Facing the Court: The 10th Circuit Judicial Candidate Forum

Posted In: Politics, Local, Candidates, Interviews,   From Issue 623   By: Robert E Martin

05th October, 2006     0

One of the key contests in the November 7th Mid-Term Elections consists of an unusual challenge for the 10th Circuit Court Judgeship in Saginaw County.

Though the judicial branch in Michigan is comprised of 'non-partisan' candidates, judges often carry party affiliations.

In this instance, when former Chief Circuit Judge Leopold Borrello retired earlier this year, back in April Governor Jennifer Granholm promoted former District Judge Darnell Jackson to the post, prompting former Republican 94th District State House of Representatives incumbent Jim Howell (term limited in 2006) to run for this judgeship.  Apart from Jackson, Howell will also face-off against incumbent Circuit Court Judge Lynda Heathscott.

As one of country's forefathers, Alexander Hamilton, once noted: "The first duty of society is justice."  That voters have an opportunity to decide upon candidates best suited for this significant position is indeed a rare opportunity. Apart from the years 1947 and 1980, this is only the third occasion over the past 60 years when incumbent circuit judges have had to confront a challenger.

In the interests of providing a better-informed electorate, we recently gave each of the three Circuit Court candidates an opportunity to address the public through our on-going series of Candidate Forums.

We hope you find this discussion between incumbent Darnell Jackson and challenger Jim Howell both informing and educational. Unfortunately, we did not receive any response from incumbent Lynda Heathscott.

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

Howell: I have been involved with the courts in Saginaw County in various capacities for over 35 years.  I began by being a police officer in the City of Saginaw.  Working on the streets as a patrol officer put me in direct contact with the victims of crime in our community.  Seeing first hand, as opposed to simply reading reports and viewing pictures of crime scenes, is a difference that is hard to explain.

It certainly produced an empathetic outlook toward those who are victimized in our society.  During the time I was a police officer, I put myself through college, and law school.  I then began my career as a lawyer, and have been a lawyer in Saginaw County for over 25 years. 

My practice involved primarily family law and trial practice.  Over those many years I was privileged to practice before the courts of this county, and many other counties, representing a variety of clients and case types. 

In 1998 I was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives for the 94th District.  Over the next 6 years I was served as the Vice Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee and the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. 
The Judiciary Committee has the responsibility for overseeing all legislation involving civil law, criminal law, and the courts throughout the State of Michigan.  During that time 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 citizens throughout this state.  After leaving the Legislature, I became an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan, handling felony child support cases throughout the state. 

On the personal side I have been married to my wife Maureen for 35 years.  We have 3 children, Sam, Rebecca and Heather, and 6 grandchildren.  My two daughters are both elementary teachers in the public schools, and my son, due to a serious auto accident is at home, being taken care of by my wife and myself.  Hopefully, he will soon be reentering college at Michigan State University.

Jackson:  I was engaged in the private practice of law, with an emphasis on civil litigation. I handled a variety of civil cases.

Also, I have served as an assistant prosecutor, Deputy Police Chief, Judge, and now Circuit Court Judge. I understand and have been involved in every single facet of the criminal justice system. This experience gives me a truly unique perspective on the law.

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

Jackson: People should be concerned foremost with the qualifications of a person. While someone may be qualified to do another job, that does not qualify them to be a judge.

People should be concerned with the experience of the candidates. Judges make decisions that affect the lives of people and society as a whole, and experience is the one factor that is not optional.

Also, there should be concern about whether someone has the right temperament to do the job.

Howell: Obviously, professional experience is important.  However even more important is the variety of professional experience and life experience that a person brings to the position. 

Judges at all levels are called upon to make decisions for the public that can have a direct and dramatic impact on their lives.  Common sense, and the way the person has lived their lives is often times as important as the professional experience he or she may bring to the bench. 

Judges are called upon to decide cases involving the family, the custody of children and marriage.  They preside over criminal cases and in the event of a guilty verdict, are responsible for imposing a proper sentence that is fair to the defendant and protects society.

They handle a variety of civil cases that can be of extreme financial importance to the litigants.  All these responsibilities present more of a challenge than even prior experience as a judge or legal training can provide.  The depth of a judge's life experience is often times the deciding factor in determining whether a person is a good judge.

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

Howell: All of us have the professional experience to handle the position.  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.

Jackson: My job experiences are what distinguish me. Each of them has given me an  'overview' of the law that has served me, and the public well.

My experience allows me to bring so much more knowledge to the position of judge. I understand the workings, and the limitations of the justice system from beginning to end.

Review: Are there any changes or improvements that you feel can be brought into Circuit Court over the next term?

Jackson: Yes. Since taking the bench in April I have instituted pre-trial settlement conferences. These conferences will speed up the number of cases that get to trial, or that settle. They force the parties to look at the issues prior to the date of trial and foster real discussion, so that the case either gets settled, or the parties know exactly what issues remain when the case is to be tried.

