The Saginaw County Circuit Court • CANDIDATE FORUM

A Contentious Battle Between Two Female Attorneys Specializing in Family Law

    icon Oct 06, 2022
    icon 0 Comments

Saginaw County has five Circuit Court Judges who are elected by the citizens of the County for six-year terms. The Circuit Court provides a forum for the resolution of disputes such as felony cases, civil cases with a value in excess of $25,000, divorce and family related matters and appeals from Probate and District Courts and administrative agencies.

This year Judge James T. Borchard is retiring as 10th Judicial Circuit Judge for the County of Saginaw. The usual practice in Michigan is for a judge to retire early, allowing the appointment of a replacement judge by the governor. The replacement judge is constitutionally entitled to be designated as an incumbent with “Honorable Circuit Judge so and so” on the ballot, so their first race after an appointment is usually a re-election campaign. Incumbent judges are not typically challenged as incumbents, and almost always win if they are.

Judge Borchard has given the citizens of Saginaw County the rare honor of selecting our own replacement. The August primary cut the initial field of five candidates down to the following two: Brittany Dicken, who was the top vote-getter in the primary; and Megan Cottington-Heath, who finished second in the primary.

Since the winner of this race will likely be re-elected as circuit judge well into the future, this election is an important one.

Both candidates are attorneys in good standing, and none have run for judge before. They will now face off in the November 8 general election.

REVIEW: Kindly provide us with your professional background, why you are seeking this Circuit Court position, and what qualifies you best for this position?

Cottington-Heath: I am running for Circuit Court Judge because the current system does not serve modern-day, 21st-century families, and it hasn’t changed for the better in the over 28 years since my parents’ exceptionally adversarial divorce. Now, as a married mother of three young children, I know the judiciary needs to do better for families, and I know what a modern family expects from their Justice system: fairness and understanding.

This position is for a family law judge, and I have practiced family law my whole career. If elected, I am committed to actively listening to the matters before me and working with the families of Saginaw. As a trained mediator, I also believe in promoting the use of mediation and other tools to make cases less adversarial from start to finish.

I have always been committed to fairness and equal access to justice for all, and I believe that would be an asset for the bench. I was awarded the Holli Wallace Pro Bono attorney of the year award in 2019 for my commitment to Pro Bono work (free legal work). If elected Circuit Court Judge, I will continue to believe that access to fair justice is not just for those with money, but for everyone

Saginaw needs a judge like me who is intimately connected to the realities of families living and parenting today. I am a working-class candidate who is representative of the community I would preside over. I'm not part of the establishment, and as such I can help work toward the change and fairness Saginaw families deserve.  If elected, I am dedicated to being fair, and impartial to all those before. I’d be honored to have your vote

Dicken: I am honored to be running for the position of 10th Circuit Court Judge.  I have been a long time Saginaw Township resident where I reside with my husband, Chase, and daughter, Charlotte.  I am a dedicated public servant and am running for this position because of my love for helping children and families, my unmatched experience in family court, and my desire to continue to serve this community. 

I am kind, compassionate, and experienced, and have devoted almost my entire legal career to serving the wonderful people of Saginaw.  I was honored to be selected as the number one choice in the August primary and would be even more honored to have your vote on November 8.

 If elected, I will continue my efforts in making our courts more accessible and easier to navigate and vow to stay involved in the community so that I am aware of our communities needs and where our courts need improvement. Please visit my website for more

REVIEW: Please explain the depth of your experience in family court in the 10th Circuit Court?

Dicken: I have vast and unmatched experience in family court in the 10th Circuit Court.  I began working for the County of Saginaw and in the 10th Circuit Court in 2011, while still a law student.  After graduating  I accepted a position as a law clerk for the Honorable Fred L. Borchard where I served for a year and a half handling civil, criminal and family law cases, writing opinions, working on trials, and assisting with general motions, sentencings, and pre-trial litigation. 

In 2014, I accepted a position as a staff attorney at the Friend of the Court.  As a staff attorney, I handled a caseload of approximately 6,500 active cases and appeared in court practically every day of the week for almost 4 years.  I filed motions, legal briefs, investigated cases for changes in custody and parenting time, provided the court with background information and recommendations, mediated hundreds of cases to an amicable resolution, conducted home inspections to ensure appropriate living environments for children, and drafted orders resolving cases and following court hearings.  I calculated and modified child support orders, represented the State on civil arraignments and show cause hearings, and worked out payment plans for child support. 

