Five Candidates Vie for Probate Judgeship

Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, Tracy Van den Bergh and Julia Owdziej compete in Aug. 5, 2014 primary

Five candidates seeking to be the next Washtenaw County probate judge answered questions about themselves, probate law and general judicial philosophy at a candidate forum held July 7, 2014. The forum was moderated by the League of Women Voters and broadcast on Community Television Network.

Probate court candidates from left: Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, Julia Owdziej and Tracy Van den Bergh.

Probate court candidates from left: Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, Julia Owdziej and Tracy Van den Bergh.

Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, Tracy Van den Bergh and recently appointed judge Julia Owdziej will appear on the Aug. 5 primary ballot. The nonpartisan primary will narrow the race to two candidates for the Nov. 4 general election.

Owdziej was appointed to the seat by Gov. Rick Snyder just last month, on June 2, to fill the vacancy on the court left by Nancy Wheeler’s retirement. The announcement of that retirement came on May 1, after candidates had filed to run. Wheeler was expected to retire at the end of the year, but it came earlier than expected due to health reasons. Bassett, Garwood and Jones currently work in private practice while Van den Bergh is a staff attorney for a legal services nonprofit.

On its website, the LWV has posted candidates’ written responses to questions: [Probate court candidate responses] As of July 17, the website had not been updated to reflect the fact that the race now has an incumbent.

The county probate judge handles largely estate cases, and issues regarding mental health and addiction. During the July 7 judicial forum, the candidates made opening statements, answered six questions and then made closing statements. The forum was moderated by Miriam Eve Borenstein with questions predetermined by the League of Women Voters after asking for public submissions.

Candidates’ remarks are summarized below. To view the recorded video from the probate court LWV forum, use Community Television Network’s video on demand. 

Opening Statements

Tracy Van den Bergh: Van den Bergh began by thanking the League of Women Voters for hosting the forum. In the course of knocking on doors for her campaign, Van den Bergh was telling prospective voters that a judge is the most likely elected public official to directly affect them or someone they love, and that’s why this is an important election. Having worked as a social worker before becoming an attorney, Van den Bergh said she has the combined perspective totaling 20 years to make her a successful judge. That includes advocating for people with disabilities and mental illnesses, and for families – first as a social worker and now as a lawyer.

Constance Jones: Jones said she was very delighted to be at the forum. She explained that in the fall of 2013, when the Washtenaw County trial court declared that this county judgeship would be for probate issues, she decided to run because she’s been an attorney for 26 years and most of her work has been in probate issues. Jones said she doesn’t want to be just any judge: She wants to be the probate judge of Washtenaw County.

Julia Owdziej:  She spelled out her last name and pronounced it deliberately: /owds-eye/. She explained that she currently serves as the county probate judge after being appointed to the position on June 2. She’s been an attorney for 23 years, which includes time as an advocate, a Michigan assistant attorney general, and an assistant prosecutor in Washtenaw County. She also has experience as a decision-maker – as a juvenile court referee. She also cited her experience as a deputy probate register. With this unique combination of experience behind her, Owdziej said, she hopes voters decide to elect her as judge.

Jane Bassett: Bassett thanked the League of Women Voters for hosting, and stressed the importance of the public’s familiarity with the candidates. Bassett said she would bring 20 years of experience of probate experience in private practice to the bench. She added that she opened her own firm after graduating law school and it now employs three lawyers and eight staff members, including a part-time social worker. In addition to probate law, her firm handles elder and disability law. Bassett, a certified veterans’ lawyer, said that as a judge she could balance personal freedom while protecting individuals.

Tamara Garwood: Noting her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her law degree from Detroit College of Law, Garwood said she began her legal career interning with a federal magistrate judge  and worked in the Wayne County office of the prosecuting attorney in the child and family abuse bureau. Since then, she’s worked in private practice for 15 years, Garwood said, where she has handled family and probate law. Garwood added that she’s trained in collaborative law and as a mediator, and is also an arbitrator and guardian ad litem. That wide variety of experience gives her the practical and technical knowledge needed for the position, she concluded.

Question: What is your general judicial philosophy?

Bassett: In the probate court, Bassett said her philosophy is to respect all the participants and to make sure everyone has the opportunity to work out their differences. Further, the rights of individuals for whom an action is petitioned need to be balanced against societal needs. Bassett said community involvement and support resources should be sought with the goal of maintaining a person’s independence.

