Perverse justice: politics and hubris inside the Washtenaw County Courts

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By Tom Clynes

With contributions by David Alexander

Retired Jackson County Circuit Judge Charles Nelson presides as Judge Wade McCree faces a tenure commission hearing. Pool photo by the Detroit News

Judge Charles Nelson. Pool photo by the Detroit News

Your first thought, when watching the video, is, “This can’t be happening in Ann Arbor.” The recording, from late last year, depicts a lawyerless father clearing his throat and beginning his argument for returning his two children to their home in Vermont, from which they’ve been taken by their mother without the father’s knowledge or consent. Shortly after he begins to describe Vermont’s currently thriving economy, the judge interrupts him and holds up a magazine.

“They don’t allow this in Ann Arbor, but I get The Weekly Standard, and it’s rather right wing,” the judge says, as he turns to an article titled “Down and Out in Vermont.” He reads aloud passages he has marked with highlighter, which describe an “epidemic” and “plague” of heroin in Vermont. “I don’t know if that sounds like a place you want to move your kids,” the judge concludes. 

Later, the father will try to present data showing that Vermont and Michigan are nearly identical in their rates of adolescent hard drug use (they rank 15th and 16th, respectively) and that the children’s hometown compares favorably to Ann Arbor in terms of health and medical care, schools, economics and quality of life. 

The judge will refuse to accept the father’s exhibits; he apparently has all he needs to make his decision. Ann Arbor may be too liberal for Nelson, but Vermont is off the scales, the place that pioneered gay marriage, universal health care for children, even (gasp) the localvore movement: “One of my friends has a good friend that lives in southeastern Vermont,” the judge blurts out at one point, apropos of nothing being discussed at the time. “His wife stays home and milks the goats and makes goat cheese. Is that what you want (your ex-wife) to do?”

When the father refers to court transcripts from an expert witness on the issue of parental child abduction, the judge says he hasn’t read many of the transcripts, and demands that the father “hurry it up” and “move it along.” As the man begins to stammer, clearly thrown off balance, one of the mother’s two attorneys begins to smirk and snicker. She and her co-counsel and their client have lucked out; their case has been assigned to Judge Charles Nelson — and their opponent is going down in flames.

• • •

“Of all our elected officials, a judge is more likely to directly touch your life than any other elected official,” said Tracy Van den Bergh, a candidate for the position that Nelson had been brought in to fill, on a “temporary” basis that eventually stretched many months. “You may go through a divorce, your kid may get an MIP (minor in possession of alcohol), you may need to sort out a will.”

And yet, of all our elected officials, judges are typically those we know least about — so little, in fact, that about a third of voters will not, during the Aug. 5 elections, even turn the ballot over to vote for these “nonpartisan” positions.

Most of us don’t feel qualified to judge the judges, two of whom will be chosen in this year’s elections (two open seats in the Washtenaw County Courts is an extremely rare occurrence). Those who are most qualified are the attorneys who appear in front of judges on a regular basis. And so, to get a sense of the current state of the local courts and judiciary, The Ann interviewed more than a dozen local attorneys, in addition to judges, court officials and legal scholars. What emerged is a portrait of a troubled and often dysfunctional system, guided by an aloof and unengaged judicial leadership that is functionally accountable to no one, despite the paradoxical fact that judges are elected by the people they are sworn to serve.

“The court is a very important part of our civil society,” said one attorney who works with low-income clients. “And right now, people are tremendously dissatisfied. There’s mismanagement, an uncaring bureaucracy, lost records and a ridiculous backlog. But mostly, it’s the judges: the arrogance, the bias, the bizarre behavior.”

This attorney, like most of the attorneys who agreed to talk to The Ann, would speak only on the condition of anonymity, and it’s not difficult to understand why. “We have to appear in front of these judges, and whether we respect them or not, we have to pretend we do,” said one divorce attorney. “You’d like to think constructive criticism would be welcomed, but these are people who are used to having everyone rise when they walk into a room. Would there be repercussions if I publicly criticized a judge? Yes there would be, for me and for my clients.”

At this point, I need to disclose that I was inspired to investigate the Washtenaw County Courts by my experience there, during a divorce. It wasn’t so much the outcome that troubled me, it was the process and the actions of the people involved in that process (some of whom appear in this article). I wanted to know how typical my experience was, how the system had come to be, who was responsible, and what could be done to make it better. 

Among attorneys, the consensus that there are major problems within the local judiciary is nearly — but not completely — unanimous. A couple of well-established lawyers said their experiences with local judges have been mostly positive. They feel that the system works fairly well — especially in comparison to Wayne County.

And nobody believes that judges have an easy job. Judges deal with issues that are hard to pin down and with people who are angry and indignant. With family law cases, especially, there’s often little evidence other than “he said, she said” testimony. Court resources are tight, and judges are expected to meet efficiency standards.

Also, certain judges break the mold and are highly respected throughout the legal community. Attorneys said they admired both the legal and listening skills of Darlene O’Brien and Archie Brown, as well as Carol Kuhnke and John Collins. These judges, one attorney said, “listen to the end, ask questions and are very involved in decisions. Whether I win or lose, I see that they weighed their decisions carefully, and I understand and respect their reasoning.”

Unfortunately, though, the more problematic judges tend to stay the longest, and to rise to the top. Judge Donald Shelton has been with the Washtenaw courts for 24 years, serving as chief judge from 2010 through the end of last year. The announcement that he will retire in September was greeted with sighs of relief from the legal community.

Shelton, who declined to be interviewed, began his legal career as a U.S. Army staff attorney in 1970, and is known, as one attorney put it, as “a hard-ass without heart.”

“Shelton is a walking case for why there should be term limits for judges,” said one legal scholar. “He has his favorite group of old-boys’-club lawyers and he holds grudges against others; he retaliates by making their clients suffer for it.”

Another attorney who specializes in real estate said, “You really have to wonder about some of the decisions he made. He’s been taken to task by the Court of Appeals over his conduct of receivership cases, but it hasn’t changed how he does things.”

But one attorney, Patrick J. Conlin Jr., had positive things to say about Shelton at a recent campaign fundraiser at Bill’s Beer Garden. Conlin, who is running for Shelton’s soon-to-be-empty seat, asked Shelton to endorse him as his successor. “I talked to Judge Shelton and he gave me his support,” said Conlin, who pledged to carry on Shelton’s “great work.”

Shelton returned the compliments and said, “I’m going to urge everyone to vote for Pat Conlin. And I want to point out the most important person in this campaign, Trish Douglas, the campaign treasurer. I urge you to get to know her very well, and put little pieces of paper in her hand.”

• • •

Judge Donald Shelton stumps for Patrick Conlin Jr. as Conlin looks on at a downtown fundraiser in April. Photo by Tom Clynes

Judge Donald Shelton stumps for Patrick Conlin Jr. as Conlin looks on at a downtown fundraiser in April.
Photo by Tom Clynes

During his tenure as chief judge, Shelton, a native of Jackson, was responsible for filling vacancies when judges were away for extended periods. In December 2011, Judge Nancy Wheeler went on sick leave. Shelton turned to his fellow Jacksonite, retired judge Charles Nelson, to take Wheeler’s docket in January 2012. Wheeler, whom lawyers had considered one of the court’s most inscrutable judges, returned on a part-time basis in March 2012, and Nelson left, only to once again take over Wheeler’s docket, at Shelton’s invitation, in October 2013. Nelson left again in December 2013.

The game of judicial musical chairs created chaos. “I had a case where we had a trial just before she got sick,” said Tamara Garwood, who is running for Wheeler’s seat (and has Wheeler’s endorsement). “Judge Nelson ended up undoing what Judge Wheeler had done, but his opinion didn’t resolve all the issues. Then Judge Wheeler came back and she corrected some of his decision, but before we could finalize things she was gone again and Judge Nelson was back. At that point, attorneys began avoiding the courtroom.”

Though it became apparent in mid-2013 that Wheeler would never be well enough to return full-time, she refused to retire — at least not while a Republican governor could appoint her successor. (Governors can appoint judges to fill judicial slots between elections; these appointees usually run in the next election, enjoying an incumbent’s advantage that is almost impossible to overcome.) Wheeler continued to collect her $140,000 salary until May 2014, though she only worked part of that time. She finally announced her retirement on May 1, 2014, immediately after the ballot had been finalized and the governor’s appointee could not be listed as the incumbent. 

Regardless of what one might think of Wheeler’s motives, her stunt to keep a conservative Republican from taking over her bench seems to have backfired — at least in the “short” term.

“She can’t be happy about the mess Nelson made of her courtroom,” said one family law attorney, who described Nelson’s court as “a zoo.” Another attorney recalls that Nelson was so confused that he at one point “mistook me for the litigant, and was trying to swear me in to take testimony for proofs for judgment.” Nelson also reportedly ejected a nervous litigant whom the judge accused of mumbling, yelling, “Get out of here until you learn to speak!”

