I've met Bay City attorney Ed Czuprynski a couple times, but I can't really say I know the guy. Now, I know a little of his legend and history, as he set some definitive legal precedent in the United States Supreme Court representing his own interests as a young attorney.
Having only lived in the area for 9 years, I know a little more of his current reputation as a thorn in the side of the Bay City Establishment and as one of a handful of lawyers in this area that you hire when you are really in a lot of trouble. Like him or not, all evidence demonstrates the guy is good and competent.
I thought I'd get a chance to talk to Ed for this story, but he declined the opportunity to be interviewed for this piece, so I am forced to go with the information in his 43 page press release, the stories in the local press and more than a little bit of personal experience with the culture at the Bay County Court House.
Here we go.
In the Ring for a Robe
This chapter of Mr. Czuprynski's story started when he filed to run in the August primary election as a District Court judge, a seat currently held by incumbent Tim Kelly. This isn't the first time that Czuprynski has run for office, nor is it the first time that there has been controversy surrounding his run.
According to information available in the press release, Czuprynski entered the race for the judgeship on May 1. A week later, Kelly issued memos to court staff telling them to reassign cases on his docket in which Czuprynski was the attorney of record. He issued further instructions stating they were to accept no further appearances in Kelly's court with cases in which Czuprynski's clients were involved.
Given the types of cases that Kelly handles, including almost all domestic violence cases in Bay County, Czuprynski saw this not only as a violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to the counsel of your choice, but also of his right to make a living in the run up to the election. He terms Kelly's actions retaliation.
The plot thickened when District Court Judge Dawn Klida entered an order supporting Kelly's informal instructions, for all intents barring Czuprynski from a broad array of cases and clients in District Court between now and the August elections.
So, as he does, Ed filed suit.
What Is Right
I took the liberty of talking to one of my close friends who is an attorney while preparing for this story. While he preferred not to go on the record, he is pretty qualified to comment. He is not only a respected practicing attorney, he teaches law school and, though he lives and works in a larger city now, he actually began his legal career in Bay City and has some feeling for the local legal environment and some of the characters involved in this story.
When I recounted the current situation to him and allowed him to read the press release, court filings related to the suit and the local news coverage. The word he used for the behavior of the sitting judges involved was “gob smacked.”
“Everyone who walks into the courtroom - judges, lawyers, defendants, plaintiffs - pledges they will play by the rules. The attorneys have a professional responsibility to do so. But the judges have a unique role, in the fact that they are supposed to make sure the proceeding is fair. They can't bring biases. While the attorney agrees to help uphold the law, it is presumed he has bias from the get go, as he is an advocate for one side. If there is a conflict, no questions asked, it is the judge who has to step aside. In fact, it is one of his first decisions - “Can I be impartial in this case?”
While my attorney friend didn't quote any specific case law, a couple of other local attorneys familiar with the case referenced the 2006 ruling U.S. v. Gonzalez-Lopez. In this case, the defendant was charged in a drug conspiracy and the district court wrongfully forced him to go forward with trial without the hired counsel of his choice. Defendant was convicted and the conviction was reversed in the Eighth Circuit. The government appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari (basically, a review).
The Supreme Court held that the denial of a defendant's right to hire the counsel of his choice is a structural error for which harmless error analysis does not apply. Thus, whenever a defendant is wrongfully denied the right to hire the counsel of his own choosing, reversal is required. The Court qualified the statement by emphasizing that the ruling applied only to situations where the defendant's right to hire the counsel of his choice was wrongfully denied; the ruling did not limit a court's ability to define which attorneys may practice before it or to exclude an attorney based upon scheduling issues.
Further, the court indicated that its decision did not apply to appointed counsel, only to privately retained attorneys. Accordingly, the conviction was reversed.
That's what we are up against here. If a defendant in a Kelly courtroom indicates they would have preferred Czuprynski and are convicted, they might get off due to the fact they didn't have their counsel of choice. Judges know this rule. It's their job to understand all the rules that have been established to make sure the judicial process is fair.
Speaking of Bias
The headline confrontation here is Czuprynski versus Kelly, but it's not the only intriguing story. Czuprynski isn't just suing Kelly; he is also suing Judge Dawn Klida who issued the order that formalized Kelly's desire to exclude the attorney from one whole corner of the courthouse.
Klida and Czuprynski also have a history and it's not just from sparing in court during Kilda's days as a local civil attorney. Klida was one of two judges appointed in Bay County in the waning days of the Granholm governorship. One appointment, that of Jen Barnes, was subjected to a full on assault by the local legal community and, after a very bare knuckles political fight, she was unable to hold on to the seat in the Fall 2010 elections. She is now working for Mike Thomas in the Saginaw Prosecutor's office and apparently doing a bang-up job.
Klida's appointment, however, went largely unchallenged - with one notable exception. Ed Czuprynski wrote and published a paid advertisement arguing with the process and the decision that placed Dawn Klida on the bench. He may have been in the minority amongst the local bar members, but he said it and it's still out there. And here's one guess that Klida both read it and hasn't forgotten it. My feeling, as a fairly experience legal layperson, Ms. Klida should have recused herself from making any ruling about Ed Czuprynski's ability to practice law.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have also had some firsthand experience with Judge Klida, though it was before she was appointed to the bench. I guess I will just say that it wouldn't be any surprise to me if the appeals court rules that she booted this ruling and leave it at that. For some people, I guess the ends justify the means. Problem here is Ed Czuprynski and I both agree you can't give that impression when you are a sitting judge. Hence, the lawsuits.
What is A Good Result?
There is an old saying in law that goes something like “you get the legal system you deserve.” Bay County doesn't have the reputation it does as a political quagmire without a strong steer from the legal community and the local court system.
I am not a reporter; I do opinions. If you have much experience in other courthouses and courtrooms, you have to come away with the opinion that they, at the very least, run a pretty loose ship in Bay City. This is a fact that Mr. Czuprynski has taken great effort to point out over the years. From cronyism to issues of Constitutional law, Bay County is turning into a place where it is tough to believe you will get justice.
It's no coincidence that Czuprynski's law firm is named Bay Justice Associates, as that is clearly the role he feels he serves - helping his clients obtain a just result, obtained by the rules.
Here's the thing: While I very much hope that Ed Czuprynski continues to be successful in all the things he does, including the current suit, I kind of want him to finish second to Kelly when we hit Election Day. It's because I think any result that removes Ed from his current role as the local lightning rod and our “attorney of conscience” would be a net loss for our community.
He already has an important role and it really is one that requires his special kind of “bias.” I am not saying that I support Kelly for re-election or that I don't think Ed Czuprynski would make a heck of a judge. I just think he is too important to this town to send him into the silence and reserve that comes with a black robe.
In the meantime, let's see how this plays out. It looks like it should be an open and shut case.
Regardless of the result, it is reasonably good theater, as it reveals so much of the character of the people involved. Shakespeare did this as well as anyone, showing us triumph, tragedy and the power of that all-important second act. And, if Ed Czuprynski has one of the lead roles, I'll pretty much just grab the popcorn and watch.
It's always a good show.