By JOE DANDRON
Capital News Service
LANSING — A bill sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for signing could save the current district court judgeship in Lake and Mason counties.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, would prevent the judgeship currently held by 73-year old District Judge Peter Wadel, from scheduled elimination.
Wadel’s current term runs out Dec. 31 and he’s beyond the age of 70 limit for seeking reelection.
District courts handle traffic violations, misdemeanors, small claims, landlord-tenant disputes, civil suits for less than $25,000 and preliminary hearings in felony cases.
Under a 2012 law, the two-county district court will be eliminated once Wadel retires unless VanderWall’s bill becomes law.
The seat was slated for elimination to save money.
Wadel and other judges from Lake and Mason counties initially brought the idea oto VanderWall of saving the seat on the bench.
No one is officially running for the $149,656-a-year seat because it’s still slated to disappear unless Whitmer signs the legislation.
“It’ll make things move the way they are supposed to,” VanderWall said of the bill.
As of March 26, the bill was still awaiting Whitmer’s decision.
Wadel said the effect of losing one judge would be felt by courts serving Newaygo and Oceana counties.
“The court likely will be overloaded if it’s dissolved,” said Wadel. “You can eliminate a judgeship and get skinny – not be able to provide the necessary judicial services.”
VanderWall said, “We need to make sure we are doing the thing for those who are innocent, or guilty.”
John Nevin, the communications director for the Michigan Supreme Court, said Whitmer is likely to sign the bill.
“We’ve been effective in reducing the number of judges in the state,” said Nevin.
Data from the State Court Administrative Office shows that between 2011-2019 elimination of 35 judgeships saved a net $29.3 million for the state.
Nevin said, “Generally, the point is: We never want to have too many judges or too few judges. It’s hard for a community to lose a judge but it’s something – a process – that we have to go through.
“Retaining the seat is the first step needed to eventually change the court boundaries to a more equitably distributed caseload,” Nevin said. “Basically further changes are going to be made, but the seat needed to be retained in order to take the additional steps.”
If Whitmer were to veto the bill, probate judges in Lake and Mason counties would pull double duty by presiding over both the district court and their own courts.
Probate courts handle mental health commitments, trusts and estates.
Wadel said the workload for the two probate judges “wouldn’t allow them to put adequate work in.”
Wadel said another important aspect of retaining the judgeship is that it allows the two counties to use problem-solving courts.
Problem-solving courts “focus on providing treatment and intense supervision to offenders as an alternative to incarceration. These include drug and sobriety, mental health, veterans and other nontraditional courts,” according to the Michigan problem-solving courts annual report.
Problem-solving courts, which Wadel referred to as “specialty courts,” involve cases that aim to provide treatment instead of punishment. Wadel says the district has been successful at that.
“In order to create those specialty courts we need this seat,” he said.