Nelson seems to have made no attempt to camouflage his biases about “liberal” Ann Arbor. Aside from reading William Kristol’s neoconservative Weekly Standard rants from the bench, Nelson frustrated attorneys with his misinterpretations and disregard for the rule of law. He baffled litigants with his impatience and hostility, lack of preparation, incoherent opinions and statements that some interpreted as misogynistic. One family law attorney said that reading one of Nelson’s opinions left her in a state of shock. “I hadn’t seen language like that in a legal document before. He referred to my client’s testimony as ‘a crock’ — and he wasn’t talking about a crock pot. He criticized a PPO (personal protection order) that he himself had signed. His math was wrong. Worst of all, the opinion was missing so many bits and pieces that we couldn’t use it to enter a judgment. And so now we’ve got to go back to yet another judge, to get it sorted out.”

Toward the end of 2013, attorneys were scrambling to do anything they could to get their cases postponed until after Nelson’s departure — leaving the judges who eventually took over the docket (John Collins, and then Carol Kuhnke) with a backlog and a series of messes to untangle.

“The whole episode was an embarrassment to the court,” said one divorce attorney. “Nelson had no business being there.”

Apart from judges’ antics, the court’s management and budgetary issues have affected customer service, particularly at the Friend of the Court. The FOC serves parties with cases involving divorce, family support and other domestic relations issues. As the FOC has lost referees and other staff members, the growing backlog has been exacerbated by outdated record-keeping.

Many of the people who deal with the Friend of the Court don’t have attorneys. “And even those who have a lawyer are struggling from paycheck to paycheck,” said one attorney who often works with clients on public assistance. “It’s clearly unfair to make someone wait for six months for a result on a continuation of child support. But that’s what happens when they refuse to hire more referees.”

Another concern, especially among advocates for domestic violence victims, is the court’s flippant handling of petitions for personal protection orders. “I’ve seen women wandering around the clerk’s office, confused; no one seems to know where to send them,” said Garwood.

The Ann interviewed a West Side woman who asked that her name not be used. “I had a stalker and it got really scary,” she said. “I went to the police and they sent me to the court. They sent me from room to room and it was all a bunch of confusion. After two hours I gave up and left there crying. It was a terrible experience. No one would help me.”

Trial court administrator Dan Dwyer said the court is “not required” to have anyone on hand to help with PPOs. He added that the court needs to strike a balance between allowing access to the court system without appearing to be an advocate for one side.

“That shouldn’t stop them from training people to refer victims to non-court services,” said an attorney who advocates for battered women. “For instance, SafeHouse Center can help with PPOs, and so can the Washtenaw County/EMU Legal Resource Center. Women shouldn’t be turned out to face their tormentors because court employees don’t know what they’re doing.”

Sometimes, Friend of the Court cases need to be escalated to a formal hearing in front of a judge. When that happens, parties need recordings of referee hearings, which then must be transcribed (at a cost of up to $5 per page). It can take weeks for the FOC to provide recordings, which are often delivered incomplete — when they can be found at all. That’s right: Recordings of hearings have been disappearing.

“I find it surprising and disturbing that the record for my hearings was incomplete and I wasn’t even made aware of it,” said one FOC referee, who has since started backing up his hearings on an additional device, even as the court has begun to install new equipment.

Some judges (including Nelson) have insisted on going ahead with hearings and trials, even though a missing transcript can heavily advantage or disadvantage one party over the other. Nelson decided at least one case despite an incomplete evidentiary record, over the objections of the party whose recorded evidence was lost by the FOC.

FOC head Garber said he is unaware how often the malfunctions occurred, but is nevertheless “concerned,” saying that “if it happens once, it’s too much.” Though he said he has taken steps to remedy the problem, he contends that the lost files didn’t make much of a difference, because the litigant is free to refile and re-testify.

“No, he’s wrong,” said an attorney who works with low-income clients. “This is a very serious problem. Judges make rulings based on these records, and the whole purpose is to avoid duplication. The cost of getting these transcribed can run into thousands of dollars, not to mention the expense of attorneys and expert witnesses. It’s outrageous for Garber to say, ‘Oops, sorry, we lost your tapes, but it’s no big deal, just do it all again.’ For many people, that spells the end of their quest for justice.”

The court’s outdated case records system has been another source of frustration. That’s one area that should improve in October, when a new paperless system is slated to go online. According to Dwyer, the system will allow attorneys to e-file paperwork. Dwyer said the system shift was prompted by the fact that the current system is no longer supported technically.

Unfortunately, the new system will do nothing to improve transparency. It won’t allow searches for, say, a particular attorney’s win/loss record with a particular judge. Those kind of patterns would be useful to a journalist who needs hard data to confirm whether attorneys’ endorsements and campaign donations to judges affect case outcomes, as many attorneys believe. “It’s well known that certain legal firms and legal family dynasties that support a judge’s campaign do better in front of those judges,” said one legal scholar who has closely observed the Washtenaw County courts, “and that attorneys who don’t endorse and fund those campaigns do worse.”

Allowing public access to such metadata, as other states and counties have done, should be relatively straightforward — if the court really wanted the public to have access. But Dwyer contends there’s no need. “Broadened public access to records is not something people vocalize a need for; most people only want access to their own cases.”

• • •

Judge David S. Swartz speaks at the fundraiser for judge candidate Patrick J. Conlin Jr. Photo by Tom Clynes

Judge David S. Swartz speaks at the fundraiser for judge candidate Patrick J. Conlin Jr. Photo by Tom Clynes

On the first of January, David S. Swartz took over from Shelton as chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court. Swartz is a conservative who was appointed to the Circuit Court by Republican Gov. John Engler in 1997 to replace Judge Patrick J. Conlin Sr. As chief judge, Swartz is responsible for the overall function of the courthouse, including assignment of judges’ dockets, judicial administration and visiting judges.

Swartz is tall, with white hair and a white goatee. He wears small dark sunglasses when outside, as he was recently at a campaign fundraiser for Patrick Conlin Jr., who said Swartz is “doing a great job, doing his level best every day to deliver the great service that this city needs.” Swartz smiled as he took the compliment. But when The Ann brought up evidence of dysfunction in his courthouse, it became clear that Swartz is not a man accustomed to, or comfortable with, criticism.

Confronted with the numerous complaints about Judge Nelson’s conduct, Swartz crossed his arms and shifted in his seat. “I don’t understand where that’s coming from,” he said. “He’s a good judge. He’s fair and competent. I don’t presume to know the ins and outs of every move that goes on in every courtroom, but I never saw or heard about anything inappropriate. People have a legitimate means to bring those concerns forward, and they just are not.”

But a review of video recordings from Swartz’s courtroom confirms that the chief judge did, in fact, hear numerous concerns about Nelson’s inappropriate behavior and perceived biases. Swartz was informed of Judge Nelson bringing in The Weekly Standard as evidence; about Nelson’s bizarre comments about goat-milking; about his decisions based on incomplete and missing evidence; about his hostility toward witnesses and litigants. He was also informed of concerns that Nelson’s behavior had the potential to embarrass and negatively affect the credibility of the court.

The video recordings show Swartz dismissing all requests to take action, citing the “high hurdle” for demonstrating a judge’s bias.

“Actually, you’re clearing that hurdle with room to spare if a judge is bringing his or her own evidence into the courtroom,” said a U-M Law School professor who specializes in judicial standards. “A judge is not supposed to access collateral sources that are not in evidence. That’s a really big no-no that should have disqualified him. Plus, think about it: The litigant is proposing to move his kids back to a place known for its progressivism, and the judge is citing an article from a niche right-wing political opinion journal as a reason not to go there. How can anyone say that adheres to the accepted standards of objectivity that are outlined in the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct?”

Some observers of the Nelson affair have noted that Ann Arbor has a far different culture than Jackson, Nelson’s home. But Swartz dismissed that notion. “The political climate is irrelevant. A judge doesn’t strive toward political leanings one way or another.”

Dwyer and Swartz say that although the county’s budgets are stretched, the court has worked hard to improve service. Swartz suggested that The Ann call the leadership of the county Bar Association, who, Swartz said, would confirm that his court is doing a great job. Neither the Bar Association’s president nor its executive director returned multiple phone calls.

Swartz dismissed concerns about poor customer service, claiming that anonymous surveys show that “people are generally satisfied with their experience.” But the “surveys” turned out to be anything but a scientific sample of the tens of thousands of people who access court services each year. The Circuit Court survey had only 58 respondents; the Probate Court 41. The surveys were apparently handed out on a single day last year, and visitors could decide whether to fill them out or throw them away.

“This isn’t the kind of methodology that should make them jump up and down,” said David Duguid, a survey research expert at Socratic Technologies. “Apart from covering yourself by being able to say, ‘Look, we did a survey and it says we’re doing great,’ it’s hard to see what value something like this would have. I’d question whether it would be at all representative of who’s using the courts, and how well they are functioning.”

What the survey does best is to point out that there is really no functional system of accountability for the people — and the system that supports them — who have the power to affect our lives more profoundly than any other individuals on Earth. This lack of accountability may seem paradoxical to our ideals of a democratic society, since judges are elected by voters. But elections may be, in fact, the worst way to select judges.

“Most of the public has no knowledge of a judge and judges can’t say much about themselves,” says Robert Davidow, a retired professor of law at George Mason University who now lives in Ann Arbor. “Elections focus on who has money and connections and name recognition, not who is the best person for the job.” Davidow doesn’t believe judges should be appointed by governors either; he suggests a committee of two lawyers, two academics (one of whom would be selected by lawyers) and two laypersons.

