Divided Supreme Court rules for Servaas

A GOOD FIGHT—Rockford Judge Steve Servaas refused to sign a letter of resignation presented to him under threat of public humiliation.

A GOOD FIGHT—Rockford Judge Steve Servaas refused to sign a letter of resignation presented to him under threat of public humiliation.

‘JTC put the cart before the horse’

by BETH ALTENA

“This court has no duty to accept, even in part, any Judicial Tenure Commission (JTC) “decision” because the JTC does not have the power to decide how and whether to discipline a judge…”<

Those words summed up much of the majority opinion from the Michigan Supreme Court over whether Rockford Judge Steve Servaas has vacated or been removed from his office.

Nineteen months after  Servaas was told he must resign or face public humiliation, the Michigan Supreme Court has ruled he will keep his position of 35 years.

The 91-page ruling was released after the judges made public their decision at 11 p.m. Friday, July 31, the last day they had to come to a decision. It said the JTC had “put the cart before the horse,” in acting as if it had the authority to oust a sitting judge.

It is the end of over a year-and-a-half of publicity, accusations and the possibility that all Servaas rulings in recent years could be invalid. It also cost the Rockford judge $56,000 personally in legal costs—that on top of $100,000 in costs covered by county insurance.<

Servaas still believes the fiasco all came from his disagreement over moving from the Rockford court location to a new building.

The ruling overturned an earlier decision that said Servaas had vacated his office by moving outside his district, and also accused him of misconduct.

“It looks like the Supreme Court came down over political lines,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive about politics, but I didn’t expect that.”

Four of the seven judges—three supported by democrats and one moderate Republican—agreed that Servaas could not and should not be removed from office. The other three, and one of the four, submitted separate opinions.

Almost all commented unfavorably on the actions of Paul Fischer, chair of the Judicial Tenure Commission.

“For me this is the end of it,” said Servaas. “For Fischer, it’s the beginning. It’s his chance to go through this and see what happens.”

Fischer has a grievance against him filed by Grand Rapids Bar Association members. In addition, one of the Supreme Court judges who ruled for Servaas also wrote specifically regarding Fischer and the JTC.

Justice Elizabeth Weaver wrote, “I write separately to request that this court open an administrative file to investigate how this matter unfolded, including the events and actions of the JTC and/or others responsible leading up to the JTC’s recommendation of this case to this court.”

The dissenting justices, all writing separately, said they believed Servaas was untruthful when asked about his living arrangements or had been deceptive about where he lived. Servaas has said he made no secret of his Honey Creek residence while he lived there. He has the address listed in the telephone book and had guests from work at the home over the years. He is currently residing in a home he owns that is within this jurisdiction.

Servaas said the issue that he believes started this long legal battle is still unsettled and could go either way. “The county took a big risk building that $8 million courthouse before a ruling was made,” he said.

He has stated the law reads that Rockford, as a city of more than 3,500 residents, is entitled to a court if they so request. The City of Rockford opposed the move of the district court to a new location off the East Beltline. That decision is in appeals court now.

Servaas said that battle will likely end up in the same court that just decided his battle—the State Supreme Court. “If Rockford loses, they will likely appeal. If the county loses, they will likely appeal,” Servaas said.

It is a relief to have a resolution on his case, Servaas said. “I had a wedding I was going to perform Saturday.  I told them, ‘If I lose, I’ll have a magistrate perform the ceremony,” he said. A friend told him of the decision late Friday night.

“During all this, the people here were so supportive, that is one high point to come from all of this,” he said. “Everyone has been dynamite. That’s why I came to work here so many years ago and why I’ve stayed. I’m glad I came to work here.”

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