Howell: Absolutely.  During the time in which I chaired the Judiciary Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives I took a number of steps to make the courts throughout the state more responsive to the needs of those they serve. 

The public perception is that the courts are too slow.  Although there is merit in carefully deciding cases, and allowing for a full hearing of rights and facts, nonetheless court cases, no matter what type, are not like fine wine.  They do not get better with age. 

Beginning in 1999 there was a move to remove one of the District Judges from Saginaw County.  I opposed this, and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee was able to block the removal.  The request to remove this judgeship has continued to this day, and even after I left the Legislature I was able to have influence on this decision.  It was my belief that this judgeship could be useful to the citizens of this county by reallocating the workload between the various levels of the court.  In furtherance of that belief, I sponsored a law that allowed the District, Probate, and Circuit court to share jurisdiction (share cases) without regard to the technical nature of the case.  This requires agreement between the judges on these courts, and in some cases it has met with resistance for a variety of reasons. 

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.

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.  As I answered in the previous question, we need to speed up the resolution of all cases, but especially the criminal docket. 

Often, many of those in the jail population are there as a result of pretrial detention (they cannot make bond or are being held without bond awaiting trial).  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. 

This also will have an effect on the possibility of having to release prisoners early, which in all cases does not meet the sentence that was imposed.

The courts in Saginaw County are beginning a pilot project using two of the district judges for circuit court arraignments.  This will have the effect of speeding up the process and is certainly a step in the right direction.  However, much more can and should be done to utilize all our judicial resources.

Jackson: Yes. At the judicial level we can whenever possible make use of the Electronic Monitoring System (tether program) as opposed to sentencing someone to a jail term.

The systems are effective, and still serve as a deterrent to breaking the law. However, we must be mindful of who we place on the system. At all times we must balance the very real problem of jail overcrowding against the need to protect the general public.

Review: Do you feel that the Legislature has encroached too far into issues of judicial discretion, enacting a cut & dry approach to matters that could be better addressed and determined on an individual case-by-case basis?

Jackson: The purpose behind sentencing guidelines is good. They provide consistency in sentencing when it comes to certain crimes, as opposed to vast differences depending on the jurisdiction where the crime occurred.

They do also take away some judicial discretion. Yet, the guidelines do allow for some deviation from them if a judge can articulate "substantial and compelling" reasons for doing so. This still affords an opportunity to look at things on a case-by-case basis and do what you feel is appropriate.

Your decision may be appealed, but if you're worried about being appealed you probably shouldn't be a judge in the first place.

Howell: To some extent they have, but this was a direct response many years ago to wide disparity in sentencing throughout this state.  When judges had total discretion to sentence as they pleased there was no consistency from county to county, nor even between judges in the same county.  An individual's sentence often depended more on who the judge was and where you committed the crime, rather than on the crime you committed. 

When I was a police officer we often joked that we wished some of our more notorious criminals in Saginaw would go up North and commit a crime, as the next time we saw them they would be gray and using a cane.  However appealing this might be at times, this is not justice. 

Justice is dependent on personal behavior, and the act committed, and should not be dependent simply on a particular judge and on the location within the state.  However, we have gone too far in removing discretion from our judicial branch.  Many of us who served in the Legislature realized that the sentencing guidelines were too rigid, but it was difficult to educate all the members on this rather complex issue. 

Term limits has made the job of education all the more difficult.  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 guidelines more, allowing judges the option to depart upward, or in some cases downward on the sentence the individual received.

I believe that this would truly serve the interests of justice.  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.

Review: Feel free to comment on any other concerns or key issues that I might not have touched upon that you feel are significant for voters to be aware of and consider in this election.

Howell: Voters should be more aware of the importance of the decision they are making in electing an individual as a judge.  Judges, especially circuit judges, have a direct and dramatic impact on the lives of those who appear before them, including the victims of crime. 

Traditionally, the public has not paid much attention to these elections, but they are certainly one of the most important offices we vote on. 

Often, judges run without opposition, as has been the tradition in Saginaw County.  In fact, we have only had three occasions over the past 60 years when incumbent circuit judges have had any challenge whatsoever.  1947, 1980, and on November 7th 2006. 

This decision needs to be made carefully, without regard to any partisan considerations, as it is vitally important to each of individually, and to our community as a whole.

I believe that a judge needs to be more than just professionally well qualified and fair in the courtroom.  I am well qualified, and I will be fair.  However, the next circuit judge must also address the overall system and attempt to influence the other judges to carefully modify the process.  This will make the courts more responsive to the public, speeding up the process so that we do not have as long a delay in the cases. 

Justice delayed is not only justice denied, it is also expensive to the entire system.

This is why on November 7th I ask for your vote.

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