A long fight to keep a full service courthouse in Rockford has ended with a denial to hear the case by the Michigan Supreme Court. With one justice, Elizabeth Weaver dissenting, the seven member court denied considering the case, citing “We are not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this Court.” The denial was issued July 16.
“This has taught me one thing for sure, and maybe I’m naive, but justice isn’t blind, it’s political,” said City Manager Michael Young.
Rockford initiated a lawsuit against Judge Sara Smolenski which was joined by Kent County.
Many northern communities passed resolutions against removing the northern office of the 63rd District from Rockford to a consolidated location on Knapp Street off the East Beltline. A court presence, as required by law, remains in the former court building but is now limited to only four hours a month of service.
Rockford, and Judge Steven Servaas, the judge who served his whole career from the Rockford court, believe legally Kent County is required to offer more service, if not a complete court, to the northern communities from the Rockford court location. They hoped an appeal to the Supreme Court could bring the complete court—judge and all—back to Rockford.
“We fought it, we litigated it and we did not prevail,” Young said. “This is a huge loss of services for not just Rockford, but all of the northern communities.”
Young said the end of the fight means that all the judges of the district, now just Servaas and Smolenski, are located in a facility that is in the southern half of the district. As cases are divided up, Smolenski is presiding over cases from the northern communities and Servaas is presiding over cases originating in the southern half of the district.
“You can’t even vote to remove a judge if you don’t like what they are doing,” Young explains of the significance of this situation.
“I find it incredibly ironic that they can say that Servaas has to live in the northern half of the district, but he can’t work here,” Young noted. “Tell me how that makes any sense at all.”
Kent County Commissioner Roger Morgan said there are no hard feelings over the court issue and the decision about how much court service to offer—and where—is completely under the control of Chief Judge Smolenski. “If anybody thinks I can tell the judge how to run her court they are crazy,” he stated.
Young disagrees, and said as the funding unit for the court, Kent County and Smolenski are making decisions together on the courts. “The chief judge doesn’t have that kind of power. If that was how it worked, say Judge Servaas was chief judge next year. Could he decide he wants to have a court in Cedar Springs and the County would build him a building?” Young said. “It takes a partnership to decide. To think the chief judge can decide this by herself is ridiculous.”
Kent County Administrator Daryl Dellabio has also expressed frustration with Rockford’s insistence on pursuing keeping a court in Rockford. He said the County gave the building the former court occupied as a good faith gesture. “If I gave you a building, would you sue me?” he has commented to The Squire in the past. Morgan also said the gift of a building sharing a parking lot with Rockford City Hall was no small thing. The County could have kept the property, he said, and used it for County purposes in addition to the four-hours-a-month court.
Young said the City has been using the building for storage and for classroom training for firefighters. Deciding on a use for the building has been on hold until the outcome of the appeal to the Supreme Court.
“I’ve always thought it should be some public use,” Young said. “We’ve thought about the Arts Council or the Historical Society Museum. We can take the next six months and take a long look at what we will do. We still have funding issues, but this has a lot of opportunity for public use.” He said the County court space takes up only 20 percent of the structure.
Young said he does not regret the City of Rockford’s perseverance in this matter. “This is a huge loss of services for all the people of the northern communities. There are still people every day in the parking lot looking for the court because that’s where it should be,” he said. Currently the four-hours a month are only for small claims, no criminal and no bill-paying.
“My biggest regret is I lost one of my best friends in the world over this,” Young noted. He said the fight was not just for Rockford, but for all the northern residents who now have to drive that much farther to do business with the court. “It’s been a big issue. It hurt the City and continues to hurt the City, as well as the residents of the more northern communities of Kent County. Before they even put a shovel in the ground we had a lot of the northern communities saying, ‘Don’t do this.’” Young said.
There are no more steps to take in the years-long effort to bring back a judge and full court to the Rockford location. “The court is not coming back to Rockford unless the County and Smolenski decide to bring it back.”