Garwood: To be open-minded and fair, responded Garwood, as well as to be respectful of the participants and the law – while understanding that sometimes the law has holes and it’s necessary to have practical and technical knowledge to be a successful judge. She also emphasized respecting the court and its participants. That includes being punctual and prepared. Further, she noted the importance of balancing civil liberties while keeping society safe. It’s critical to protect children and survivors of domestic violence, she said.

Jones: Jones said that primarily she wants to preside over a court where people feel they have all been heard and believe the experience has been fair. A judge has to balance the need for a decision, compared to referring a situation to mediation.  She added that judges are members of the community and shouldn’t be isolated as they sometimes are. The community elects judges, and judges should be involved in the community that has elected them, she said.

Owdziej: As the sitting judge, Owdziej said these are questions she’s already deciding. And prior to being a judge, she was a referee in juvenile court, where, like a judge, Owdziej was the decision-maker. In cases of juvenile delinquency, Owdziej said it’s a tough balancing act that involves the rights of the victim and concerns for the child that committed the crime. She added that she’s decided child welfare cases and has even had the Department of Human Services call in the middle of the night to render an immediate decision.

Van den Bergh: Van den Bergh said everyone would have a voice in her courtroom, regardless of race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or education.  Judges need to be impartial, she said, but they shouldn’t be isolated, and this is especially true when dealing with unrepresented individuals. As she’s learned from her nonprofit work with the Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Van den Bergh said the judge and the people in court need to be fully informed to achieve impartiality. For example, if Geoffrey Fieger was facing off against an unrepresented individual, it’s the judge’s responsibility to make sure all the information in the case is heard, not just what Fieger has said. Both sides need to be represented, she said.

Question: What exactly does the county probate court do and how can we have a better-informed public on this court?

Garwood: In Washtenaw County, there’s a unified court system, meaning that being a circuit court or probate court judge doesn’t necessarily define the type of cases seen by that judge, Garwood said. About a year ago, the Washtenaw County trial court had announced what type of cases this open position would be handling – and this position will handle family law in addition to probate law. For example, family law can include custody cases and divorces, while probate law can include conservatorship and guardianship cases. Probate law and family law are very different, but the judge would have to be equipped to handle both kinds of cases. Garwood said that with her experience, she’ll be able to do both.

Jones: This is an area of confusion, Jones said. Washtenaw County has seven circuit judges and two are designated probate seats, with one handling juvenile probate matters. The other seat – the one they’re currently vying for – handles mostly probate cases, with 80% of the docket dedicated to probate and only 20% to family cases, Jones said. She continued, explaining that this seat was designated as a probate seat and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. “Again, I am not shy in saying that I love doing probate work, as sort of boring as that might be to some people,” Jones said.

Owdziej: Owdziej said probate court cases consist primarily of guardianships, conservatorships, deceased estates and mental health issues. Owdziej noted she was a deputy probate register for the past three years, where she trained people in being guardians and conservators. The family law part of the position involves tough decisions about the future of the children, and she’s been making those decisions already, she noted. Further, the role of the court could change over time, she said, but noted that she also has experience with felony and criminal cases.

Van den Bergh: As she mentioned in her opening statement, Van den Bergh said her campaign has gone door-to-door speaking with constituents about the importance of probate judges, and the response has largely been positive. Her campaign has knocked on 10,000 doors, she said. However, these same people also said they’ve never had a judicial candidate come to their door, she added. Van den Bergh said judges should be accessible to the public as well as advocating for programs. Judges should not be isolated from the community. This is how to educate the public on the court, Van den Bergh said.

Bassett: Having looked at the probate docket over a two-week period, Bassett reported that 83% and 65% of the cases of the first and second week, respectively, concerned adults with mental health issues. “The vast majority of the probate docket is that population of people who we as society need to take care of.” Next in percentage were the decedent cases involving trusts. Domestic cases, she said, are actually a smaller part of the docket, and it’s important that people understand this. So the public should look to a judge of the probate court who has experience working with people who have disabilities and who need the support of the community.

Question: In what ways do you plan to change and improve the operation of the court and its procedures?

Jones: Jones said she has a couple of ideas. For example, she said it’s vital that more guardians and conservators are trained, because currently there are only 13 in Washtenaw County. We could have more, because we’re a community rich in human resources, she said. Further, probate court often has individuals appear in court without an attorney. So while Jones said she thinks the court is already doing well at this, she stressed that the court needs to be user-friendly.