“The most likely people to hold judges accountable are actually lawyers,” said one attorney, “but considering that none of us will talk to you unless it’s off the record, you can see how well that’s working.”

Michigan has a Judicial Tenure Commission, which handles complaints against judges — and which, it seems, any lawyer would be a fool to make use of. Paul Fischer, the commission’s executive director, said that the commission discloses the identity of complainants to judges, and that circumstances that would warrant anonymity are very rare. “In fact,” he said, “I can’t even think of one.”

In the federal courts, a well-functioning appellate system helps to keep judges accountable, since poor decisions can be appealed. Michigan has an appellate system too — and it is a mess. Appeals are so costly that they’re typically out of reach for all but the wealthiest litigants, and the system often has a multi-year backlog. Should an appeal make it all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, the “verdict” is not good: In a University of Chicago Law School ranking of the nation’s state supreme courts, Michigan’s came in dead last.

• • •

Earlier this year, I spent several afternoons at the courthouse, observing judges in action. I was struck by one major difference between Swartz and other judges. The others reviewed motions and other documents submitted in advance, and used the hearing as an opportunity to clarify positions. They listened and they asked questions.

Chief Judge Swartz’s hearings were different. He yawned profusely as attorneys and litigants made their arguments. He rarely asked questions. And when both sides finished, he reached to his side and picked up an opinion that had been prepared in advance — apparently by judicial attorney JoAnne Barron, according to lawyers familiar with his system — and read it verbatim.

When asked about his pre-written decisions, Swartz claimed that neither side is ever surprised by an opinion and that oral arguments are just an aside. “By the time a judge is writing an opinion, he or she has already obtained most of the relevant facts,” he said. “I already have everything I need. Often, lawyers will even waive oral arguments.”

To an observer without legal training, this was jarring. Were the many hours (and thousands of dollars in attorney fees) spent preparing for hearings wasted on a sham whose outcome was predetermined?

“Actually, that’s how it’s usually done,” said one U-M legal scholar, who paused before adding, “in federal appeals courts. But not in local courts. It’s true that motions are written, and oral arguments are for lawyers to summarize. But the judge is supposed to listen and ask questions, then decide. If it’s obviously decided in advance, it comes off as discourteous and mean, especially to a litigant representing himself. It’s disheartening, because you feel like you are wasting your time. It shows he doesn’t care about what you say, that he’s not listening and involved, not acting like a public servant.”

When asked if his approach could lead to a perception that litigants are not being respected or listened to in the courtroom, Swartz scowled. “That’s just the way it’s done.”

“Fortunately,” said another attorney who has appeared before Swartz, “that is not the way it’s usually done in Washtenaw County, and the good judges don’t do that. I don’t know why he does that or why he allows JoAnne to have such apparent influence. I’ve only seen him go off script once, and reconsider what JoAnne had written.”

• • •

Attorneys often talk about “black robe syndrome,” the trap of self-importance that judges can fall into after months and years of having everyone act deferentially toward them.

“The judicial system is the closest thing to a fiefdom that we have in our society,” said one legal clinician. “We say it’s about justice, but it’s also about power. Not even the president can just throw you in jail without a reason. But a judge can. Most judges go into it well intentioned, but if you really want to be a judge, you’ve got to have an ego.”

“We all have biases,” said Tracy Van den Bergh. “The question is, how do we guard against biases affecting our decisions? There has to be a lot of self reflection, you have to check yourself against self importance, and grow and evolve in the right direction. Being a judge can change you for the better or the worse. But you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think it will change you.”

Have Swartz’s nearly 20 years on the bench changed him?

“No,” he said. “I’m the exact same person as I was when I started practicing law, before I became a judge.”

Then again, maybe we expect too much from our judges.

“What people miss is that they think a judge is a dispassionate observer who doesn’t let personal biases creep in, but that would be incredibly difficult if not impossible,” said David A. Santacroce, associate dean for experiential education and clinical professor of law at the U-M Law School. “The law isn’t black and white. A judge can make the law do what she wants it to do. They all have history and life experiences, and it affects the way they think. I think most judges work hard to be as dispassionate as possible. But you can’t get away from your life’s experiences.”

And so, with the election coming up, it’s worth asking: What do we want from our judges?

“I think we want judges with heart,” said Veronique Liem, who along with Patrick Conlin Jr. and Michael Woodyard is vying for Shelton’s seat. “The law is conservative, it favors the status quo. But the majority of people in court need more than that. They’re experiencing a life crisis and they need a fair and compassionate judge.”

“I think we need judges who understand that they are capable of making mistakes,” said Van den Bergh, who is running for Wheeler’s seat. “Judge (Darlene) O’Brien once gave me some good advice. She said, ‘If you make a mistake and realize it and are willing to admit it, you can change it, you can fix it.’”

Swartz, who has never had a contested race and will run as the unopposed incumbent again this year, contends that mistakes are not his to make: “No, I have never regretted a judgment. I haven’t ever made a judgment that was unfair or outside appropriate conduct for a judge. A good judge doesn’t project himself into the case. If you don’t do that you shouldn’t be in a position to regret your decisions.”

As for Nelson, he declined to be interviewed for this story, so there was no chance to ask him if he’d come back to “liberal” Ann Arbor. If so, he’d apparently be welcomed with open arms. Chief Judge Swartz, when asked if he’d hire Nelson again, said, “I would. I’m confident of his abilities, and with the integrity he brought to this court.”

• • •

Tom Clynes writes regularly for National Geographic and Popular Science, where he is a contributing editor, and is the author of the upcoming book, “The Boy Who Played With Fusion.” He is also the “lawyerless father” in the court hearing described at the beginning of this story.


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  1. Avatar

    Dave Barth

    May 17, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    This is the kind of journalism we need more of in Ann Arbor. Fantastic, well-reported and well-written story about an important subject that most of us know far too little about. It’s clear that the county courts are essentially a system of institutionalized corruption. The “old-boy’s club” of Swartz, Shelton, and Conlin obviously care more about protecting the interests of their friends and financial supporters than they do about justice. Unfortunately Swartz is running as an uncontested incumbent so we’re stuck with him for another few years, but the upcoming elections at least give us a chance to get some new “judges with heart” in the courts, as Veronique Liem put it.

    • Avatar

      It So True

      May 5, 2016 at 4:32 am

      I have observed the Ann Arbor Courts for several years now both as a litigant and attorney.

      I have also participated as an attorney in Federal and State court in more than 15 states including NY and California.

      And, truthfully, its not much different in any state court system where judges are appointed to positions because they were well connected, and are continually re-elected by a citizenry that would be outraged to see they get so little for their money.

      For most their first experience with a Judge in Ann Arbor andelsewhere Court Room is as a defendant or plaintiff in a civil case — most likely a divorce.

      The fact that Judge Swarz has his opinions prepared by his judicial attorney in advance of an evidentiary hearing and argument is an outrage. We deserve better than a judge that would waste so much time and money (not his of course)holding pointless hearings made pointless because he has already decided the issue. Why put us through a hearing where its only purpose is to create an illusion of fairness — it is anything but fair.

      I saw a case where he granted summary judgment in favor of a client of one of his best friends. Generally on summary judgment, someone must have presented some evidence or testimony or even an affidavit — anything to take away the stench of a grant of summary judgment where no facts have been presented, no testimony given — anything, anything to overcome the significant documentary evidence and testimony that would have prevented most any Judge in America from embarrassing themselves with such a one sided, unfair, and biased ruling. To grant such a ruling in favor of your best friend that is palpably wrong on its face takes a level of arrogance and contempt for the law and the people that made the mistake of reelecting him unopposed.

      And, if you want to observe a well meaning, fair, honest but hopelessly overworked judge, take a trip to Judge Owdziej’s court room. At this time she is well below the curve on significant issues relating to the procedural rules, and is so busy, she appears to have little if any time to become more familiar with Intermediate Divorce law and the controlling cases. Yet, from my limited observation, she appears to operate at a gut level of fairness with every intention of reaching a fair and impartial decision. She is new to the bench, and will become much stronger over time. Comment- She would do the community a much greater service if she would rely much, much, much less on her Judicial Attorney Ms. Kileen who is truly behind on both procedure and the law and with a smiling face that in my opinion keeps her hateful and mean spirited nature. All things considered, I would take Judge O every day over what you are very likely to get in the other courtrooms (Judge Brown and Judge Kuhnke excepted of course as they represent the best the County has to offer). I would prefer to be in front of Judge O because even if the decision is wrong it will not be far off the mark, and if I do a better job at presenting my argument, she has shown no reluctance to vcacate a prior order where new information is presented. She will grow strong over time procedurally, and will strive for fairness while she is coming to terms with all the job requires.

      I doubt you will ever see her whip out an order prepared in advance of the hearing.

      • Avatar

        Iñaki Viggers San Mamés

        December 15, 2017 at 10:03 am

        Based on my limited litigation experience before Honorable Owdziej, I agree with the favorable comments about how she adjudicates matters.

        I don’t know about judge Archie Brown, but judge Carol Kuhnke is a charlatan. Just because she gets through the hearings posing as soft-spoken and as “listener” it doesn’t mean that she conducts herself with integrity.

