Courtroom experience leads to student votes for judges

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by Kellie Rowe

As someone with a close friend who spent time behind bars for a minor-in-possession offense, elementary education junior America MacDermaid knows the importance of electing the right person to don a black robe and sit on the bench.

“When students get out of hand, East Lansing judges have control over what happens to a student facing charges,” she said. “So it’s really important to elect the best candidate to office.”

MacDermaid is one of many MSU students who know a fellow student subject to the rulings of an East Lansing 54B District Court judge. As November elections quickly approach, two candidates — Andrew Larkin and state Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing — are vying for a seat on the bench. On Tuesday evening, each hopeful had a chance to discuss his or her views during a debate on HOMTV’s Ballot Meridian 2012 program.

The 54B District Court is divided into multiple divisions. The criminal division cases can yield possible incarceration of a year or less. The civil division handles disputes of $25,000 or less, along with a small claims division and a parking division. Two-thirds of the court’s docket comprises parking ticket violations. Twenty percent are civil cases and 5 percent are misdemeanors such as minors in possession, according to the candidates.

Larkin explained her experience as assistant city attorney for the city of Grandville working with more than 100 jury trials regarding similar types of cases heard by a 54B judge qualified her for the position. Meadows said his time representing the state of Michigan and his long history of courtroom practice made him the better candidate.

Meadows said one of the biggest issues courts are facing is the significant change in the way the courts practice law, due in great part to technology.

“Courts need to adjust to that so that’s a challenge for the court’s system,” he said.

Larkin argued 54B District Court is unique in that elected officials must work to maintain relations between the more than 47,000 students of MSU that dominate the city with the 27,000 East Lansing residents.

“The challenge of 54B is balancing the legitimate and profound interests of the citizens of East Lansing and the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of a quality life and their neighborhoods with this gigantic university which is next door full of exuberant, energetic, innovative students who are also having their college experience, sometimes in the same neighborhood (as East Lansing residents,)” she said.

Larkin said she had spoken with East Lansing residents who have watched students stumble into their hallways, saying no homeowners should be subjected to that type of invasion. At the same time, Larkin understood the concerns of students who have lost job offers over misdemeanors on their records, such as a minor-in-possession charge.

The candidates also addressed the issue of lower income defendants receiving proper counsel. Meadows said MSU students have a particular advantage because they pay a tax as part of their tuition toward ASMSU, MSU’s undergraduate student government, which guarantees them legal counsel.

Tuesday’s event wasn’t the only opportunity the hopefuls have had to appeal to student voters. The candidates also engaged in a debate last Thursday evening, moderated by MSU alumna and state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, that targeted the interests of young voters.

The two discussed their stances on a number of student issues, including parking laws, party and litter violations and punishment options, such as community service, for first-time offenders.

The candidates are vying for a position left open by incumbent David Jordon, who has served as a 54B district judge for 22 years. During his time, Jordon oversaw cases such as that of Andrew Thompson, a former MSU student who allegedly killed 13 dogs while living at Okemos and East Lansing residencies.

Jordon also oversaw the case of the death of journalism freshman Olivia Pryor. After the 18-year-old was found unresponsive in her Hubbard Hall dorm room last spring, MSU police determined alcohol and criminal sexual conduct both were factors in her death, charging Dishon Ambrose, 19, and Marquez Cannon, 17.

Four candidates began campaigning for his seat after Jordon announced his retirement in April. They included Larkin, Meadows, former assistant prosecuting attorney for the Eaton County Prosecutor’s Office Thomas Clement and private law practice owner Frank McAlpine.

In the Aug. 7 primary, Meadows acquired a majority of the votes and both he and Larkin advanced to the November election.

As for the upcoming election, MacDermaid said she’ll be casting a ballot.

“If they’re the ones making the laws that affect students the most, I want to have a say in who’s on that bench,” she said.

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