After being appointed as a Circuit Court Referee, I was assigned a caseload of approximately 14,000 active cases and presided over hundreds of motions, hearings, and facilitations.  Many of our hearings were on the record and conducted in the same manner as court hearings in Circuit Court.  I swore in witnesses, took testimony, ruled on objections and issued opinions and orders from the bench or by taking the matter under advisement and issuing a written opinion. 

I also conducted hearings to establish paternity, working in close proximity with the prosecutor’s office.  Most of my orders had interim effect pending an objection period and were binding unless otherwise appealed to Circuit Court.   During facilitations as a Referee, I met with the parties in a settlement conference style and utilized my training as a Certified Domestic Relations Mediator to resolve disputes amicably at the onset of the case. 

I issued temporary orders that remained in place until final resolution or trial.  After working in the office for five years, I was appointed as the Director of the Friend of the Court.  As Director, I served as the lead attorney of the office, managed the office of 40+ public service employees, allocated a $5.4 million dollar budget, wrote administrative orders and both internal and external policies and procedures, conducted hearings and investigations, answered client questions and addressed complicated legal issues for local attorneys and judges.   

Cottington-Heath: I’m currently a practicing family law attorney. Over the last 9 years I have lived in Saginaw, I have either been the attorney of record, or helped as an associate attorney with family law cases in this county. In the past 3 years, I have managed my own firm that I opened in 2019. My practice is dedicated to providing family law services to Saginaw families, and especially those who are members of marginalized communities, low income, working poor, and or living paycheck to paycheck.

 I have taken family law cases in Saginaw County from the filing of a complaint all the way to trial. I haven’t just “handled” or “overseen” cases, I have actually been the attorney of record who stood next to a client and argued their case in front of a judge from start to finish.

 In addition to handling family law domestic cases, I have a contract with Saginaw County to handle family division abuse and neglect cases in Saginaw County. I represent children and families in the abuse and neglect system. These cases require knowledge of a very specialized area of the law, and they move quickly. We have to go to trial within 63 days if a child is removed from their home, and within 6 months if the child remains in home. That means I am frequently handling more than one trial a month

REVIEW: Where do you currently work and or for how long?

Cottington-Heath: I currently work at Cottington-Heath Law, PLC, located in the city of Saginaw at 1508 Court Street #1, Saginaw, MI 48602. Cottington-Heath Law, PLC is my own firm that I opened in 2018. I have one employee - my wonderful legal assistant Florence.

Dicken: My entire practice and career has primarily been dedicated to public service as an attorney for the County of Saginaw and specifically in family court.  I was employed with the county for almost nine years.   In 2021, I accepted a position as an associate attorney at McGraw Morris, P.C., a law firm specializing in civil defense litigation and general representation of municipalities, school districts, police and corporations.  Running for this position has been a career long dream and accepting a position in private practice in 2021 was to ensure that I have well-rounded experience as an advocate and a neutral unbiased decision maker to best serve the citizens of Saginaw. I was blessed to welcome a daughter in April 2022 and have been on leave following her birth and am doing some Pro Bono work on various issues including family law

REVIEW: Please describe your caseload and the types of cases you personally handle?

Dicken: As a staff attorney at the Friend of the Court, I handled an average caseload of 6,500 cases.  My practice was exclusive to the Family Division.  I appeared in court practically every day of the week for almost four years.  After being appointed as a circuit court referee in the Family Division, I managed a caseload of approximately 14,000 cases and presided over hundreds of facilitations and motion hearings related to child support, custody, paternity, parenting time, spousal support and division of marital assets.

It is important to distinguish my experience as a referee and practicing attorney, as I have extensive experience in both realms.  As an attorney, I appeared in court before the Family Court judge.  To prepare, I conducted investigations and made recommendations to the court regarding custody, parenting time, child support and medical support and assisted unrepresented parties by offering voluntary alternate dispute resolution services to help settle disagreements.  I provided forms and assistance for parties in filing motions and responses regarding parenting time, custody, support, change of domicile and repayment plans.

As a referee, I presided over and made decisions on thousands of cases involving family law.  Essentially, I performed many of the same duties as does the Circuit Court Family Division Judge.  In fact, my decisions were binding unless appealed.  During that time, I became well acquainted with virtually every aspect of matters involving child custody, parenting time, child support, paternity and other related matters.  As such, I am well-versed, experienced and knowledgeable in family law and its application to a myriad of circumstances. 