        Judge Kuhnke’s questions are often irrelevant, but she makes them because she doesn’t read the motions/oppositions that were filed a few days earlier. Based on my experience, she comes to the hearings very unprepared. This judge is so incompetent, that her remarks at later hearings inadvertently reveal that she hadn’t even glanced at the papers filed for prior hearings and in which she made her rulings.

        It is not necessarily wrong for a judge to come to a hearing with a ruling/opinion prepared beforehand. What makes it deplorable is when the ruling grossly contravenes the merits of a case and the judge is too arrogant or too corrupt to reverse his/her miscarriage of justice.

  2. Avatar


    May 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Loooong overdue. It is high time people started investigating the arrogant and incompetent judiciary in Washtenaw. It will be an eye opener and people will know more about the bums who have been appointed/elected. The attorneys are scared about their business and can not make comments, some of them are in bed with the judges and get anything they ask for. Please investigate Harold Bunting’s case and you will see what happens in Washtenaw. It is a classic – for how badly judges run a case!

    • Avatar

      The Secret Team

      May 19, 2014 at 10:01 pm


      What happened to Harold Bunting?

      He was that auto parts distributor who was placed in receivership during his divorce by Judge Connors and wound up filing for bankruptcy.

      • Avatar


        May 23, 2014 at 11:16 pm

        Harold Bunting’s wife filed for divorce. 3 Months before filing the case she cleaned out ~3M dollars out of the investment account. Moved it to 34 different personal accounts with friends and family. When asked about the money, she said she spent it. And Connors agreed with it! Harold along with his wife (who was his company accountant) owned assets that amounted to ~13M dollars. Today Harold is living like a pauper in Florida because in Connors court he was cleaned out. Denise Fawcett and Diana Raimi were the attorneys for Harold’s ex-wife. Detroit News reporters researched the case and were about to write a 72″ long article. The editor did not want to publish it. His case does not have children involved, so one can objectively view the kind of crap that runs in Washtenaw court. It is simple math, but in Washtenaw county courts, 2+2 adds up to 10, sometimes the same 2+2 adds up to 0!

  3. Avatar


    May 18, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    My understanding of the word disclosure is that it is an act of making new or secret information known. What Mr. Clynes fails to disclose to the reader is the fact that Pat Conlin represented Mr. Clynes’ ex-wife in custody and divorce proceedings. Any member of the public is free to request and review that court file. This is not invesitigaive journalism. This is simply a personal agenda to unfairly influence the upcoming election because the author is not happy with custody decisions of the court and/or is upset at his ex-wife’s attorneys.

    I am troubled by the use of an anonymous “legal scholar” in this article. What legal scholar needs to remain anonymous? Frankly, the infomation provided by all of the anonymous sources in this article smacks of idle gossip.

    This is journalism at its worse. I’d rather watch an episode of Ancient Aliens for my science than read another article by this biased author on the local judicial system again.

    • Avatar

      Michelle Velez

      September 9, 2014 at 12:12 am

      I guess you can’t read! because he did reveal that he had a divorce in this court room and that he was not happy with the out come. That is the reason for the writing, to see how many others felt that way and how to change it.

  4. Avatar

    Brad Rostova

    May 18, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Lindsey, I don’t see the writer (or anyone else) saying anything negative about Pat Conlin in this story and everyone who mentions anything at all about him is identified, so what is your point? I think the real issue is the judges who are already there. I wonder if there’s a way to create a write-in campaign to oust Judge Swartz, who is obviously an intellectual and emotional lightweight who is at the root of the current problems at the court.

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    Josh Steichmann

    May 19, 2014 at 3:06 am

    So, Lindey, what’s your last name, so we can look up your biases? Because this reads to a disinterested observer as a pretty fair and damning piece of journalism. If you’re gonna gripe about anonymity, it seems hypocritical to do that without providing your name too.

    • Jim McBee

      Jim McBee

      May 19, 2014 at 6:28 am

      I’m approving this because transparency is at issue in this news piece, but let’s keep it civil and polite among the commenters.

  6. Avatar

    P.D. Lesko

    May 19, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    This is a FANTASTIC piece of reporting on a subject that needs to be looked at. The Ann Arbor Independent newspaper is set to begin a series of articles on the treatment of juveniles by the Trial Court. The Trial court is outside the scope of FOIA (the county is not) and it’s necessary to do additional legwork to get information to share with the public. That was this story serves up. From our investigation, the issues revealed by Mr. Clynes’s reporting have been open secrets for a very long time. We’ve had lawyers suggest that Shelton and Swartz need to be removed from the bench. The fact that this piece was prompted by Clynes’s own experience before Judge Nelson is exactly how journalists get interested in some of the most important stories that get written.

  7. Avatar

    Steve Bachman

    May 19, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Lindsey, I agree with Brad on this. Your response to this article seems harsh and unwarranted. Mr. Clynes makes no secret of the fact that he has been involved with our court system and that he was unhappy with the treatment he received. If he is using his experience to shine light on perceived problems and encourage change, more power to him!
    The opinions of Pat Conlin Jr. are are relevant to the story. After all, he is running for judge. As a voter, it’s helpful to know who endorses whom. Mr. Clynes’ coverage of Conlin Jr. is certainly not controversial. He simply reports that Conlin Jr. and Shelton mutually support, admire and endorse each other, and he provides supporting quotes from their public appearances. What is unfair about that?
    While I generally agree that anonymous sources should be avoided where possible, the article addresses the problem directly. Central to the the issue of “black robe syndrome” is that public criticism of judges can result in retribution from those who support the status quo. Lindsey, it’s tempting to characterize your own response to Mr. Clynes as an example of this, but that would be wrong. You are entitled to express your views without personal attacks. I am glad you are part of the discussion and I’m glad Mr. Clynes is too. Promoting and participating in fair discussions of how we choose our judges and who we chose is important, and can only improve this imperfect system.

  8. Avatar

    Joe McElroy

    May 19, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    I enjoyed reading this story and appreciate the quality of the writing and research. Can’t wait for the next installment. Way to go! Keep it up.

  9. Avatar

    Laura R

    May 19, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Wow. This hits hard. Heck of an article, hell of a situation. And btw, anonymous sources are appropriate and obviously necessary in this case. Journalists don’t like to do it if they don’t have to, but in some cases (think Watergate) it’s the only way important information is going to come out. It’s clear that local attorneys fear retribution from certain judges if their names are used. Without these sources being able to speak off the record, the citizens of Washtenaw County wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing what’s going on inside that courthouse. This a very strong piece of journalism.

  10. Avatar

    Bob Magill Jr.

    May 19, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    I think the tenor of this article is unfair to the Washtenaw Circuit Court judges. I don’t know if the author has an axe to grind or not, but I have a long perspective on this as a practicing lawyer and the picture painted by this article is a distortion, especially with respect to Judge Swartz and Judge Shelton. I have practiced law here for many years and have also had suits before circuit judges in Livingston, Jackson, Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Lenawee, as well as before federal judges in both the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan. Each judge is different; some are better, some worse. But in my comparison, I think I can safely say that overall Washtenaw comes way out on top. I particularly want to praise Judge Shelton, Judge Swartz, Judge Connors, Judge Brown, and Judge O’Brien. I have won and lost cases of all types in front of each of them but always felt that my clients got a fair shake and had their voices heard. I haven’t had a case in front of Judge Kuhnke but expect I would get the same fair treatment as before the others. I don’t know Judge Nelson and so can’t comment; Judge Wheeler I do know and the fact of her illness is very sad; I thought she was a very compassionate judge. And JoAnn Barron is a tremendous help for cases in Judge Swartz’s court and has helped settle many nettlesome quarrels. I suggest that the author venture in to other venues and then return to find that our bench here is finer than elsewhere. I am too old to try to curry favor — I have felt strongly for years that we are very fortunate here in Washtenaw to have the bench we have, both currently and in the past.

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    Jim Iafrate

    May 19, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    I have practiced law in Washtenaw County for more than twenty years and strongly disagree with the allegations made in the article. The judicial system is not perfect and there is always some frustration for litigants who feel that they have not been treated fairly, however the judges on our bench try to do the right thing and manage their court dockets in a timely and effective manner. I always hear attorneys from other counties commenting on the quality of the practice of law in our county as compared to other counties. I have always felt the same. Of course, judges have different styles of practice and procedure, however, the overall quality of judicial decision-making is top notch. Judge Shelton may be tough on the lawyers who practice in front of him, yet he is a judge of the people who certainly exercises critical thinking and attempts to make just decisions. Judge Swartz is also a quality judge with a solid legal mind. I think the article confuses being prepared with the statement that Judge Swartz’s decisions are pre-written. Most judges will already have their decisions made before oral argument. Rarely will argument change a judge’s mind for the reason that lawyers have already made their best arguments in their written filings. A judicial attorneys job is to assist the judge in writing opinions. This is standard practice and occurs in all courts including the Michigan Appellate Courts. I feel the article was not fair or balanced. Our judges could be making double the pay or higher in private practice, yet choose to act as public servants. They are not perfect but overall do a fine job for our community. I think if you did an objective poll of attorneys in this county, they would give our bench very high marks.

