By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — An ongoing state push to save money and increase efficiency by closing or reorganizing district courts has some legal experts questioning if now is the time to cut services for underserved populations.
Michigan has seen a net reduction of 34 judgeships for a savings of $29.3 million to the state since the State Court Administrative Office recommended “right-sizing” the judiciary eight years ago.
Next up for closure: The 95A District Court in Menominee County, if Judge Jeffrey Barstow retires as planned on March 31. A 2012 law required the closure whenever the court’s judgeship became vacant.
Whether the Menominee court, facing a caseload unforeseen in 2012, will close is uncertain. Legislation passed by the Senate and introduced in the House would keep it open.
Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, is behind the Senate’s efforts to stop the closure. The House bill is backed by Reps. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain; Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette; Gregory Markkanen, R-Hancock; Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township; and Mike Mueller, R-Linden.
Felony filings in that court have risen 60 percent since the administrative office first recommended it close, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency. Local and state law enforcement officials recently requested an additional prosecutor to assist with a backlog of felony cases.
And the administrative office now recommends the judgeship be retained, in part because of Menominee County’s status as the only U.P. county without specialized courts like drug, veterans or mental health courts, said John Nevin, the office’s public information director.
Establishing a drug court in the area is of particular concern as the opioid crisis continues to wrack the county, Nevin said.
The administrative office recommends eliminating or adding judges based on population and caseload changes in a report released every two years. But it takes state legislation to make it happen. The office’s 2017 recommendations included eliminating one district judge that serves Baraga, Keweenaw and Houghton counties.
In addition to state savings, local governments can save money through closures as clerks, bailiffs and other courtroom expenses are no longer necessary, Nevin said.
That possibility for savings is behind an effort to consolidate three courts in mid-Michigan. Legislation authorizing the consolidation of district courts in Lansing, East Lansing and Mason into one court was signed by outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder late last year.
Unlike in Menominee County, no judges would be lost. All eight judges would keep their positions. All full-time court staff would be retained, but some would not be replaced as they retired or left their positions.
The initial consolidation proposal eliminated one judge. It is unclear how much will be saved now that all of them will be retained, said 54A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke, an outspoken opponent of the consolidation effort.
The consolidation won’t save money if the county has to buy land for and construct a new building for the consolidated courts, Clarke said.
But Mason’s 55th District Court Judge Tom Boyd, who helped draft the initial proposal for consolidation, insists the move will save money on court operations.
Minority representation in judicial elections and jury selection would also suffer if the plan goes through, Clarke said. Consolidation would take away Lansing and East Lansing’s separate jurisdictions, throwing the larger urban and suburban communities into the same voter pool as the rest of Ingham County.
In Lansing, where Clarke’s 54A court resides, 39 percent of the population in 2017 was non-white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Across Ingham County as a whole, it was 25 percent.
“It’s very difficult to have people of color elected countywide in Ingham County — I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it would be difficult,” Clarke said. “I don’t know why you’d sacrifice diversity for money.”
East Lansing, Lansing and Ingham County have until Nov. 1 to agree on a consolidation plan, which would take effect in March 2020.
The state’s push to streamline the judiciary is winding down. The number of closures moving forward won’t be as drastic as it has been over the last decade, Nevin said.
Local residents have indicated similar or improved levels of satisfaction with timeliness and treatment by court staff despite the closures, he said.
“When government is more efficient, everybody benefits,” Nevin said. “You really shouldn’t have more government than you need. Losing a judgeship is difficult — especially in small communities where you don’t have a lot of judges — but the service that remains is superior.”