It was already determined that Rockford legally must have a court presence, but with the Rockford 63rd District Court closed for remodeling before a magistrate moves in part time, city officials and residents are wondering when that will happen.
Rockford is appealing a decision that Chief Judge Sara Smolenski has the right to decide what sort of arrangement will satisfy a judge’s ruling that Rockford will maintain a court presence here. With the Rockford court closed for business on Monday, November 9, the lack of services has already upset officials and northern residents used to the location.
On Tuesday, November 10, resident judge Steve Servaas held what might be his last arraignment in the court. With video links to the Kent County Jail disabled at the Rockford location, the accused Jeffrey Hawkins was brought in for an in-person arraignment at the courtroom. At the time, staff was packing up the last of the files, equipment and personal belongings of the court they have called home.
Dawn Kolenbrander, who worked in the courtroom from 1979 to 1988 and again for the last four years, said it is a sad day for Rockford and the northern communities to see the court close. She especially will miss the personal style of doing business at the court. “It’s really a community here,” she said. “This is the perfect location for our demographics, for the people we serve,” she said. “For the northern people, this is the place for the court to be.”
Judge Servaas said he still hopes the case will eventually be decided in the Supreme Court and the services for the northern half of the 63rd District Court will be reinstated in the Rockford location. He is surprised more media have not taken up the curious timing of his being accused of misconduct just as he opposed the courts’ consolidation to a location on the East Beltline, completely outside the northern court boundaries. “It is a really interesting story here, right from the beginning, how I happened to get thrown to the Judicial Tenure Commission,” he said.
Servaas said he was originally agreeable to the move when it appeared there would be a third judge to accommodate and that the new location would at least be at the juncture of the northern and southern district on Four Mile Road. “If it was going to save the taxpayers money, I was for it,” he said.
Rachel Bellinger calls the court closing “unbelievable.” “I talked to them yesterday,” she said of her visit to Rockford’s court. She said she isn’t from Rockford and it was already inconvenient to drive here to take care of court business.
When state financial conditions deteriorated and plans for a third judge in the immediate future dissolved, Servaas made vocal his disapproval of the move. A public falling out took place between the two existing judges, Chief Judge Sara Smolenski and himself. Servaas believes there is plenty to prove that the county was behind an attempt to have him removed. If he was removed, there would be no contest to the court consolidation. One example of some inappropriate and suspicious behavior was that at the hearing over Servaas’ misconduct—of which he was cleared—was that a Kent County attorney was assisting accuser Paul Fischer.
Now that Servaas has been cleared of wrongdoing, the question of the extent and timing of the new court presence is first and foremost. Serving his last term due to age limits, the issue goes beyond Servaas and to of what a court presence will consist.
Currently, a judge ruled there must be a court presence in Rockford, but failed to define what that court presence must be. It is the county’s contention that Smolenski has sole discretion in determining the amount of presence that fulfills the ruling, as well as creating a timeline for those services. It is expected that either party—the City of Rockford hoping for a full court presence including a judge; or Kent County, believing a part-time magistrate will suffice—will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Rockford City Manager Michael Young, along with Servaas, wonders why the county decided to close the building, move out staff, and begin remodeling before the case is decided. “They act like there is a fire under this,” said Servaas.
Young said it puts law enforcement in a confusing situation. “If our police need a warrant signed, they have to go to Grand Rapids,” he said. “We are supposed to have a court presence here, but now the court is closed. How do the police plan for that?”
Last year, the union members of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department voted unanimously against moving services from the Rockford location. They believed it was a safety issue to have northern-serving law enforcement out of their territories longer to conduct court business so far away.
Kent City, Cedar Springs, and Solon and Oakfield townships all also passed legislation opposing the move, according to Young. “This isn’t just a Rockford issue,” said Young. “This is a northern Kent County issue, that’s for sure.”
Rockford City Council went into closed session
following their regular monthly meeting on Monday, November 9. The session was to discuss terms of transfer of the courthouse to the City of Rockford. According to Rockford Mayor Chi Chi Rogers, the proposed contract was four or five pages long and was too complex to take action on immediately.
Rogers said the deliberations over the document took council about an hour, and will be addressed at the next monthly meeting. Regardless of the outcome of the transaction of the property, Rogers said she is disappointed in the county’s refusal to wait until the suit is settled to close the Rockford court.
“It’s a sad day,” said Rogers. “The court has been established in Rockford and people depend on it. It’s a shame with that building not costing very much to maintain. We all love Judge Servaas, but Judge Servaas has nothing to do with the court staying in Rockford. It’s not only for Rockford residents. Sara can move to any darn place she wants. I don’t care if they build a courthouse on every street in Grand Rapids, just leave the Rockford court here. It’s a travesty.”
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