    • Avatar

      The Secret Team

      May 20, 2014 at 3:35 am


      (A)Didn’t you donate $3,400.00 to the Timothy Connors re-election committee in 2012?

      (B)Didn’t your law partners each “chip in” another statutory maximum of $3,400 for a grand total of $10,300.00?

      (C)Didn’t the $10,300.00 in donations from your firm’s three partners dwarf the total collected in contributions by Connors’ opponent, Michael Woodyard, from all sources during the entire election cycle?

      (D)Doesn’t it create an appearance of impropriety when a law firm pumps thousands of dollars at a judge’s re-election committee and then has high-dollar cases heard by him in the courtroom?

      We support transparency and avoidance of conflict of interest at all levels of government, Jim.

      We are The Secret Team.

      • Avatar

        Phil Brzezinski

        May 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm

        That’s the way elections were financed in the U.$ for the last 200+ years…nothing wrong here…

  12. Avatar

    The Secret Team

    May 19, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    The Circuit Court is heavily influenced by an “insider network” of well-connected attorneys who have pumped in thousands of dollars in the coffers of judicial campaign committees.

    We have had electoral successes against Ann Arbor City Council members:

    We targeted Marcia Higgins for defeat in 2013. We won.

    We targeted Tony Derezinski and Eric Sturgis for defeat in 2011. We won.

    We targeted Steve Rapundalo for defeat in 2010. We won.

    However, we targeted Judge Timothy Connors for defeat in 2012 and made a fool of him by raising various issues that were embarrassing. We did not win. The “big bucks” campaign contributions from attorney insiders and endorsements from the UAW and other political heavyweights who have no business getting involved in a local judicial race carried the day for Connors.

    Timothy Connors is no longer hearing very many monetary damage cases anymore but handles a docket heavily laden with probate cases – thanks to Judge Shelton. Remember when Judge Shelton kicked him off the MDOC litigation due to “administrative re-assignment”. Remember November 29, 2012 when Connors blew a gasket in his courtroom and “reserved the issue of sanctions” when Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor argued his motion to disqualify him off the MDOC litigation after noting Connors received $8,000.00 in campaign funding from the plaintiffs’ attorneys in that action?

    A deputy circuit court administrator was plea-convicted for embezzling juror funds after an investigation by the Washtenaw County Sheriff. Where was the press then?

    Remember Judge Julie Creal being accused of sex harassment? Who shelled out the $82,500.00 settlement to Wayne Wade? A liability insurance carrier? The taxpayers?

    Remember when Ann Arbor City Prosecutor Bob West was convicted of operating while impaired? Why wasn’t stiffer discipline meted out by City Attorney Steve Postema?

    Citizens need to fight corruption in our justice system.

  13. Avatar

    D Shand

    May 20, 2014 at 12:09 am

    This article is long overdue…..Great Job!

  14. Avatar

    The Secret Team

    May 20, 2014 at 11:42 pm


    Melvin Claxton, a Pulitzer Prize winner, published an article about unfairness in family law proceedings in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court – he was not a “loser” nor a litigant in that court.

    Detroit News investigative reporter Norm Sinclair covered the Harold Bunting divorce case. Bunting was ordered by Judge Connors on December 22, 2006 NOT to file any grievance with the Judicial Tenure Commission or Attorney Grievance Commission. Detroit News editors killed the Bunting story. Bunting, now 85 years of age, lives in Florida – his divorce case of over 12 years still has not been closed and he has lost millions of dollars in realty holdings and forced into bankruptcy liquidation. The Bahamian government does not recognize the U.S. court’s orders on Bunting and his Bahamian realty is protected. Melvin Claxton recently conducted a videotaped interview of Bunting to preserve his version of events for posterity.

    Michael Munday, a former Washington Post reporter, published an article about possible misconduct in a Washtenaw County court case that reached the state supreme court.

    We have uncovered several file boxes of documentary proof and several dozen witnesses to substantiate corruption and cronyism in the Washtenaw County court system.

    There are irate citizens throughout the county itching for their horror stories to be exposed in the media. You are now investigating the tip of an iceberg.

  15. Avatar

    P.D. Lesko

    May 21, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I have to tell you that shortly after Judge Nelson was appointed, I received an anonymous tip from a local attorney begging me to investigate Nelson’s conduct and his courtroom. The information I received included emails and other documents (I am not a lawyer and so I can’t comment on whether they would have proven as compelling as Tom Clynes’s interaction) to support allegations that Nelson was behaving unprofessionally. I wasn’t able to tackle the lead, and am thoroughly sorry I didn’t—if only because Clynes’s reporting (even taken with a grain of salt) is worth a closer look in my opinion as a journalist with decades of experience.
    As I wrote in an earlier comment, much of what Clynes writes has been an open secret among those in the legal community and so it seems somewhat shortsighted to throw out everything he writes because he used anonymous sources. Woodward and Bernstein used an anonymous source and brought down a corrupt and paranoid president. The anonymity of a source is not the issue; the frankly credible allegations made by those sources (if verified) are what need and deserve further investigation by other journos.

    As for Mr. Conlin, I’m sure he knows that knocking on doors earns votes. Endorsements can torpedo a campaign. There’s plenty of time to get out and press the flesh, as it were, to show the voters who he is and what kind of judge he would be. I look forward to hearing more about his candidacy and The Ann Arbor Independent newspaper will certainly write about it.

  16. Avatar

    David Christensen

    May 22, 2014 at 12:12 am

    I have been practicing law throughout the state of Michigan for over twenty years. I have tried cases before countless judges in dozens of counties. In my humble opinion, Washtenaw County has the best collection of judges, none of them perfect, but the best bench in the State. LIttle of the article’s content rings accurate to the legal community. Although, I’m sure one can find a person of every stripe if one looks hard enough.
    Judge Swartz and nearly every other thorough judge will have an opinion prepared on meaningful decisions at the time of oral argument. This should be a point of praise, not a criticism.
    Judge Swartz and Judge Shelton have won high praise and numerous awards from large numbers of civic groups and organizations that serve our communities. These awards are not given by “good old boys” or even lawyers, in many cases. They are given these awards because they do a great job of serving our community.
    And, every case has a winner, and, of course, a loser. We simply heard from one.

    • Avatar

      The Secret Team

      May 22, 2014 at 7:19 am


      Per Secretary of State records, you donated the statutory maximum of $3,400.00 to the campaign committee of Judge Timothy Connors for his 2012 re-election bid.

      You are obviously very reluctant to oppose the “Powers That Be” in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court.

  17. Avatar

    D Shan

    May 22, 2014 at 4:32 am

    Postema got slammed in todays chronicle

  18. Avatar

    John Doe, Esq.

    May 22, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    I am an attorney who has practiced in the Washtenaw County Courts for more than 15 years. Over the past few days I have had many conversations about this article. What people outside the legal profession are asking is, “Is it really that bad?”

    To be honest, it is actually worse. And the fact that many people have devised ways to profit (myself included) from the dysfunctional and often absurd courthouse environment does nothing to make it acceptable.

    For any attorney who is willing to engage in self-reflection, what is most useful (and also most disturbing) about this article is that it serves as a mirror. This is a mirror that I feel very uncomfortable looking into.

    Many of us have been part of this system for so long that we don’t think twice about the actions that we regularly take to support its worst aspects. When the Trial Court’s Chief Judge justifies his behavior by saying, “That’s just the way it’s done,” we nod our heads in agreement — without considering whether the way it’s done is ethical, or serves the public interest. Often, it takes someone from outside the system to help those inside it to see it clearly, and shake us loose from our complacency — and maybe even our complicity.

    Yes, we have a system that we have allowed to evolve into something that no longer serves the people it was set up to serve. Rather, it serves the people (judges, administrators, attorneys) who comprise the system itself. Many of us (again, myself included) have figured out how to work this system to our advantage. Clynes’s article raises some uncomfortable questions, but there are other uncomfortable questions that are worth examining:

    For instance, every locally experienced attorney knows (with at least 90% accuracy) what the outcome will be as soon as a case is assigned to a judge. Is it acceptable that the application of the law should be so arbitrary? No, it is not. And yet, we play along.

    When we support a fellow attorney’s run for a seat on the bench, do we base our decision on who is likely to be the best judge, or on who has the best chance of winning (because of their name recognition, money, and connections)? We know that if we place our bets well, we will enjoy a permanent advantage when we appear in front of “our” winning judge, especially if we are up against an attorney who wrote a check to the judge’s rival. Does this give us the best judges? No, it does not. And yet, we play along.

    Sometimes, the ways attorneys play the system are even darker. For instance, we may know that a certain judge is fundamentally opposed to spousal support for divorcees. If we have a client who seeks spousal support, we can steer the case away from that judge. One trick is to initiate the case by filing a petition to issue a personal protection order (PPO) against the opposing litigant, whether or not that person is truly a threat to our client. This assures that the case will be assigned to another judge, one who handles PPO’s. Is this an abuse of the system? Yes, it is. Could it permanently and unjustly tar the reputation of the opposing litigant? Yes, it could. Is this sort of manipulation ethical? No, it is not.

