Reorder in the court?
The Aug. 5 vote could change the course of our local judiciary
By Tom Clynes | tomclynes.com
In the June issue of The Ann, we presented a comprehensive look at the Washtenaw County courts and judiciary. What emerged from interviews with judges, court officials, legal scholars and more than a dozen local attorneys was a portrait of a troubled courthouse guided by an aloof judicial leadership that is accountable to no one.
The story identified problems at the county courthouse, including mismanagement, an uncaring bureaucracy, lost records, extensive backlogs and, most disturbingly, patterns of arrogance, bias and bizarre behavior on the part of several judges. With judicial primary elections approaching on Aug. 5, we turn from the court’s problems to potential solutions: The people and ideas that offer the best hope for reform of one of civil society’s most essential institutions.
Up until two years ago, Washtenaw County hadn’t elected a new judge in more than three decades. Even now, four seats will be uncontested, with Richard Conlin, Charles Pope, Chris Easthope and David Swartz (the Trial Court’s chief judge) appearing on the ballot as incumbents. But this year, retirements have opened up two seats — an extremely rare occurrence — in the trial courts. In both races, the top two vote-getters in the primary will advance to the November general election.
The eight candidates now vying for these seats have very different life experiences and they offer voters clear choices between reform and status quo. Several progressive contenders have mounted grass-roots campaigns to take on members of judicial dynasties.
The 22nd Circuit Court
Attorneys Patrick J. Conlin Jr., Véronique Liem and Michael Woodyard are pursuing a six-year term on the Circuit Court bench vacated by retiring Judge Donald Shelton. The Circuit Court judge’s docket will, for the time being, include family law cases, personal protection orders and some juvenile cases — although the chief judge can change the composition of the docket at any time.
Candidate Michael Woodyard made news in Washtenaw County two years ago when he took on incumbent Tim Connors, who had been appointed by Republican Gov. John Engler. Woodyard raised $7,266 and garnered 23 percent of the vote against Connors, who raised more than $100,000.
Though Woodyard lives in Ann Arbor, he has spent more than a decade working for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. He’s currently assigned to the public integrity unit but has prosecuted domestic violence, child abuse, infant homicide and public corruption cases. Woodyard is driven by a strong sense of righteousness and public service — though some observers question whether his entry into this race (as with the last one) demonstrates an idealist’s penchant for tilting at windmills.
Woodyard will be outspent and he’ll have a fraction of the supporters and endorsements that his two opponents have rounded up. Though he is not highly ranked in a survey of attorneys, Woodyard says he’ll draw on the experiences of his last campaign and that he has a better chance of winning an open seat.
The front-runners to advance to the general election are attorneys Véronique Liem and Pat Conlin. (Disclosure: Conlin and I first met in 2012 on opposite sides of a court case.) In terms of experience, style and vision, Liem and Conlin could hardly differ more.
Conlin is the establishment candidate. He grew up in Ann Arbor and Chelsea, attended Notre Dame University and is the scion of what is arguably the county’s most powerful judicial dynasty. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have all served as judges and his uncle, Richard Conlin, is a District Court judge.
“My whole childhood I walked up to my dad’s office every day from St. Thomas Catholic School,” Conlin says. “I’d wander around the courthouse, do my homework and wait for him to be done and get a ride home. I’d sometimes sit in the courtroom. I can’t say that it was, like, at an early age I found my path to justice by going to the courthouse every day, but I certainly was very familiar with the rhythm and what was happening there.”
Conlin now lives in Lima Township and attends Chelsea’s St. Mary Catholic Church, which is known for its pro-life advocacy. He has worked as an attorney for 16 years with much of his practice focused on divorce and family law.
Conlin has received endorsements and funding from a who’s who of the county’s conservatives. He has the support of Chief Judge Swartz and former Chief Judge Shelton, whose seat Conlin seeks to fill. Shelton’s judicial attorney, court employee Kelly Roberts, is Conlin’s campaign manager. Roberts, Conlin and Shelton often meet in Shelton’s chambers during business hours to discuss the campaign.
Liem, who is supported almost exclusively by Democrats, says she has no illusions about the difficulty of going up against a name like Conlin. “Unlike him, I wasn’t raised here,” she says. “I was born in northern France and came here 40 years ago to get an MBA at the University of Michigan. I came with limited resources and without connections, and I’ve worked hard to be here today. I love this county and share its values, and I decided early on to live here and raise my family. Now, I’m running to be a judge to serve our community. I think the court and the community can benefit from the kind of diverse educational and life experiences I’ve had.”
Though Liem may not have the support of what one attorney calls “the last of Ann Arbor’s white-male, old-money, country club set,” she has the advantage of getting an earlier start and lining up supporters (nearly all of whom are Democrats), which she has accrued over 25 years of law practice and community involvement. She’s running a high-intensity, person-to-person campaign, in contrast to Conlin’s event-focused approach.
Liem believes that the local judiciary “could do a much better job serving the community” and is specific about the “positive and creative changes” she would make if elected. These include incorporating more collaborative solutions into divorce cases, creating a specialized docket to minimize contact between domestic violence victims and assailants, and staggering motion dockets to reduce undue waiting time (and costs) for litigants. In response to the growing number of litigants who can’t afford lawyers, she proposes programs to facilitate their court experiences and help them access community resources. “Just because someone can’t afford a high-priced attorney,” says Liem, “doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a fair opportunity to be heard.”
Conlin, when asked about the need for changes in the Washtenaw County judiciary, said, “I don’t know about changes. I don’t have a real platform of change for our county court, because I think it’s a pretty good one. Our courts are efficient, our judges are efficient, our judges are pretty good about hearing things and moving things along. There’s been a lot of staff turnover and repurposing the court clerks and those kind of, like, systems things. I don’t know enough about that to say how I would improve that.”
