds of supreme court justices do come into play when they are considering cases that relate to these issues. Justices don’t leave their humanity at the door. But they still have to follow the law, she said. Personally, Johnson added, she is fully aware of those problems. She won’t lose her conscience or common sense when she takes the bench, but there needs to be balance, she said.
Cleveland Chandler, chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, wrapped up the presentation by urging people to tell their friends to turn over the ballot on Nov. 6 and vote for the Democratic candidates for Michigan Supreme Court. ”We can’t get the governor this year,” he said, “but we can get Supreme Court!”
The last day to register to vote for the Tuesday, Aug. 7 primary is July 9, 2012. Information on voter registration can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website.
The last day to register to vote for the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 9.
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