Most importantly, this position requires not only expertise, but a balanced temperament.  No longer was I an advocate, but a decision-maker, which compels empathy for both sides and an ability to analyze what are often complicated laws and apply them fairly to the dispute before me.  The difference between someone’s experience in advocacy and the proficiency in adjudicating is manifest and distinct.  I know, because I have done both for many years. 

Finally, upon my appointment to serve as Director of the Friend of the Court office, I managed the operation having the responsibility to aid the Family Division Court in administering its 26,000 cases involving divorce, paternity, custody and support matters.  I investigated custody cases, resolved complicated legal issues and served as the lead attorney in Saginaw’s family court, while writing policies, procedures, administrative orders and allocating and managing a $5.4 million dollar budget. 

From my service as a judicial law clerk, to staff attorney at the Friend of the Court, to Circuit Court Referee, to Director of the Friend of the Court, and finally in private practice, I have the most comprehensive experience to serve in this position.  No practitioner has such a variety of perspectives or insight into the operation of the Court, nor do they have the necessary experience as an unbiased and impartial arbiter as I did while serving as Referee.

Cottington-Heath: I have a rather large caseload, although at the moment it has been reduced because I have taken on fewer clients while running my campaign. The majority of my current caseload is abuse/neglect cases, and domestic family law cases.

REVIEW: Do you have extensive trial court and motion practice experience as an attorney representing litigants in court?

Cottington-Heath: Yes, I have represented hundreds of clients from the start of the case all the way through trial. I haven’t just overseen cases from an agency perspective. I have extensive experience as a trial lawyer. I have been part of trials that lasted a day or less and trials that lasted weeks. I have gone to trial in front of circuit court judges, district court judges, and probate court judges. I am also trained by the National Institute of Trial Advocates (NITA) which is a premier trial skills organization that trains top-notch attorneys all over the country. I’ve worked very hard to improve my trial skills to perform the very best for my clients.

Dicken: Yes.  As an employee of the Courts, I represented the State and the best interests of minor children.  I have filed thousands of motions over my legal career and have participated in hundreds of family law trials.  I appeared in court on almost a daily basis as a staff attorney on motion hearings and enforced court orders for the benefit of the minor children involved in these cases.  I have worked on thousands of cases through the entire life of the case starting with pre-trial through trial and post-judgment. 

As an attorney in private practice, I have filed a wide range of pre-trial and trial documents and represented parties in various motion hearings, depositions and negotiations.  However, my experience as a neutral unbiased decision maker in family court is far more relevant and akin to the nature of the Circuit judge position than my experience as an advocate.   It is often a difficult transition for attorneys who have only served as an advocate to change hats and serve as a neutral decision maker.  Since I have already held a quasi-judicial position and the majority of my career has focused on representing the best interests of children, this transition for me is natural and seamless.  

REVIEW: What other professional and educational experiences have prepared you to serve as a Circuit Court judge?

Dicken: Aside from my legal education and vast experience in family law, I have also engaged in continued education in family law every year since I became an attorney.  I have attended trainings and seminars on trial litigation, pre-trial matters, implicit bias trainings, custody determinations, child support calculations, tax implications in family law, divisions of assets, issues in establishing paternity, and childhood trauma through the Michigan Friend of the Court Association, the Family Law Institute, the American Association for Matrimonial Lawyers, and the Michigan Judicial Institute.   

I completed Referee training to be a quasi-judicial officer which covered all areas of family law, the Michigan Rules of Evidence, and the Michigan Court Rules.  Sitting as a Circuit Court Referee where I ran hearings, admitted evidence, ruled on objections, and made decisions from the bench in the same manner as a judge would was the best and most relevant experience to prepare me to serve as Circuit Court judge. 

I received a certification in civil mediation while in law school and received certification as a Domestic Relations Mediator in 2015.  I am trained in identifying and handling cases involving domestic violence.  I served as a Regional Director for the Michigan Friend of the Court Association and sat on the legislative committee advocating for changes in family laws at the state level to improve equality and reasonable access to our courts.  I was recognized nationally for our work done in Saginaw County and presented a seminar on expanding the accessibility of child support services with the National Child Support Enforcement Council.  I have written administrative orders for Saginaw County and developed policies and procedures for streamlining family court cases in order to expedite services for the public.  I am the only candidate who is familiar with the county structure, budgeting, processes and have a keen understanding of how to effectively make changes and get things done in a government setting. 

