Even though Michigan voters elect their judges, it is an unwritten ‘truth’ that few people really know who they are, let alone what positions they stand for in what is largely determined to be ‘non-partisan’ contests.
A statewide poll commissioned by Inside Michigan Politics back in 1990 found that nearly four voters of every five knew ‘very little’ or ‘nothing at all’ about who runs for the judiciary in any given election, which is why The Review is very proud to present the first of several Candidate Forums in advance of the August primary – this issue, focusing on the 10th Circuit Judicial Race in Saginaw County.
The stakes are high this year, with 167 judgeships up for grabs throughout the state – not just two seats on the Supreme Court, but eight on the state Court of Appeals, 71 circuit judgeships, 69 for district court, and 17 on the probate bench.
The vast majority of these will only be on the November 2nd ballot for the general election, as only a fraction of the total (17 judgeships) will run in the August 3rd primary because historically, incumbency is the most important ingredient in achieving election for a judgeship. Consequently, few of the seats up for grabs even face challengers. Indeed, in 2008 the number of incumbents that retained their seats throughout the state was a staggering 88.9%.
However, with the pending retirement of the Hon. William Crane from the 10th Circuit Bench, this is decidedly not the case in Saginaw County, where three qualified attorneys, James Borchard, Jim Howell, and Paul Purcell are all vying for the coveted position, which pays $139,919 a year for a six-year term and is a seat that carries jurisdiction over civil cases seeking more than $25,000 in damages, along with felony criminal cases and family matters such as divorce law.
Review: Please state your personal and professional background in terms of how you feel this best qualifies you for this position.
Borchard: I was born and raised in the City of Saginaw and attended Saginaw Schools. After attending Delta College and Alma College, I received my Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Michigan in 1972.
I graduated from the University Of Detroit Law School in 1976. My parents instilled a strong work ethic at an early age and along with my three siblings worked for and paid for our own educations, just as our father did when he went to college and law school.
Some of my best education and training came while working at the following summer jobs: Grey Iron Foundry, Saginaw County Road Commission, Saginaw Steering Gear, Eaton Manufacturing, Saginaw City Cemetery, and one full year at a Saline Michigan Ford Plant prior to entering Law School.
I worked two years in the Prosecutor's Office before joining the Law Firm of Smith, Bovill, Fisher, Meyer and Borchard, PC., where I was a trail attorney, concentrating heavily on Family Law and Personal Injury.
I was a Senior Partner and Past President of the Firm. In 2001, after 23 years with Smith, Bovill, I followed my dream to return to the Prosecutor's Office as one of the Chief Trial Attorneys. My common sense and people skills have made him very effective while representing victims of crime and prosecuting some of Saginaw's most dangerous criminals.
Howell: Vietnam Veteran, Police Officer, Michigan State Representative, Chairman of Judiciary, Assistant Attorney General, experienced courtroom Attorney for 30 years. I have been involved with the courts for 40 years. Husband for 39 years, father of 3 children, and grandfather of 8. As a police officer I put myself through college, and law school. Working on the streets as a patrol officer put me in direct contact with the victims of crime in our community. As Chairman of Judiciary I was able to view the courts in depth, both in terms of how they work and how I believe they should work to serve the public. My practice has involved family, civil and criminal law, trial and appellate practice and much more.
Purcell: In 1973 I began practicing law. I haven’t stopped. I have handled cases throughout the State; from Marquette to Mt. Clemons, from Cheboygan to Detroit. In 2005 I was appointed a Workers’ Compensation Magistrate by the Governor. As an Administrative Law Judge I have tried over one hundred and forty cases where testimony has been taken, exhibits entered, arguments made and decisions written. No other candidate has this judicial experience.
Review: What are the qualities that you feel people should be most concerned about when selecting a Circuit Judge?
Howell: A judge should be much more than just a lawyer. Although Professional experience is important, more important is life experience. Judges are called upon to make decisions for the public that have a dramatic impact on their lives. Common sense, and the way the person has lived their lives is as or more important than the professional experience the person may bring to the bench. Judges are called upon to decide cases involving the family, criminals and their sentences, and civil cases that can be of extreme financial importance. All these responsibilities present more of a challenge than legal training can provide.
Purcell: Practical experience is required in dealing with the people and the cases before a Judge. A Judge must treat people fairly and with respect. Judges should have the ability to communicate and deal with people of different backgrounds. Judges must act impartially and make decisions timely. Hard work is needed in order to handle the ever-increasing workload. All parties who appear in Court are entitled to a fair and impartial hearing and to have their cases decided according to the rules of law.
Borchard: Experience, Honesty, Common Sense, Fairness to all, patience, practicality, hard working. In 34 years of practice, I have honed in on these qualities. No client, opponent or criminal defendant has ever filed a grievance against me.
Review: What do you feel is the most distinguishing factor between you and your opponents?
