Candidate Forum • Decision 2014

The Saginaw Probate Court Judicial Race

    icon Jul 24, 2014
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One of the most contested races with a broad field of candidates in the upcoming August 5th Primary election involves the race for Judge of the Juvenile Court, more formally known as Probate Court, which is being vacated by the Honorable Faye M. Harrison, whom has proudly served Saginaw County well for over the last three decades. Because age restrictions prohibit her from running for this office again, the position is open to a large field of five candidates that seek this non-partisan position.  The two candidates receiving the highest votes will run against one another in the November 4th general election.

Judicial candidates vying for this position consist of attorneys Stephan Gaus, Kent Greenfelder, Jim Hession, Barbara Meter, and Christopher Swartz. In order to help formulate a better-informed electorate, The Review submitted several questions to each of these candidates and is proud to present their responses below, with the exception of Chris Swartz, whom did not respond to our questionnaire.  

Review: Please state your personal and professional background in terms of how you feel it best qualifies you for this position.

Stephan Gaus: I have been an attorney for 36 years.  I have been an adoptive father for 34.  Becoming an adoptive parent gave me a keen appreciation for the work of this Court, and I began doing adoptions shortly after my first adoption.  I now have 3 adopted children and 7 grandchildren from them.

I have probably been best known for my Circuit Court litigation work as a trial attorney.  Some folks don’t know of my probate court work.  Still, trial work is trial work and my many years spent litigating will make it easy to do the half of this job, which is courtroom work.

Voters should familiarize themselves with each candidate’s background for the “other half” of the job – specifically, administering the juvenile jail.  This is a 56-bed facility that contains a school for the detainees, social workers, detention workers, a cafeteria, etc.  It is simply critical that the next judge have administrative experience.  I have served on a School Board for 8 years, I have been a trustee of the church, I have administered my own 9-member law firm and I have been a founding member and president of a Christian Counseling Center.  These qualifications make me the best candidate for the “unseen” portion of this job – administering the detention center.
Kent Greenfelder: The position I am seeking is as a probate judge, but the work of that particular judgeship is almost entirely family court related. Over the past 15 years I have represented hundreds of children and parents in child protection hearings and delinquent children in thousands of hearings in the probate (family) court.

I know first-hand how what happens in that court affects the people I represent in court and how it affects victims and the community as a whole. I have continually worked to make the court system better and more responsive to the needs of everyone it touches. I am updated on efforts of the regional truancy coalition. I was selected by the Michigan Supreme Court to represent Michigan in a national conference dealing with parent representation. I have been appointed to the board of the Child Abuse & Neglect Council in Saginaw, and I have helped with training for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. I have served on the boards of the Underground Railroad, Safe Place, Family Treatment Court, and the prior D.A.R.E. Advisory Board. I’ve participated in the Michigan Supreme Court Adoption Day and multiple Governors’ Task Forces, including Child Forensic Interviewing Methods and improving adoption rates for foster children. I have a passion and commitment for this work that y past effort has demonstrated and that I hope I can continue to demonstrate as a judge.

Jim Hession: I was blessed to have two great parents.  My mother and father instilled in me the values of hard work, dedication, compassion and justice.  I believe these values will serve me well in discharging the duties of Probate Judge.

Professionally I recently celebrated 25 years of practicing law.  From 1989-1990 I was an assistant prosecutor. From 1990-1996 I was employed by a national law firm with offices in Saginaw. The firm focused on complex products liability cases. I litigated these cases throughout the state of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. From 1996-Present I have had my own practice. Since 1996 I have focused on general practice and litigation.

From 1996-2002 I accepted appointments from the Probate Court. During this time I represented mothers, fathers, and children in alleged parental neglect proceedings. I have been on both sides of the issue as it relates to alleged parental neglect proceedings. I have also accepted appointments to represent juveniles in Probate Court accused with committing crimes. I have tried criminal cases both as a prosecutor, and as a defense lawyer.

After opening my office in 1996 I served as a specialist on case evaluation panels in Saginaw. This is a process wherein three specialists evaluate a case pending in Saginaw County Circuit Court and render an award in an effort to settle the case. The parties to the lawsuit then either accept or reject the award. 

I have a wealth of experience in legal matters both in and out of the court over the last 25 years. I was very fortunate to gain these experiences. I would like to bring these experiences to the bench and give Saginaw County the benefit of my legal experiences. I feel that my legal experiences best qualify me for the position.

Barb Meter: The Probate Court Juvenile Division involves children under the age of 17. The three largest categories of the Court's docket are delinquency (children who commit crimes), the abuse and neglect of children and termination of parental rights. This entails approximately 95% of the Court's docket. I have been an assistant prosecuting attorney for 19 years and have appeared in this court hundreds of times on these types of cases. I have passionately advocated for children in sexual abuse and child abuse cases.  I have prosecuted violent offenders in the juvenile and adult courts. 11 judges who know my abilities, experience, and courtroom demeanor, endorse me

Review:  What are the qualities that you feel people should be most concerned about when selecting a Probate Judge?

Gaus: Fairness and firmness. A judge must have a “good judicial demeanor” to allow all interested parties to truly have their “day in Court.”  I do not approach this election with a “prosecutor’s perspective,” or even that of one who has represented the allegedly guilty juvenile parties as a staple of my practice for years.  These things might tend to change one’s outlook toward this seat.
I do honestly believe that I have achieved a level of “wisdom” about the law that I could not have possessed when I was a younger lawyer. 