I am often consulted as an area expert by judges and local attorneys on complicated family law issues.  I taught monthly family law seminars for members of the public for over a year at Butman-Fish library and presented legal updates and analysis on changes in the law and processes numerous times before the Domestic Relations Committee of the Saginaw County Bar Association.

Cottington-Heath: Because my parents had a very acrimonious divorce, I have always wanted to help make things in family law cases less adversarial. As a result, I obtained mediation certificates in both civil and domestic matters, and domestic violence training.

 I also was involved in trauma training that explains and teaches the way individuals act as a result of trauma. Divorce is a traumatic experience, so this training, especially on adverse childhood experiences, has been invaluable for my practice.

Additionally, I have a son with special needs, and after spending time advocating for him, I decided to get my a certificate from the Council of Parents and Attorney Advocates in special education law. I’ve used the skills I learned from that certification process to help multiple special needs children.

As I have become so busy in court, I decided to take the National Institute of Trial Advocates (NITA) Deposition to Trial training so that I had top notch trial skills in court.

I have watched and attended events from Lives in the Balance, which tries to prevent the school to prison pipeline, and to teach advocates to work with children in ways that are trauma informed and rehabilitative in nature.

REVIEW: Are you endorsed by any civic organizations?

Cottington-Heath: I am endorsed by Mid-Michigan Area Labor Council, Tri-County Building Trades UAW Local 668, Michigan Association of Justice, The Michigan Democratic Party Justice Caucus, Michigan Equality Action Network, Michigan LGBTQ&A Caucus, LPAC Victory Fund.

Dicken: I am honored to have over 60 endorsements for this seat from Judges, Attorneys, Elected Officials, Community Leaders, and Organizations.  I have been endorsed by the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM) and the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan (WLAM).  I was awarded WLAM’s highest rating of “outstanding”. Such a rating has not been given to any candidate across the State of Michigan since 2018.  I have an overwhelming majority of support from legal professionals who practice family law here in Saginaw, 11 of our 12 judges currently on the bench, and three retired Saginaw County judges.  I am proud to have a wide range of bi-partisan support and support from organizations that are relevant to this position. These are the people who live in the realm of family law, they know what this position encompasses on a day-to-day basis and have supported me based on my proven capabilities as an attorney, as a person, and as a leader in the County. 

REVIEW: Are you active in any civic organizations or political parties, and would you plan to involve yourself in any civic or partisan political activities during your tenure as a Circuit Court judge subject to the limitations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics?

Dicken: Public service and community service are of the highest importance to me and I incorporate service into all aspects of my life.  I have been involved in many civic organizations over the last ten years that are doing great work in the Saginaw Community.  I was formerly a volunteer with the Jaycees of Saginaw, was a steering committee member of Families Against Narcotics and a provisional member with the Junior League of Saginaw.  

I am currently a member of the Saginaw Sunrise Rotary Club, the 100 club, the Junior League of Saginaw and Saginaw Leadership Cares.  I have volunteered with many organizations including the Mustard Seed Shelter and the East Side Soup Kitchen, and I serve as a volunteer attorney advisor for Party on McCarty.  I have been an active member of the Saginaw County Bar Association previously serving as the Secretary and currently as the Vice President. 

I wholeheartedly endorse and comply with Canon 7, which states that a candidate for judicial office should refrain from political activity inappropriate to judicial office.  I don’t believe judges or judicial candidates should be involved in partisan politics, including accepting a political party’s endorsement. 

I have not sought, nor would I accept the endorsement of any political party or partisan organization.  To do so, especially in these times of deep partisan divide, alienates those who rightfully expect judges to be undeniably non-partisan.  I am proud not to have any partisan background and believe my ability to include and attract diverse supporters with different backgrounds, experiences and political views has benefitted me personally, will make me a better judge, and gives confidence to voters that I have no allegiance to any party or partisan preferences.

Cottington-Heath:  As this is a non-partisan position, I have spoken at the meetings of both political parties in this county; however, I am more active with the Democratic party. I am not officially a member of either local party. I tried to attend two more meetings of the Saginaw County Republican Party, but those meetings were cancelled or moved. I’m also a member of or involved with the League of Women Voters, the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce, PFLAG, Great Lakes Bay Pride, and I recently applied to be a member of the NAACP Saginaw Chapter. I am also a producer and member of the board for Motor City Comedy Festival, and a member of the St. Matthews Episcopal Church.