Purcell: For the last five years I have tried cases and rendered decisions. I have had the opportunity to evaluate witnesses, interpret medical evidence and write decisions, which apply the law to the facts to arrive at a reasoned conclusion. For 32 years before my appointment as a Workers’ Compensation Magistrate I was actively engaged in Courtroom work as a trial lawyer. I handled criminal cases, domestic relation cases, real estate disputes, personal injury cases and other contested cases. I am the only candidate who was rated AV (highest rating) by Martindale Hubbell, an independent rating organization.
Borchard: Circuit Court is a Trial Court. The largest portion of the docket is Criminal felony cased followed by family law and personal injury. These are the three areas of law that I have practiced throughout my career. I am the only candidate with extensive experience in all three of these areas and this is the reason that 7 Circuit and Family Court Judges have endorsed me for the Circuit Judge position. I work extremely well with Saginaw's Judges, citizens, victims and police officers. Almost every police organization in Saginaw County has endorsed my campaign.
Howell: All of us have the professional experience to handle the position. My strength is the variety and intensity of the experiences that I have had over the many years that I served in Saginaw County. What the public needs to decide is whether we all have the appropriate life experience and a proper mixture of professional experience. I believe that my life experience, as well as professional qualifications, sets me apart and makes me a unique candidate for the Circuit Court. I believe that I am much more than just a lawyer.
Review: Are there any changes or improvements that you feel can be brought into Circuit Court over the next term?
Borchard: Saginaw's Judges continually make changes in an attempt to improve the Circuit Courts. I will work as a team player with the other judges in an effort to further improve the system. The best way to deal with an over crowded docket is to elect a judge who has proven his work ethic. No one has tried more felony jury trials in the last ten years, than James Borchard.
Howell: Absolutely! As Chairman of Judiciary I took a number of steps to make the courts throughout the state more responsive to the needs of those they serve. I prevented the loss of one of the District Court seats in Saginaw County. I changed the law so that the judges of our courts were not limited to certain cases, allowing them to share jurisdiction. The public perception is that the courts are too slow. Cases are not like fine wine. They do not get better with age. I still believe that instituting this type of program will benefit the people of this county, and speed up the resolution of cases before the court.
Purcell: While some changes in procedures and practices have been recently implemented, much needs to be done in Circuit Court to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. The great talent of Saginaw’s District Court Judges should be more widely used to handle many matters currently handled by Circuit Court. A direct line of communication should be established between the Circuit Court, the Prosecutor’s Office and the attorneys who represent criminal defendants. It is in everyone’s interest to establish an accelerated schedule for the movement of cases. Justice delayed is Justice denied.
Review: Much has been written and discussed about the problem in Saginaw County with jail over-crowding. Do you fee there are solutions that can be implemented at the judicial level to ease the societal and financial burden of this situation?
Howell: Yes. We need to speed up the resolution of all cases. Often, many of those in the jail population are there as a result of pretrial detention. When their case is concluded they may be found not guilty (and released), they may be placed on probation (and released), they may be sentenced to prison (and sent to a state facility and released from the county’s facility), or they may be sentenced to county jail time and held. As you can see, the sooner we can achieve a final resolution; most of the jail population that the circuit court handles can be resolved sooner, thereby relieving the pressure on the jail.
Purcell: The realities of the cost of incarcerating individuals in the Jail must be addressed by leadership. The best use of the space in the jail can be obtained by effective communication between the Jail and the Circuit and District Court Judges. Programs stressing alternatives such as drug treatment or mental health counseling should be reviewed.
Borchard: Most people obey laws because it is the right thing to do. However, a certain element of society obey laws only with the threat of incarceration. Shorter jail terms earlier in a criminal’s lifetime may deter more serious and lengthy incarceration. More counseling and stricter probationary terms could help alleviate some of these problems.
Review: Regarding mandatory minimums. On the one hand is the argument for uniformity in sentencing; on the other is the arena of judicial discretion and being able to sentence on a case-by-case basis. What are your thoughts about this?
Purcell: Sentencing of criminals should be left to the sound discretion of the Circuit Court Judges. Judges are required to follow State guidelines in sentencing. If a sentence is outside of the guidelines the sentence must be explained. Each case presents a unique set of facts and circumstances. The ability of the judge to determine the sentence should not be restricted.
Borchard: Sentencing guidelines have been in effect in Michigan for quite some time. It prevents judges from being either too heavy-handed or too lenient. The guidelines do allow considerable discretion. Judges are able to depart from the guidelines if they give good reasons for doing so on the record. The sentencing guidelines currently provide uniformity in sentencing as well as judicial discretion. The guidelines provide for a range that the courts can sentence under. This system seems to be working fine in the state of Michigan.
Howell: Mandatory sentencing and sentencing guidelines were a response by the legislature to wide disparity in sentencing individuals for the same crime. However, the legislature went too far and took out much of the judge’s discretion from sentencing. While I served in the legislature I favored allowing more discretion on the part of the judiciary to depart from the rigid guidelines. It was my belief that we needed to individualize the sentencing guidelines more, allowing judges the discretion and flexibility to depart upward, or in some cases downward on the sentence the individual received. Hopefully, that movement will continue so that we reach an appropriate level where justice is consistent throughout the state, but more appropriately takes into consideration the individual being sentenced and the seriousness of the harm he or she has done.