by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
This past Tuesday, October 6, found Rockford officials in Lansing in a Michigan Court of Appeals courtroom. Rockford was there to appeal a Circuit Court decision that allowed the current two courts of the 63rd District to be combined into one courthouse in Grand Rapids Township.
Your reporters were witness to the morning’s proceedings. Readers should take note of the fact that we don’t pretend to be courtroom reporters. What follows are our interpretations and observations of what occurred that morning.
At promptly 10 a.m. the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals entered the courtroom. The presiding judge, Michael J. Talbot, said, “Good morning.” Hearing no response he said, “We are in for a long day.” In our opinion, that response set the tone for the rest of the proceeding. Judge Kurtis T. Wilder and Judge Michael J. Kelly comprised the rest of the panel.
Talbot began by saying that Circuit Courts of Appeal are courts where oral arguments are heard both pro and con. The justices are already well informed on the substance of the cases that come before them. For the most part they are looking for any new information that may assist them in their decision process. Questions may or may not be asked of the attorneys representing each side. There are no witnesses called and, hence, no cross-examinations in an Appeals courtroom.
First up was Steven Stapleton, an attorney representing the City of Rockford. Stapleton had barely gotten his first words out when Talbot admonished him to, “Speak up and look up.” Stapleton was somewhat taken aback but quickly recovered and advanced a plea to disqualify Talbot from ruling on whether Rockford should keep a full-time court.
Last year, Talbot was one of nine members of the Judicial Tenure Commission that decided that Rockford Judge Steven Servaas should be removed from office. The Commission was of the opinion that Servaas had vacated his bench by residing outside his electoral district and that he also had engaged in inappropriate doodling and improper humor with female staff.
The final arbiter in the matter, the State Supreme Court, was later to find in favor of Servaas, allowing him to stay on the bench.
Stapleton, in advancing the motion of Talbot’s dismissal said, “There may be a perceived appearance of impropriety because of your earlier unfavorable ruling against Servaas.” Talbot abruptly responded, “The Michigan Supreme Court has said that appearance is not an issue.” He concluded, “Your motion is denied.”
Stapleton went on to further state Rockford’s position, saying Michigan State statutes entitle Rockford, with a population in excess of 3,250, to a full-service District Court with a sitting judge. “Indeed, there has been a District Court present in Rockford since 1976,” he said.
Stapleton further stated that Servaas, being one of two judges in the 63rd District, is not in favor of a forced move of the Rockford First Division Court to a consolidated Court in Grand Rapids Township. It is Rockford’s position that, by law, there must be acquiescence between sitting judges before a consolidation can take place.
Talbot replied that the question of whether the Rockford Court would be required to move is strictly an issue of law. “It has nothing to do with Servaas, he is not a plaintiff in this matter. His opinions are of no more importance than anyone else working in the 63rd District Court.”
Representing the 63rd District Court and Judge Sara Smolenski, Attorney Judy Bregman said, “Rockford’s contention that any municipality with a population of 3,250 or more must have a full-time judge can’t be what the Legislature had in mind. There are four cities in Kent County that meet the population criteria and do not have a District Court.”
Bregman and Attorney Timothy Eagle, representing Kent County, said that the decision of where the courts should be lies solely with the chief judge in the district and not through an agreement with another judge or judges in the district.
Thus ended the morning’s proceedings. Present (strictly as interested parties) were Rockford City Manager Michael Young, Rockford City Finance Director Jeff Dood, City Councilman Richard Moll, and former Mayor and City Councilman attorney Neil Blakeslee.
City Manager Michael Young, along with the Rockford City Council, have been steadfast in the belief that the proposal to consolidate the Rockford Court into a 63rd District Court at a location other than Rockford would be in violation of state statues. Young had no comment on the day’s proceedings.
Hopefully a decision will come down from the Court of Appeals in a timely manner. But because of the unspoken politics that some believe will surely be a part of the decision, it could be a matter of weeks or months before a ruling is made.