    Much more common is the practice of “churning,” or dragging out a case by playing to a client’s anger and indignation, thereby upping the level of conflict — and the attorney’s billable hours. In divorce cases where children are involved, this is especially disturbing, because it has the potential to compound the emotional damage to the couple’s children. When we ignore opportunities for compromise and fail to consider the impacts of our actions on children, we may enrich ourselves, but we do not enrich the world.

    The working attorneys who have responded to this article by praising the judges and the county judicial system are well established, and they know very well that their comments will be read by the judges whom they compliment. I too know that my comments will be read. And so, I am submitting them anonymously, so that they do not disadvantage myself and my clients in front of the judges I must face in court. Do I feel good about my lack of courage in this regard? No, I do not.

    I commend Tom Clynes for being willing to convert his own negative experience with the courts into something positive that may help the community, by investigating and bringing to light a system that desperately needs to change. Knowing that the powerful people he has exposed can (and in the past have shown themselves willing to) extract retribution against those who dare to question their infallibility, I also commend him for being willing to attach his name to what he has written. I wish I had the courage to do the same.

    If we, as attorneys working within this system, have any threads of ethical fiber left within us, an article like this should make us consider not just who we want our judges to be, but who we want ourselves to be.

    • Avatar

      The Secret Team

      May 23, 2014 at 1:30 am

      Thank you, John Doe, Esq., for your candid observations.

      You are correct in that certain lawyers in insurance law, family law, probate practice and other specialties are known to exploit volatile situations to churn up huge attorney fees that are vastly out of proportion to the issue or amount in controversy.

      There are attorneys who will brown-nose local judges via campaign committee donations, acting as a campaign volunteer organizer, lending their name to a public endorsement and other ways calculated to induce a favorable relationship with a judge.

      There are a number of truly outstanding judges locally – one that comes to mind is Libby Pollard-Hines as well as the former jurist Ann Mattson. There are some clowns sitting as judges and in magistrate positions in Ann Arbor, however.

      Law is more than a business than a profession in Ann Arbor. The characterization that I like that has been used by some is the “Golden Triangle” network of the judiciary, prosecutors and criminal defense bar that causes the circulation of thousands of dollars in campaign donations. The criminal defense bar is always a “donor” transmitting funds to prosecutors’ election committees or the political action committees they administer, or to judicial campaigns. The prosecutors – the “second person” of this “triumvirate” act as donors to judicial campaigns, campaigns of fellow prosecutor’s or their PACs. Judges are usually on the receiving end via their campaign committees of funding from the criminal defense bar or prosecutors – but they sometimes give monies to fellow judges’ campaign committees or prosecutors seeking public office.

      The criminal defense bar gets their funds from legal fees paid over from accused criminals and donates a portion to keep sentencing judges and the local prosecutors happy. Since the vast percentage of criminal cases are disposed of via plea deals – the good criminal practitioner wants to keep the prosecutor and sentencing judge in a good mood when trying to hammer a plea deal for his client – and some very sweet deals have been struck and some very lenient sentences handed out locally.

      Prosecutorial staff has an interest in obtaining the good graces of senior members of the office – so donate to the County Prosecutor’s re-election committee – he may be in a good mood when you want a promotion or raise if you have donated in the past. Most donors to the lavishly funded “Citizens for Justice PAC” locally have been members of the criminal defense bar, assistant prosecutors or labor union interests. In 2008 that PAC made a $12,000.00 contribution to the Brian Mackie re-election committee – one week before the November election even though Mackie was unopposed and was in no apparent need for any campaign funding – why the transfer?

      The bar and general public needs to come together and rise up against the horrendous system that controls the “justice business” in Ann Arbor.

      • Avatar


        April 4, 2016 at 1:33 pm

        Can someone please contact me about this issue. I have a very similar situation going on currently.

  19. Avatar

    John Shea

    May 23, 2014 at 12:01 am

    I join Magill, Iafrate, and Christensen in their views on the judiciary in Washtenaw County. We have a good bench, Judges Shelton and Swartz very much included. And, while I had only two cases before Judge Nelson while he was covering here, I certainly had the opportunity to observe how he handled his docket; I saw nothing like what was reported, but rather a pretty thoughtful guy who took the bench knowledgeable and prepared. Didn’t mean I agreed with him on everything, or for that matter that I’ve agreed with Judges Shelton and Swartz on everything, but if that were my criterion for a good judge we’d have darn few of them.

    This article smells like axe-grinding, and disgruntled litigants. Even if a person has a legitimate complaint about the judiciary, on a particular case, we have to keep in mind that no one is perfect, judges included, and we can’t judge the body of a judge’s work on the occasional clinkers that might occur. Let’s keep in mind that errors can be appealed, and complaints may also be made to the Judicial Tenure Commission, which has not been shy about sanctioning or even removing judges. I didn’t see anything reported about these problems getting confirmed thru those processes, which I believe is telling.

    Finally, while I understand the concern of an attorney revealing his/her identity if critical of a sitting judge, I still have a real problem with such a slanted article that relies so heavily on anonymous sources. Even the so-called “legal scholars” and academics are anonymous, which is highly unusual in news pieces (in my experience). Judges are in the business of declaring winners and losers, and every day a litigant and that person’s lawyer is on the losing end. That means there’s a lot of folks out there who are embittered. I suspect that the embittered heavily populate the anonymous commenters.

    In case anyone cares, I’m not social friends with any of the criticized judges. I don’t have lunch or dinner with them, I’ve not been to their homes, I don’t know their kids, and I haven’t contributed any sizeable amount to their campaigns. (Although I probably have contributed from time to time in a more nominal way, because I thought they were good judges deserving of election or re-election.) And I’ve crossed swords with them on more than one occasion. I just happen to respect them, and think this article does them a real disservice.

    John Shea

    • Avatar

      Steve Bachman

      May 23, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Hello Mr. Shea. You mention the Judicial Tenure Commission, as did Mr. Clynes, in the article. As a layperson, I am not familiar with it. If Mr. Clynes had complained to the commission about his treatment by Judge Nelsen, what do you expect they would have done? You say they have not been shy about sanctioning or removing judges. Do you think they would have sanctioned Judge Nelsen for citing the Weekly Standard article, Down and Out in Vermont?
      It seems to me that Judge Nelsen acted inappropriately. I’d like to believe that the Judicial Tenure Commission is there to correct such behavior and give our judges some incentive to improve. Is that indeed their role?

      • Avatar

        John Shea

        May 23, 2014 at 10:46 pm

        That indeed is the role of the JTC–to enforce the adopted rules of proper judicial conduct, to discipline them when infractions occur, and to go so far as to remove judges from the bench when their behavior is so far outside of those rules as to demonstrate unfitness. Where a litigant, or anyone else for that matter, believes a judge has violated those rules a complaint can be made and it will be investigated. (You can visit http://jtc.courts.mi.gov/ and get familiar with the process, recent decisions, etc.) I don’t know whether Mr. Clynes’ complaint is well-founded or not. My point is that, where these kinds of complaints exist, utilize the processes in place for having the complaint reviewed, rather than appeal to public opinion via one-sided descriptions (bolstered by largely anonymous bandwagon fans) that don’t permit substantive response. The failure to do so, IMO, makes it impossible to determine the legitimacy of the complaint, doing disservice to the complainant, the judge, and the “system” that the critics advocate should be changed.

        • Avatar

          Steve Bachman

          May 24, 2014 at 4:03 am

          Thank you for your response. Your explanation of the JTC is helpful. I think you make a good point about the value of working through the system, including the JTC.
          However, I’m not sure I agree with the implication that the legitimacy of Mr. Clynes’ complaint can only be determined through exhaustion of the legal system. Whether or not he chose to pursue the JTC complaint process, I don’t see harm in his airing things out in a public forum, particularly one that allows comments from folks like yourself and “John Doe, Esq.” Anonymous or not, there is a level of self-policing that seems to be working well here. I see this forum as a participatory implementation of the Fourth Estate.
          I’m glad Mr. Clynes started the discussion, which is really not about his particular case. His case was just a jumping off point. It’s about how we chose our judges, how they use the power we give them and whether we hold them accountable. For better or worse, we currently choose our judges through elections. So if a judge decides to waive around a copy of The Weekly Standard and condemn VT as an unsuitable place to raise children, IN COURT, the public should know. They should also know who endorses that judge and who doesn’t. (IMHO)

          • Avatar

            The Secret Team

            May 24, 2014 at 4:40 am

            The problem with the Judicial Tenure Commission is this, John and Steve:

            (1)The JTC is only funded at about one million dollars per year;

            (2)it has only three staff attorneys plus an executive director;

            (3)it receives about 600 requests for investigation from the public each year;

            (4)only about 2-3% of the filed requests for investigation result in adverse action against a judicial officer – and most adverse actions result in confidential dispositions that the public knows nothing about which judge was the offending party, so the cannot use this action in electoral decisions;

            (5)very, very few attorneys or court employees file requests for investigation – even though they are in an excellent position to observe and discern unethical conduct in the judiciary.

            The JTC cannot be expected to vigorously pursue enforcement against all offenders under these limiting circumstances.

  20. Avatar

    D Shand

    May 23, 2014 at 4:56 am

    I was told Postema’s employment agreement with the city has expired last November. Why is he still employed with the City? Its clear that he has his own agenda…..

