When Rockford’s court opens for business, it will be just one day a month and only handle small claims cases, according to Rockford City Manager Michael Young. Young said the court administrator, Donna Gilson, informed Rockford’s police chief of this latest news in the five-year saga of court consolidation.
Rockford and Kent County are in a lawsuit over the issue of whether the former Rockford court can be consolidated to one location. Rockford believes a ruling that said a court must be located here, Kent County believes the presence of a court can be less than a full-service court with a judge.
The case has gone through appeals and Rockford has asked the state supreme court to hear the matter.
“It’s time to move on,” said Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio. “Two out of three decisions said what the county is doing is legal and appropriate.”
The remodeling of the former court building here in Rockford is nearly, if not already, complete, and Young said he has not heard when it will be open for business. He said he has not been informed by the county what hours it plans to operate since a letter last July. At that time the county proposed a magistrate in the court building all day Monday, and half days Wednesday and Friday. It could handle small claims, informal traffic hearings, payments on criminal cases, traffic tickets and/or payment of small claims filing fees.
“We already weren’t happy about that,” Young said. He said the county spent at least $55,000 remodeling the building, which it sold to the City for $20. In the transfer agreement the county retained use of a portion of the building for a court presence.
“Why even do it?” Young said of offering a one-day-a-month court. “It defies logic.” He said this action proves the need for the supreme court to spell out exactly the terms of a court requirement according to the state constitution.
“The court does say you have to have a court presence here,” said Young. “Apparently the county is going to have the absolute minimal presence possible.”
Delabbio said Judge Smolenski is within her rights as chief judge to decide how much court presence Rockford will have.
“It’s really up to the judge and it’s based on demand,” Delabbio said. He defended the investment into the building and said the county “took the high road” in giving the facility to Rockford.
“We made a commitment to having a presence in Rockford. It’s an investment to prepare the building for however the court is going to use it.”
Delabbio called the disagreement frustrating and pointed out that five years ago when the consolidation was proposed, everyone was in favor. “If I give you a building are you going to sue me? Why waste $100,000 on a frivolous lawsuit? I don’t see that question asked.”
Young provided the Squire with a letter he penned to Kent County Commissioner Roger Morgan. Young questioned the purpose of holding court once a month.
“Certainly this provides no benefit for law enforcement agencies in Northern Kent County,” the letter states. “It is very difficult to schedule our officers who need access to the court itself when the plan keeps changing.”
At the January Rockford City Council meeting on Monday, January 11 resident Mike McIntosh asked about the cost of the lawsuit and the value of having a court in town.
Young responded that the City has spent about $35,000 on the case and going on to the supreme court isn’t likely to add much to that bill.
He talked about a similar case in the 1970s where a town called Center Line opposed a court consolidation. The town lost that case because there wasn’t enough volume to justify a court. Kent County had a very busy court, which is why an additional judge was proposed before the state economy crashed.
Dissenting opinions, Young pointed out, were very strong, which he believes helps Rockford’s case.
In Center Line vs. 37th Dist. Court, Judge Kavanaugh wrote:
“Cities of 3,250 or more, many of which stood to lose, as Center Line did, their municipal courts, were designated as places in which the district court shall sit. In that context, it is apparent that the commitment was not that the court shall sit in some truncated manner at the pleasure of the judges, but rather, that it would sit to conduct the usual business of the court.”
Young told McIntosh he believes Rockford’s chances of winning are good. He also pointed out that seven other communities passed resolutions pleading to keep the court in Rockford. None, however, offered financial help. “We have a lot of moral support on this.”
It remains to be seen if the supreme court will take the case.