Kalamazoo Judge Reassignment Questioned By Family Law Bar

The Kalamazoo County's Executive Judicial Council recently unanimously approved District Court Judge Julie Phillips to replace soon-to-be-retiring Family Court Judge Patricia Conlon.  According to some Kalamazoo family law attorneys, the decision may disenfranchise county residents.

From MLive:

"KALAMAZOO, MI — The head of an association made up of more than 60 attorneys who practice family law in Kalamazoo County said he has numerous questions about a decision last week to assign a sitting district court judge to an open seat in probate court.

[']We have some serious concerns,['] Jim Boerigter, chairman of the Kalamazoo County Family Law Bar, said Tuesday following a special meeting of the association's members at the Park Club in downtown Kalamazoo.

The concerns Boerigter is speaking of stem from the unanimous decision last week by five judges who make up the county's Executive Judicial Council to assign District Judge Julie K. Phillips the responsibilities of retiring Probate Judge Patricia N. Conlon, effective Jan. 1.

The move has ramifications for two candidates – Tiffany Ankley and Namita Sharma – who are running for probate judge and will face off Nov. 4. With the reassignment of Phillips, Ankley and Sharma have been told the winner of their race will be assigned to district court.

At their meeting Tuesday, Boerigter said the Family Law Bar formed a three-man committee that will meet with the executive judicial council and discuss the process and procedure the body used in deciding the new judicial assignments.

Boerigter said the committee also will request copies of minutes of all meetings the judicial council has had since its formation, as well as copies of any documents the council used to make its decision regarding the judicial assignments.

[']It's about the process and procedure,['] Boerigter said. [']It's not about people and personalities.[']

The committee, which was chosen by the Family Law Bar at the meeting Tuesday, is made up of longtime family law attorneys Russell Kreis, W. Jack Keiser and Richard Minter.

[']They are not rock throwers,['] Boerigter said of the committee. [']They're mediators and conciliators who have a reputation of finding ways to get things done.[']

Boerigter, who is managing partner at Kreis, Enderle, Hudgins & Borsos P.C., said 27 people attended Tuesday's meeting at the Park Club. He said the committee formed by the Family Law Bar plans to meet with the judicial council and report back to the association at its next meeting, Aug. 14.

Boerigter said among the concerns that the Family Law Bar has about the executive judicial council's decision is whether the move will help the courts — both district and the family division — run effectively and efficiently, a task that is paramount in the council's responsibilities as stated in a Concurrent Jurisdiction Plan for the county's courts.

Boerigter said the family court, specifically, has a [']burgeoning docket['] filled with complicated cases that touch on issues ranging from abuse and neglect to child custody and delinquency cases.

[']Clearly, from our perspective, that's a critical need to have someone who has experience doing that work,['] Boerigter said. [']You've got to have the right people doing the right job.[']

Boerigter also said the association is concerned about the timing of the council's decision, which came after the April filing deadline for candidates to run in the August primary and November general election.

Both Boerigter and Ross Stancati, a local family law attorney who was with Boerigter Tuesday at the Park Club, said making the decision after the filing deadline eliminated the possibility of more candidates running in the race with the knowledge that the probate judgeship was going to be assigned to district court.

Also, it eliminated the possibility of Phillips, who is running unopposed in November, of having challengers with the knowledge that her district court judgeship would be assigned responsibilities in probate court.

[']Many voters have been disenfranchised as a result of the decision,['] Stancati said. [']But we don't believe (the council) intended to do that on purpose.[']

The reassignment of Phillips was done with the unanimous approval of the judicial council, a body which is made up of two circuit court judges, two district court judges and one probate court judge. The members are Probate Judge Curtis J. Bell, circuit judges Gary C. Giguere Jr. and Pamela L. Lightvoet, and district judges Paul J. Bridenstine and Richard A. Santoni.

Bridenstine is chair of the council.

The council is the centerpiece of a concurrent jurisdiction plan the county's 14 judges approved in 2013 and submitted to the Michigan Supreme Court in response to a state law that went on the books that year. The plan was approved by the Supreme Court in January and took effect May 1.

The council has several responsibilities, including probing for efficiencies that may allow the county's circuit, district and probate courts to run more effectively.

The council has the authority to reassign judges, but only with the unanimous approval of all five judges.

Bell, who is chief judge of the county's circuit and probate courts, said the reassignment of Phillips, as well as either Ankley or Sharma, is part of an overall plan of the judicial council as it takes [']a systematic look at the judiciay in order to make the determination in to how to best serve the public and those that come before us.[']

He also noted that the council and concurrent jurisdiction plan did not take effect until May 1, which came after the April filing deadline for the upcoming election.

[']So, from that standpoint, we could not have notified (candidates) in advance of any filing ... We didn't know that this was the direction until our plan was approved, until we began meeting, until we began looking into the ways to serve the community.[']

As part of looking for efficiencies in the local courts, Bell said members of the council, just two to three weeks ago, visited judges in Berrien County, which he said has a fully consolidated court.

He said the council is trying to determine if a model like Berrien County's would work well in Kalamazoo County and be a benefit to residents, or if another model may be more adequate.

[']I can't tell you at this point,['] he said.

Bell also contended that the cross-assigning of judges, like what is being done with Phillips and the winner of the race between Ankley and Sharma, is something that has been discussed in Kalamazoo [']for over a decade now,['] but has never been [']moved on to any real degree['] until now after the submission of the concurrent jurisdiction plan to the Supreme Court.

[']Last year, the Supreme Court indicated either you come up with a concurrent jurisdiction plan or we will create one,['] Bell said.

Of Phillips, Bell said the judicial council would not have made the move [']if we weren't 100 percent confident.[']

[']Ultimately, what you look for in that judge is discernment and the ability to fairly and impartially apply the law,['] Bell said."