  21. Avatar

    Bill M

    May 24, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Attorneys Magill, Iafrate, Christensen, and Shea make much of the reporter’s reliance on anonymous sources in the legal community. This dismissal of the candid opinions of more than a dozen of their colleagues serves to distract (intentionally, it would seem) from the fact that the most damning information presented in this article comes not from anonymous sources, but from on-the-record interviews with court officials and videotapes of court proceedings.

    Gentlemen, are you contending that a judge who brings his own “evidence” to court in the form of an ultra-right wing-opinion journal and makes wacky references to milking goats is exercising appropriate judicial behavior? Are you defending Chief Judge Swartz’s lack of action when this and other bizarre behavior by Judge Nelson was brought to his attention (a fact confirmed by videotaped courtroom records)? Finally, are you defending the Chief Judge’s decision to lie to the reporter and claim that no reports of Nelson’s unacceptable behavior had been brought to his attention?

    On what grounds can you possibly defend this, other than the grounds that you expect that your expressions of support will put you in an advantageous position the next time you appear in front of Judges Swartz or Shelton, or their hand-picked successor, Pat Conlin? The damage to the court’s credibility is by and large self inflicted. This damage is only compounded by the toadying comments of attorneys who profit within this broken system, instead of working to reform it.

    • Avatar

      Michelle Velez

      September 9, 2014 at 1:33 am

      This Bill M is my point, They are keeping this system and Damaging Judges in Place over a Pay Check, Appointment of Cases. I know that they have document facts in their files but what did they become Lawyers for $$$$ not Justice. The same with the reporters of the court hearing, they are afraid to print the truth over a scoop. It is all about a pay check. they don’t seem even interested in protecting the Constitution, Sad Legal System in Washtenaw County.

  22. Avatar

    Steve Bachman

    May 24, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    A bit more information on the JTC, to augment comments above from The Secret Team:
    I visited the JTC website, using the link that John Shea provided in his comment. It appears that only the most egregious judicial misconduct is pursued as a “formal complaint.” The commission may also take lesser action, but only formal complaints have any visibility to the public or even the grievant. Meanwhile, it appears that the judge may have visibility to the whole process.
    Since its formation in the late 1960’s, the JTC has pursued only 93 formal complaints; averaging less than 2 per year. (The last completed formal complaint was against Dianne Hathaway, who pleaded guilty to criminal mortgage fraud in January 2013 and is now serving the last few weeks of her 1 year prison sentence.)
    So, the idea of the JTC as practical deterrent to relatively mundane judicial misconduct seems like a red herring. Reports of Judge Nelsen’s odd antics would never reach voters via the JTC. Therefore, contrary to Mr. Shea’s assertion above, I suggest that the press is absolutely an appropriate venue to express such grievances.

    • Avatar

      Iñaki Viggers San Mamés

      December 15, 2017 at 11:05 am

      Yes. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court stated clearly that “Courts are not, and should not be, immune to such criticism” ( Konigsberg v. State Bar, 353 U.S. 252, 268 (1957), or see https://www.leagle.com/decision/1957605353us2521586 ) in reference to freedom of speech and press. Attorney Shea should have told you this in his replies instead of cheerleading Michigan’s rotten judiciary.

      Resorting exclusively to the venue “offered” by the Judicial Tenure Commission is useless because of the JTC’s hermeticism and arbitrariness. Attorney John Shea’s attempt to discourage the public denouncement of corrupt judges is only for the benefit of lawyers and judges immersed in traffic of influences.

      There are also the comments deriding “axe-grinding” and anonymity. But then, on the other hand, some Michigan judges indulge in “gag orders” in a desperate attempt to preclude the divulging of judicial misconduct when a litigant shares evidence with the public.

  23. Avatar

    Phil Brzezinski

    May 26, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    It’s happening EVERYWHERE, not just Washtenaw County…THAT’S why I call it the American Just-Us system (as in “Just-Us good ol’ boys and billionaires get away with everything”)

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  25. Avatar


    June 30, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Sounds like another person who didn’t get their way so they pout. I worked for more than two decades with the judges in Washtenaw County. Judge Swartz is a fine judge. Judge Shelton came in a bully and will leave a bully.

    • Avatar

      Michelle Velez

      September 9, 2014 at 1:40 am

      Again another person who is hiding instead of showing face, Retiree, We know they are your friends, don’t act like they are great and not only is this political it is about every Race, Creed, Color, Religion,because all are effected by the Judgment or lack of Judgment made here,Remember they do pay your PENSION.

  26. Avatar

    Andy Jacobs

    July 7, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Make this topic into its own thing, a running forum. Addendum word on the street from an informal several years long survey of seasoned (20yr+) vets in Washtenaw co:

    Schwartz – has pre-formed rulings prepared for him. Seems annoyed by the whole “due process” hearing part and impatiently waits for you to finish then blurts out his prepared, often contrary to law, written ruling. Oral argument is of no consequwnce, save your breath.

    Shelton – a hard ass but is well educated and actually gives a shit, listens, asks questions, then appears to make up his mind about matters. What more could you hope for?

    Connors – “Chief Laughing Stock”. Is lazy, forms early opinions and has been co-opted for special “townie” interests which contribute to his election campaigns. His special interests trump any rule of law.

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  28. Avatar


    August 4, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    While I’m glad to see that Mr Conlin is not personally accused of misconduct in court, I would very much like to hear from him what he thought when he witnessed Judge Nelson’s prejudicial ruling described at the top of the article. Did he feel glee that the case was being handed to his client on a platter, or did he find it as disturbing as I do that the judge was so willing to assume that he knew the best environment for the children to be raised in, overlooking parental abduction in the process, which is kind of a scoff law way of dealing with custody, and potentially shocking and frightening to the children? I just had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Conlin at a fundraiser, and he is very personable, and I think believes that he can be trusted to “do the right thing” in court as a judge. But he is also very good at campaigning, diverting conversation away from controversial topics by showing (probably genuine) interest in the lives of those he is talking to, so it was very hard to get a sense of his personal politics by talking to him in person. I hope he doesn’t have an absolute faith in the system of the old-boys network that he is well placed to benefit from, and that if he becomes judge, he will understand that the court is not a game played by certain rules as lawyers are sometimes forced to treat it, but as Veronica puts it, a very real crisis in people’s lives.

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    Michelle Velez

    September 9, 2014 at 1:11 am

    I am happy that this was written but for so long this has been going on. I was greatly disturbed at the good ole boys attitude that has been taking place here for so long. I have seen things that I have never seen anywhere else(even Detroit-Miami-Chicago) that was done openly here.The Washtenaw County Court Stinks with Corruption, It is sad that it takes someone to stand up and file Federal Complaints to get proper Constitutional Rights kind of Judgments. There are New laws that show a person how to get rid of Judges who don’t follow the Rule of Law. Most people don’t file because of the Immunity Judges have,but that’s where you Strike to show they abused their power and they have NO Immunity. When Lawyers stand up Yes, U will at first pay but it is going to take 1-2 Lawyers to Stand Up and take that Loss for a better Win in the End. If you already lost you have all to gain by doing the suit for you and your losing Client. Mr. Dwyer is part of this corrupt system, how else would it work? He shuffles files for Judges all the time, to hide the wrong doing. Isn’t it funny how he has held office so long. Thats like Judge Conlins said get to know the account( and Mr. Dwyer and that greasing of Palms help. I have nothing to lose like all of you, so I stand up to the corruption, If I am a liar produce those papers you lost that show the corruption, funny how those are the kind of papers that are missing from files nothing that isn’t important only those papers that show the Crazy, Illegal disrespect for the Law are gone, WOW. To bad only at election time this can be written, Why not a weekly complaint line that would also get you a real survey. I have asked a number of publications to print Facts but they don’t want the truth to be told, In the time of 2011-2013 I saw first hand Jury tampering with Judge included, Prejudicial Comments that should disqualify Judges and State Attorney’s, Stealing of cases, not by wheel so Mr, Dwyer is also involved with this corrupt system in Washtenaw, a Judge ruling on his own Motion filed to Reassign, appointing unqualified attorney’s on Capital Case, Judges signing their own orders that the Chief Judge was to sign, and then conspiring against that attorney they knew was not qualified, then Attorney’s appointed by the court accepting Jobs at the Prosectors office while defending bout appointed clients, then working in Prosectors office while part of the case is still in court taking and privileged information and working against Co-defendent. I never saw such a blatant disrespect for the law in my life, yet it dad and is documented that it happened here in the Washtenaw County Court, This is not a place of Justice this is a place of Injustice while hiding behind the color of law,and that the Judges is the Law. SAD Times in Washtenaw County Court. I sure hope you print this and if you want Dates and Names I will Provide

  30. Avatar


    September 16, 2014 at 3:24 am

    I have a family law case that will turn your head and anyone that reads it I would like to be contacted by some one from your paper if you want a story that
    Includes the atty generals office state trooper,judge,and more corruption than should ever be allowed and I have 100 percent proof and a paper trail of evidence please contact me at rbekins10@gmail.com or call 616-821-1352 please contact me

  31. Avatar

    c w kauffman

    November 3, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    As District Judge Tom Shay said two decades back “Decisions in the Washtenaw County Courthouse are bought and sold every day just like livestock at the Manchester Auction”. And, yes David Schwartz will coverup the most egregious crime for his pals at the University of Michigan.