Motor City Comedy festival, League of Women Voters, PFLAG, GLB Pride, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and the NAACP are non-profit organizations, so if I am elected, I likely would continue to be involved to the extent permitted by the Judicial canons with these organizations. 

As for any political parties or political activities, if I am elected, I would have to step back from involvement in any political event or party during my tenure as a member of the Judiciary.

REVIEW: As a trier of fact, would you attach more credibility to the word of a lawyer, officer, or other government official  than the word of a layperson, all other things being equal?

Cottington-Heath: All things being equal, I would attach the same fair and impartial credibility to the word of any of those listed above.

Dicken: There is not a one size fits all response to this statement as each individual’s credibility needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis.  The word of an officer, government official or lawyer should not be given more weight or attached more credibility solely on the basis on their position, but rather, credibility should be determined by utilizing common sense and everyday experiences without any biases towards the person giving the statement. 

When determining credibility, certain factors should be considered such as whether the person seems to have a good memory, the body language of the person while giving their statements, whether the person evaded questions or stumbled when questioned, whether they have any special interest in the case to tell the truth or a reason to lie, and whether they have any bias, prejudice, or personal interest in the outcome of the case.  

REVIEW: Are you acquainted with and do you consider your opponent to be a fair minded person and qualified to serve as Circuit Court Judge, understanding that you prefer yourself for the job?

Dicken: I am not well-acquainted with my opponent.  As a referee, I do not recall her appearing before me on any family law cases.  I also do not recall any interactions with her representing a party on one of my assigned family court cases while I was a staff attorney from 2014-2018. 

I met briefly with my opponent when I was the Director of the Friend of the Court around 2019 for purposes of discussing Friend of the Court procedures and processes. My opponent has not held a position that would allow me to assess her fairness.  Based on my lack of personal experience with my opponent in family court, I am unable to comment on her potential to be fair-minded or otherwise qualified to serve as a circuit court judge.

Cottington-Heath: I am acquainted with my opponent through dealings with the Friend of the Court as an attorney representing my clients while she was an employee of the Friend of the Court.

I do not think Brittany is currently qualified to serve as a Circuit Court judge.

I know that she frequently cites that she’s handled or supervised thousands of cases while she worked at the Friend of the Court, but that is very misleading. Handling a case, or supervising a case is very different from actually representing a client from the filing of a complaint all the way through to a trial.

As far as I know, my opponent has never tried a case as an attorney, and is currently unemployed. I know she served for 7 months as a Friend of the Court Referee, and likes to represent that she served in a “quasi-judicial fashion,” but those hearings are typically less than 15 minutes, involve very limited evidence or testimony, and certainly are not trials. She simply does not have any experience as a licensed attorney involved in motion practice and using trial skills.

I’m also concerned that my opponent will not like the position, and will leave the job prematurely. My opponent ran the Friend of the Court for roughly two years. It is highly unusual to be promoted to such a big position so quickly in an attorney’s career, so she was very fortunate to land that job. However, less than two years later, she decided to leave that position to work at a firm in Troy, Michigan.

When she left her position with the Friend of the Court, she stated in her exit interview that she didn’t like her job, wanted to be out practicing law, and didn’t want to manage people. I have attached a copy of the exit interview.

Further, she wanted to practice law, but did not choose to practice law in Saginaw. Then, less than a year later, she is back running for a position that would include the very things that caused her to leave her job in Saginaw, and work for a firm in Troy.

Additionally, my opponent has been saying she is a public servant while unemployed and or also saying that she is on maternity leave from a firm in Troy, Michigan. However, her employment with the firm concluded in March of 2022, according to a federal filing that I have also attached. Despite this, she continues to represent to the public in mailings and at events that she works at the Troy firm or is on leave from that firm.

These things together lead me to believe she would be happier finding a job that doesn’t involve working with the Friend of the Court and managing people.

To sum things up, I don’t believe my opponent is qualified to serve as a Circuit Court judge, and specifically this Circuit Court judge position, because she had the opportunity to run a big part of the family law system, and she decided she didn’t like it.

She left because she didn’t like the very things she would be doing as a Circuit Court judge presiding over family law cases. But less than a year later, she is back saying that she does want to work with the Friend of the Court, and manage people.

That causes me a lot of concern, and it is unfair to the families of Saginaw to have a Circuit Court judge who left working for our county return to work for the county she so desperately wanted to leave.

Share on:

Comments (0)

icon Login to comment