Greenfelder: The candidates’ impartiality and fairness are important; as is the respect for the public we serve. In this particular judgeship the candidates’ understanding of the child welfare laws, the regulations, the financing mechanisms, the agencies that deal with families, the constitutional rights of parents and children and how all of these things relate to each other is especially important.

Hession: It all comes back to experience. None of the candidates has ever been a judge before. Therefore, people should consider the prior legal experiences of each candidate. People should be most concerned about whether the candidate possesses sufficient prior legal experiences to draw upon. It is important that the candidate not only have experience in terms of years of practice; but that the candidate also has experience in different areas of law. 

A good judge makes good decisions by applying the law to the facts of a case, while drawing upon principles of fairness, justice, compassion and common sense. This is a discipline that is developed through continuing years of legal practice in different areas of law. This is why we say that a lawyer “practices” the law

Meter: Judges must have the ability to judge the credibility and veracity of those who appear before them. It is equally important for judges to have the temperament to deal with diverse types of people, especially when it comes to children. In my 19 years experience as an assistant prosecutor, I have effectively dealt with child victims of assault and abuse. I have prosecuted violent offenders in the juvenile and adult courts. Prior to that, I was a 1st grade elementary school teacher trained and experienced in dealing with children. I am also a mother. This gives me the unique and extensive experience with children in and out of the courtroom

Review: What do you feel is the most distinguishing factor between you and your opponents?

Gaus: My age and experience in the law. My extensive trial experience. My long-time interest in children. My considerable administrative experience.

Greenfelder: Unlike the other candidates, I have knowledge and experience dealing with all aspects of the court and understanding the impact the court has on families.

Hession: As I previously indicated, I have a wealth of legal experience in many different areas of the law. I have tried criminal cases both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney. I have been involved in complex products liability litigation, both in terms of trial work and motion practice, throughout the state of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

I have tried personal injury cases in front of juries. I have also had my own general practice since 1996. Of all the candidates, I am the only one who has ever had his own law practice; to put out “his own shingle” so to speak.

From 1996-2002, I accepted appointments from the Probate Court to represent parents and children in neglect proceedings.  I also accepted appointments to represent juveniles charged with a crime.

Conversely, it seems to me that my opponents have a much more narrow legal experience. My four opponents have primarily focused on criminal prosecution, adoption and divorce, insurance defense, and taking court appointments, respectively.

These distinguishing factors are very important. The voters deserve a judge who will come into office with the necessary legal skills.  The voters do not deserve a judge who will “learn on their nickel.”

Meter: Experience sets me apart from all other candidates for the position of Juvenile Division Probate Judge. I have been dealing with youth crime and the molestation and abuse of children for over 19 years as a prosecuting attorney. A judge must be tough on crime and hold people accountable for their actions. At the same time, because of my prosecutorial experience, I know the difference between a misguided youth and a serious violent offender. A judge must have the patience and compassion to guide those who appear before them. I have been advocating for the people of our community for 19 years.  

Review:  Are there any changes or improvements that you feel can be brought into Probate Court that you would like to see accomplished?

Gaus: In truth, Judge Harrison has been an exemplary judge.  The trick will not so much be found in “improving” the Court, as it will be in electing a candidate who can continue in this judicial position with Judge Harrison’s level of competence.

Greenfelder: I have been working with the court to improve the way truancy cases are handled, and I want to see that work continue. I also hope to see an expansion in the methods available to deal with delinquents to reduce the number of detentions for minor offenses. I want to intercept more of these youth and turn their behavior around at the beginning, so they don’t commit more crimes.

Hession: First, it must be noted that the major function of the Probate Court (Family Division) is to adjudicate parental rights in the face of parental neglect charges.  It is not all about adoption as some have suggested. In fact adoption is a very small percentage of what the Probate Court does. Additionally, juvenile criminal charges are typically adjudicated by the referees at the Probate Court.

The adjudication of parental rights in the face of parental neglect charges is a very complex question. Accordingly, I do not want to over simplify the issue. In many cases it is necessary for the state to get involved and protect children by removing them from the home. However in other cases, I think we need to get back to basics and let parents be parents.

In my view, we have come to define “abuse” and “neglect” in such liberal terms that the family is disintegrated and disempowered in ways which cause more harm than good. I believe there is room for improvement in this area

Meter: I am the only adult Drug Court Prosecutor in the 10th Judicial Circuit Court trained in the principles and application of drug court.  A Family Drug Court is desperately needed to help drug addicted parents become drug free for the sake of their children. With my knowledge and experience, I would institute a Family Drug Court. I would also immediately begin working with the schools to implement improved attendance to keep children off the streets and in their seats at school and to hold parents accountable who fail to send their children to school. 

Review: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the Probate Court over the next decade?

Gaus: Funding will almost assuredly be a chronic issue.  The demands on the court continue to grow, as the resources to run the court tend to diminish. In my personal opinion, we need to elect a judge who remains less interested in “putting kids in Jail” and more interested in creating community based programs that keep kids out of the court system.

Greenfelder: Obtaining financing to fund programs and services that will prevent children from entering the court system.

Hession: We are all witnessing a meltdown of our society at an unprecedented rate.  I predict an increase in the number of cases being filed for alleged parental neglect.  The biggest challenge facing the Probate Court over the next decade will be to carefully judge each case on its own merits, and not succumb to the temptation of “rubber stamping” cases in the interest of docket control

Meter: The pressing issues of fatherless children, drug and alcohol abuse, and the exploitation of children through sexual and physical abuse. 

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