Liem says her biggest concern is for the well-being of children caught in custody disputes. “I am myself a child of divorce and was caught in the middle of a custody case in my small town in France as a teenager,” she says. “As I have done throughout my career as an attorney, if elected, I will actively support and encourage cooperative methods to resolve family cases and render decisions that serve children’s best interests.”
In public forums, Conlin is a bit more polished than Liem, who seems more comfortable interacting one-on-one or in small groups. Conlin is good on his feet and he comes off as knowledgeable and decisive (he says he inherited the latter trait from his father).
Both candidates are past presidents of the Washtenaw County Bar Association, which conducts a pre-election survey of its members. The 211 attorneys who responded ranked Liem and Conlin equally (“above average” or “excellent”) in technical qualifications, and ranked Liem higher in work capacity (defined as “diligence, industry, punctuality, promptness, trial management, organizational skills, settlement skills”). They ranked Conlin higher (mostly “excellent”) in the categories of interpersonal skills and character traits.
Several attorneys pointed out that Conlin’s trial experience is largely limited to District Court cases. Unlike Liem, he has little actual trial experience in the more complex and higher-stakes Circuit Court over which he hopes to preside.
A few years ago, Conlin’s name alone would have made him a shoo-in for a judge’s seat. But in recent years, Washtenaw County voters have delivered some rude surprises at the polls to entrenched politicians and establishment candidates. Two years ago, Conlin got a close look at this when he served as treasurer for the judicial campaign of Republican-supported Jim Fink, another member of a conservative judicial dynasty, who was upset by the more progressive Carol Kuhnke.
Then again, this election could deliver a whopper of a wildcard: When Judge Shelton officially steps down in September, Gov. Rick Snyder would have the opportunity to appoint Conlin as interim Circuit Court judge, thus giving Conlin the advantage of being designated as incumbent judge on the general election ballot.
“If it were offered to me,” says Conlin, “I’d take it.”
“If that were to happen,” says Liem, “then we’d have even more to overcome.”
This spring, two front-runners — Tracy Van den Bergh and Constance Jones — began to emerge out of the five-woman primary race for the Probate Court seat left vacant by Judge Nancy Wheeler’s retirement.
In early June, Governor Snyder announced the appointment of candidate Julia Owdziej to fill the position until the year’s end. The designation of “incumbent” on the ballot suddenly made Owdziej a strong contender for an elected seat on the Probate Court, which in Washtenaw County deals with family law issues as well as traditional probate matters of wills, estates and conservator-ships.
The appointment was a surprise to candidate Tamara Garwood, who had considered herself “more conservative than everyone else.” Garwood had received retiring Judge Wheeler’s endorsement, but Snyder’s appointment of Owdziej — who is supported by judges Swartz and Shelton — was apparently made without consulting Wheeler, the local bar or other key county institutions. It was, as Van den Bergh put it, “pure politics.”
Owdziej has been a practicing attorney for more than 30 years. Before her appointment, she served as deputy probate register/referee at the Washtenaw County Probate Court, overseeing minor guardianship and conservatorship hearings, serving as an arbitrator and juvenile referee, and presiding over the Juvenile Drug Court program. Prior to that, she was an assistant prosecutor for eight years. She’s endorsed by the Washtenaw County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
Although the incumbent tag will help Owdziej (especially if she survives the primary and goes to the general election, which draws voters who are typically less familiar with judge candidates), her judicial work may give her less time to campaign and may reduce her public visibility.
Garwood believes the judiciary needs new blood, to make the court experience more consistent and less confusing. “You see so much forum-shopping and game-playing; hopefully with new judges coming on and dockets spread out, things will settle down,” she said. “Then we can look at some of the many options and alternative methods to solve disputes.”
Garwood, who has practiced in Ann Arbor for 15 years, deals primarily with probate and family law cases but also has experience in moderation and arbitration. “I think in general if we can look at situations in a more holistic fashion and solve underlying problems,” Garwood says, “then we can prevent people from coming back to court regularly.”
Candidate Jane Bassett also speaks of the need to prevent return trips to court. “The vast majority of the probate docket is a population of people that society needs to take care of,” she says. “Balance is extremely important, because decisions handled in Probate Court are often family matters and those family relationships will continue long after they leave the courtroom.”
Constance Jones, whose Ann Arbor practice handles family and probate law, has significant support among the politically conservative legal community. She says one of her priorities on the bench would be to increase community outreach. “At present we have 13 people who serve as guardians and conservators in this county,” Jones says. “I think we need to have more.”
Among the probate candidates, Tracy Van den Bergh is probably the most liberal, with a background in poverty law and a master’s of social work from New York University. Currently an attorney at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Van den Bergh says her unique background, her understanding of mental illness and her ability to interact with a wide range of people set her apart from the other candidates.
“Mental health touches 90 percent of cases on this docket,” Van den Bergh says. “The importance of this position can’t be overlooked, since the majority of people in Probate Court are experiencing a life crisis and really need a fair and compassionate judge. I think we can do much better than we’re doing and enable people across the board — not just those who can afford an attorney at $225 an hour — to have better access to the justice system.”
Van den Bergh says she wants to improve the public defender system (“We have one of the worst in the country,” she says), ensure better access to alternative dispute resolution and connect low-income civil litigants with legal assistance. She also hopes to initiate a program that would bring social work students from local universities to help needy litigants access resources (she has already started a pilot program).
Van den Bergh believes “bias is a real issue in courts, one that judges have to check themselves against every day.” Aloofness is another problem, she says. “A judge should be approachable and warm, because if you’re not people get intimidated and shut down. And when people shut down you don’t get the information you need to make the best decisions. We must make sure that every litigant feels heard and is treated with respect.”