Owdziej: She said that during her work for the probate court in the last few years, there was an overhaul of procedures when the juvenile and probate courts merged. That overhaul increased the court’s efficiency, she said. A lot has been done to make the court more user-friendly. She added that there’s since been collaboration with law students from local universities on cases.

Van den Bergh: Van den Bergh mentioned again her combined experience as a social worker and lawyer. She echoed Bassett, saying the probate court sees a high percentage of individuals with mental disabilities. She outlined a program where social work students would provide information to litigants in these cases involving mental disabilities – at no cost to the community. In fact, she currently runs a similar program with Eastern Michigan University social work students where the students help with case management. They provide wrap-around services. The social work student could, for example, provide a referral to social services.

Bassett: Having practiced in about a dozen probate courts in Michigan, Bassett said Washtenaw County does relatively well in moving cases along and eliminating unnecessary repeat hearings. Still, there are improvements that could be made in the transfer of files between the clerk’s office and the court. As Jones had said, the number of guardians and conservators needs to be increased. Further, people in these probate cases are often nervous in court so it’s important that the judge recognizes this. The key is to let them speak their mind and maybe give them a little extra time.

Garwood: Garwood also called for more guardians and conservators, noting that she’s undergone the training to take appointments. “It takes a big heart and a lot of energy to provide those services and we need more people to volunteer in that capacity,” she said. Garwood also said she would encourage the use of other court programs and highlighted the new peacemaking court, which she described as a way for people to solve their issues in a more holistic fashion.

Question: If you became aware of unethical conduct on the part of a trial advocate in a case in which you were presiding, how would you handle it? Do you believe that judges should be required to report any attorney misconduct?

All five candidates said yes to the question of reporting attorney misconduct.

Owdziej: Owdziej added that it’s vital to make sure that neither side involved in the case is harmed because of the attorney’s misconduct.

Van den Bergh: Van den Bergh cautioned that you have to be very sure when making that kind of accusation. Van den Bergh emphasized that adequate time needs to be given to individuals when their attorney has been removed because of unethical conduct, so proper counsel can be obtained.

Bassett: The state bar in Michigan is a mandatory bar, Bassett noted, so that means lawyers need to police each other.

Garwood: Garwood said this isn’t a hypothetical question for her. The rules of professional conduct are very specific, she said. Two years ago she was involved in a case in which the opposing lawyer was not a member of the state bar of Michigan. Garwood said she reported the lawyer, because it was her obligation to do so and she takes the obligation very seriously.

Jones: Having been a panel member on the attorney discipline board for three years, Jones said ethical violations are not always as clear as anyone would like it to be. “There are a lot of gray areas, particularly in the ethical obligation arena,” she said.

Question: Why did you decide to move from your current or previous position into public service?

Van den Bergh: Van den Bergh said she had worked in a private firm as a commercial litigator, but realized it wasn’t her passion. Since 2008 she has been working for Legal Services of South Central Michigan, represents people in Washtenaw County unable to afford legal representation. She said her passion is to help the voiceless and she wants to bring her experience representing the underrepresented to her judgeship.

Bassett: She said she loves what she does currently and, consequently, it was a difficult decision to run for judge. In her current job, Bassett said she works with people in medical crisis to make their lives better. She sees this judicial position as an extension of that. The impact of a probate judge’s decision can improve a person’s life, or put them on the wrong path, she said. Knowing that difference is something that she can bring to the bench, she said.

Garwood: Garwood said she has always been involved in public service. Growing up, her family was one of only a few Jewish families in a small Wisconsin town. At Christmas and Easter, Garwood said her family would serve in food pantries to give back to the community on a day that meant so much to other residents of her town. She currently volunteers regularly in public schools. In her practice, she handles a lot of high-conflict cases. The draw for Garwood is that if she were elected, she said she’d be able to help more people every day.

Jones: Probate lawyers do a lot more public service than people realize. Being a guardian or conservator, for instance, is often unpaid, as the people needing guardianship don’t have the necessary funds, Jones said. As for herself, Jones said she has served on the board of Ozone House for 13 years and has been active in other community programs. Jones explained that being a judge would be an extension of those commitments.

Owdziej: Owdziej said she’s always worked in public service, “helping the most vulnerable folks that come into the system.” She started out as a Michigan assistant attorney general representing the Department of Human Services in Wayne County probate court. Then she worked in the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office and helped victims of crime. Later she worked in the juvenile court – which is a court of rehabilitation. Michigan has a statute that allows the juvenile court to issue orders related to the parents in the household.