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  33. Avatar


    January 30, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    I want to know if the NSSS&B law firm have been major contributors to the Connors campaign. Can you provide any information that would solidify or debunk this guess? Thanks.

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    February 2, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I know of a case from 2014 that can only be best described as corruption & ultimately cost a woman her life.
    Washtenaw County Probate Court…..the deep end of Ann Arbor’s cesspool.

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    June 23, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    It would be an excellent follow-up piece to randomly contact (poll) various represented parties and pro per parties that have had civil cases completed (jury verdict, bench trial and settlements) with each of the Judges currently presiding in the trial courts of Washtenaw County (at least five responses).

    The purpose would be to see if these parties are “generally satisfied” as Judge Swartz’s private poll suggests. A review of cases appealed from the Washtenaw County Trial Court that have been affirmed or reversed would also provide additional useful information on the Judges whose orders have been appealed and the comments of the Court of Appeals on their decisions.

    From what I have seen and heard Justice is definitely not blind in Washtenaw County. Justice has friends and contributors and other permissible relationships with the attorneys who regularly have their cases heard in Washtenaw County. As a result, it appears the only time true justice is achieved is when the attorneys representing both sides have an equal relationship with Justice. Otherwise, these permissible relationships make it impossible at worst and difficult at best for those whose attorney are not within the circle of these permissible relationships to obtain equal justice.

    One means of improving the system would be to ban all contributions and create a campaign fund by charging a $25 fee to be added to the current filing fees (does not apply to indigents) and increase all other fees by 10%. Twenty percent of the funds would be distributed equally to support the re-election campaigns of the incumbent judges and 30% to support the campaigns of those who have filed for the office for the first time and 20% on any subsequent run for this office. First time filers would be required to include a list of signatures from 500 (for example) registered voters of Washtenaw County The remaining funds would be divided equally between the incumbents and the challenger.

    I expect there is a better method of distributing the funds, my primary point is the prohibition of all public and private contributions and the creation of a fund. I would also require a disclosure by the judge assigned to each case of any existing or prior personal or professional relationships with the attorney; and any attorney (partner, associate or of counsel) with the attorney’s law firm.

    Following the disclosure of any existing relationship, either of the parties would then be allowed to request the automatic recusal of the Judge within 14 days of the disclosure.

    The current and approved standards for the recusal of a trial judge do not work. At present much of the Judge’s authority is discretionary, and the abuse of discretion standard required to reverse a judge on most all issues other than issues of law gives the Judge wide authority to decide factual issues on the credibility of the parties and objections to the evidence presented by the parties in support of their claim or defense within applicable limits of the procedural rules and the state and federal constitutions. And it is against human nature for the Judge to ignore these relationships when such issues other than issues of law are determined within the wide discretion of the Court. It is within this discretionary authority the Court’s relationships present fairness issues that cannot be resolved without a leveling of the playing field.

    • Avatar

      Iñaki Viggers San Mamés

      December 15, 2017 at 12:14 pm

      The diagnostics from random polls would be too blurry to allow drawing any meaningful conclusions. A party (whether represented or not) is unlikely to know the intricacies of the law because unfortunately people delegate to lawyers that important learning … and quite often attorneys themselves are incompetent in their own field. On top of that, represented parties’ perspective might be tainted by their lawyer’s manipulation (see the comment by “John Doe Esq” and his reference to “churning”). Therefore, in the unfortunate current state of affairs, the average party is not in the position to “grade” judges other than by the bare outcome of the lawsuit.

      This is why in my videos at http://www.OneClubOfJusticides.com I explain numerous legal concepts involved in my litigation, reproduce screenshots of case law as well as statutes (with the URLs so that the public would know where to start their own legal research), and at that site I’m also sharing the briefs I’ve filed at the three jurisdictional levels: trial, appellate, and the Michigan Supreme Court. The greater the people’s acquaintance with the law and the evidence of a case, the easier it is to effectively assess a judge’s performance/ineptitude.

      That being said, Swartz’s “happy poll” is questionable besides “self-serving” (as attorneys would say in their briefs). Early in my litigation in 2015 at the Washtenaw County trial court, I was asked to answer a brief survey. As an inexperienced pro se litigant who had only had two hearings ever, I gave high ratings on everything -including the judge. Back then I had no basis for doing otherwise. It took me about five months to start discerning how corrupt and deceitful judge Carol Kuhnke is. Now, what’s the relevance of a survey filled up by an inexperienced, intimidated litigant? Zero. Null.

      By contrast, it only took me two hearings to realize judge Timothy Connors’ incompetence. But that is because by then I had fifteen months of intensive litigation at the trial and appellate levels. By then I was experienced enough to quickly detect several issues with this judge: doesn’t read the briefs, doesn’t let litigants talk, is explosive and impatient, and makes fraudulent statements about the legislature.

      To summarize, an in-depth review of few cases reveals much more than sampling at a superficial level.

  36. Avatar

    Soon to be disclosed but not yet

    January 5, 2018 at 1:53 pm

    It is time for another attempt to warn the public of how corrupt the Washtenaw County Circuit Court is. Any judge running this year should be thoroughly discussed and evaluated by those of us who know first hand how they operate. I am one of the witnesses to Judge Timothy Connors being extremely unfit, biased, lazy, and retaliatory when called on his dishonesty. He is running for reelection again this year, and we need a strong, honest, man or woman to run against him and defeat him this time. Let’s start right now speaking up to get rid of Judge Connors and any others who are equally corrupt.

    • Avatar

      Iñaki Viggers San Mamés

      March 10, 2018 at 6:36 pm

      I agree. Besides litigating before dishonorable Corrupt Kuhnke, I’ve also had the misfortune of litigating before this other inept, despotic judge.

      I brought criminal contempt proceedings against the respondent after she violated Non-domestic PPO 15-941-PH (I’m not talking about judge Corrupt Kuhnke, but my father’s 2nd wife). Despite judge Connors’ delay in scheduling the hearing for my “motion to show cause” (December 8, 2016), he adjourned it to December 15. Then on December 15, judge Connors unreasonably reprimanded me by improvising his twisted parody of “The Dr. Phil Show” instead of conducting the criminal contempt hearing that was scheduled.

      Based on this judge’s stupid and irrelevant questions at that hearing, it is obvious that he didn’t bother to read my motion or the evidence. When my case was called, the court video shows his judicial attorney Jennifer Sullivan (that despotic person who YELLS at the public to stand up) whispering to him for about 30 seconds what I presume was a quick “summary” of my case, with this crook interrupting her with “what?” because he couldn’t even hear her whisper.

      On December 15, after making up his fraudulent version of PPO laws, judge Connors terminated the PPO despite plenty of clear evidence that the continuation of the PPO is warranted and that MCR 3.708(H)(5)(a) mandates incarceration of a PPO violator. For the sake of protecting the criminals, judge Connors blatantly refuses to follow the law. On top of that, this judge doesn’t punish those who knowingly and intentionally make false statements in their petitions for a PPO. See MCL 600.2950a(24). My appellate brief (COA# 336419), hearing transcripts, and other court papers are available at http://www.oneclubofjusticides.com/p/mcoa-336419-ppo-against-maria-de-la.html

      Another unrelated case that was litigated during that same session led to appeal COA# 336433 (see http://courts.mi.gov/opinions_orders/case_search/pages/default.aspx?SearchType=1&CaseNumber=336433&CourtType_CaseNumber=2 ). The appellate opinion in COA# 336433 (see item 39 of that appellate docket) reflects that judge Connors unreasonably refused to punish contempt in that other matter as well. The transcript excerpts as reproduced in the opinion for COA# 336433 and my hearing transcripts present similar phrases that this judge utters during his refusal to enforce laws and valid orders. The circumstances and ways in which judge Timothy Connors repeats himself are pathetic and give an impression of senility.

      People might be aware that judge Timothy Connors makes big money as lecturer at the University of Michigan ( http://umsalary.info/ ). For a part-time appointment of around 11%, the University of Michigan pays him over $60,000, much more than what many of its full-time employees earn (side note: I think this is the University’s way of bribing judges, a way of buying favorable rulings). Thus, his profitable employment at the UofM makes me doubt that judge Connors will be impartial in cases such as 16-1111-CD: Kurashige, Scott et al vs. University of Michigan. Insofar as an employee of the University, judge Connors has a conflict of interest by presiding cases to which the University is a party. If judge Connors had any integrity, he would have disqualified himself from that case to avoid impairing “the appearance of justice”. But judge Connors lacks integrity, so he retains cases he shouldn’t preside. Same dishonesty as Carol Kuhnke.

      Note: By allowing judge Connors to preside that case, the University of Michigan does not demonstrate integrity either. That doesn’t surprise me, though, given how a handful of UofM’s managers and directors protect the wrongdoers I ended up suing.

      I join your wish that crooks like Kuhnke and Connors will be prevented from getting reelected. Only voters can debunk these unfit judges, because upper courts will continue turning a blind eye on judicial corruption.