Question: In this position, you’re going to be dealing with complex cases often dealing with mental illness or substance abuse and with multiple people, but often victimless. Where would your priorities as judge lie in those cases?

Bassett: It’s key, Bassett said, to balance an individual’s guaranteed constitutional rights with the court’s responsibility to protect that individual. Judges need to look at alternatives and determine if that individual truly is a danger to herself or himself.

Garwood: Garwood agreed with Bassett, but added that a judge also needs to look at the best interest of society as a whole. Each case needs to be looked at holistically and the court should attempt to identify any underlying problems that can be corrected. That can help prevent the return of people to court on a regular basis.

Jones: Jones echoed Garwood and Bassett, saying the real balancing act with respect to the mentally ill is to allow them to make their own decisions while protecting them from very bad decisions. She added that the probate court needs to put in processes that protect people from due process violations or “bad decisions being made by actors in the court.”

Owdziej: Owdziej said that in her time as a juvenile referee, she was also in charge of the juvenile drug court program for seven years. In that program she worked with alcoholic or drug-addicted juveniles. Many of their parents had addictions, and the children often had mental illnesses as well. She said she needed to take a holistic approach to each child, which did not center around punishment. There were logical consequences to a child’s actions, but the emphasis was on treating the child and treating the family. Further, Owdziej explained that this court isn’t searching for these children, but that the drug court was often the last resort for parents who are desperate for help for their children.

Van den Bergh: Citing her background as a social worker, Van den Bergh she’s especially excited about these kinds of cases. Before becoming a lawyer, she was a clinical social worker for 10 years and was the mental health director for an adolescent drug abuse program. Because of her dual background, she said she knows both the clinical and legal consequences of what individuals are going through.

Closing Statements

Bassett: Bassett thanked the League of Women Voters and encouraged voters to inform themselves in the run-up to this fall’s elections. There are many resources to examine each candidate in-depth, especially online. “I bring the experience, I bring the compassion, I can be tough when I have to be tough, but I prefer that people be able to reach their own solutions,” Bassett said. These are tough family matters, for example, where siblings are arguing over guardianship of their mom who has dementia, which continue long after they leave the court, she said.

Garwood: Garwood recounted how growing up in her small hometown in Wisconsin, she watched her father and grandfather go to work as lawyers each day with an amazing devotion to their clients. She said she has wide experience that includes public and private practice –as a mediator, a guardian and arbitrator. And while she’s making difficult decisions at work, she joked that she also has to make tough decisions with two daughters at home – sometimes met with protest. “I’m fair and open-minded and filled with compassion. I will treat everyone who comes before me with respect and everyone will have a fair and open opportunity to be heard,” she said. She hoped that voters will inform themselves about all the candidates.

Owdziej: Having been appointed to the position of probate judge, Owdziej explained that she underwent a rigorous application process, and that each of the other current candidates had also applied. All five candidates had applied, she noted, but ultimately, Owdziej was selected. She said she’s proud of that, noting the more than 20 years that she’s worked for Washtenaw County. She spent the first nine years of her career as an advocate. But she also has the experience of being a decision-maker. Owdziej added she’s very proud to have the endorsements of Washtenaw County’s public defender Lloyd Powell, and prosecutor Brian Mackie.

Van den Bergh: All five candidates are qualified to be the probate judge, but Van den Bergh said she alone brings a fresh take and a diversity of background to the position. She pointed out that while Washtenaw County is a progressive county, no judge comes from a legal services background or has done extensive pro bono work for low-income residents. It’s wonderful that many of the judges come from private practice or the prosecutor’s office, but Van den Bergh said she would bring a new perspective to the courtroom. She’s bringing 20 years of social work experience to the bench. Van den Bergh added she has the energy to be successful judge and has endorsements from more than 50 attorneys.

Jones: Jones said she has the broadest and most in-depth experience of any candidate running, mentioning her 26 years as a lawyer. Further, much of her experience is in probate law. She’s specialized in probate issues for 15 years. Jones said it’s vital that a candidate have experience in probate law and that voters shouldn’t overlook a lack of probate experience. She added that she also has broad community support, having been raised in Ann Arbor and earning her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan. Finally, she encouraged voters to inform themselves on what she called a “vitally important position.”

Voting Information

The last day to register for the Aug. 5 election was July 7. The last day to register for the Nov. 4 general election is Oct. 6. To check your voter registration or to find your polling place, visit the Michigan Secretary of State’s website.

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