Clock Starts Ticking for Considering Controversial Court Consolidation

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Monday, December 31, 2018, 8:51 am
Chris Root

Above: ELPD Chief Larry Sparkes and Rep. Sam Singh, marking the 9/11 memorial in 2017, courtesy Michgan House Democrats.

Among the hundreds of bills on which outgoing Governor Rick Snyder acted on December 28 was HB 6344, which provides a framework for the local governments of East Lansing, Lansing, and Ingham County to consolidate their courts into a single, county-wide system.

Snyder signed the locally-controversial bill after it was adopted by the Michigan House of Representatives on December 4 and by the Senate on December 21 during the very busy lame duck session, without any debate in either chamber.

This was one of the last bills introduced by Sam Singh, East Lansing’s representative and Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives, whose term also ends in 2018.

House Bill 6344 sets a deadline of November 1, 2019 for the Lansing City Councils, East Lansing City Council, and the Ingham County Board of Commissioners to agree to a plan and formally vote to approve it. If approved, the new court system would go into effect in March 2020.

If the three units agree on a consolidation plan later than November 1, the Michigan legislature would be required to pass enabling legislation again for the plan to take effect. Incoming Governor Gretchen Whitmer, currently an East Lansing resident, would then be asked to sign it.

What the new state law would do:

The new law provides certain parameters that any negotiated consolidation plan must meet. Here are the key conditions, which include some minor clarifications made in a substitute bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee:

  1. Three district courts (District Court 54B in East Lansing, 54A in Lansing, and 55 in the remaining part of Ingham County) would be combined into one 55th District Court for all of Ingham County.
  2. There would still be eight judges paid for by the state. (Currently, East Lansing’s court has two judges, Lansing’s court has four judges, and the Ingham County 55th court has two judges.)
  3. During an eight-year transition period, the judges would continue to be elected by voters in the three jurisdictions where each of the district courts currently operate. After that transition, all the judges would be elected county-wide.
  4. Jurors for criminal or civil cases that occur in East Lansing and the Lansing area (including both the City of Lansing and Lansing Township) would come from people in those jurisdictions, including the areas located in Clinton or Eaton counties. This would effectively result in distinct jury pools within the consolidated system.
  5. After eight years, all judges would be elected at large by all voters in Ingham County and the small portions of Eaton and Clinton Counties that incorporate parts of East Lansing and Lansing Township. One of the judges would be designated by the Michigan Supreme Court as the Chief Judge of the 55th District.
  6. All full-time employees of the former 54A and 54B districts would be transferred to the 55th district and have their jobs be preserved with not-inferior salary, seniority rights, annual leave, sick leave, and retirement benefits, except as provided in any consolidation agreement.

The enabling legislation does not address whether the existing three courts should come together in one location or, for that matter, whether the 24-hour holding cells in Lansing and East Lansing should be located at the same facility as the county jail, which is now located in Mason. These issues are left to the three jurisdictions to decide.

Where do the local jurisdictions stand?

Representative Singh sought approval from the legislative bodies of all three divisions – Lansing, East Lansing, and Ingham County – before he introduced his enabling legislation.

The Ingham County Board of Commissioners and East Lansing City Council adopted resolutions to allow consolidation negotiations to occur. Those resolutions did not include any specific proposals for consolidation, and both these bodies stated clearly that adopting a resolution was not a decision to immediately consolidate the district courts.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor (above) supported Singh’s bill, testifying in support at the House Judiciary Committee meeting on December 4. The Lansing City Council did not adopt a resolution of support, however, following discussion on the matter at its September 24 meeting.

Where do the district court judges stand?

The judges of the three district courts have no official role in deciding whether or how to consolidate the court system, but some of them have been very engaged in developing and responding to proposals.

Judges Tom Boyd and Donald Allen of the 55th District Court in Mason – along with their court administrator, Mike Dillon – developed the lengthy proposal that informed discussions of consolidation after it was published in early August.

Their proposal to reduce the number of judges from eight to seven is the basis for anticipating reducing costs through staff attribution. But that cost-saving premise has been somewhat overtaken by events, because Singh’s bill stipulates that a consolidated court would retain eight judges.

The Chief Judge of Lansing’s District Court 54A, Louise Alderson, co-signed with Judge Tom Boyd a lengthy letter to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, saying that the courts could “continue providing high quality justice and programs at a reduced cost” if the courts are consolidated. The letter particularly supports the “novel” provision of HB 6344 that keeps distinct jury pools for different parts of the county, while unifying administration of the courts.

Judge Alderson told the Lansing City Council at its September 28 meeting that two other judges – Frank DeLuca and Stacia Buchanan – also support consolidation.

Above from left: 54A Judges Hugh Clarke, Louise Alderson, Stacia Buchanan, and Frank DeLuca.

Judge Hugh Clarke of the 54A District Court is opposing consolidation, however, appearing before both the Lansing City Council and the Senate Judiciary Committee to speak against it.

Among his reasons for opposing the proposal is his view that fewer African-American judges would be elected and the bench would become less diverse once elections for all these positions become county-wide.

Clarke also argues that the bill’s solution for creating jury pools of residents of Lansing or East Lansing for cases involving crimes in each of those cities is “a disaster waiting to happen” and that it could be challenged in court. Clarke also disagrees with those who say that court consolidation would save the City of Lansing money.

Chief Judge Andrea Larkin (below) and Judge Richard Ball from East Lansing’s 54B District Court also both oppose moving forward with court consolidation. They expressed this position at length before the East Lansing City Council on November 7, as ELi reported at the time.

Both East Lansing judges, along with 54B Court Administrator Nicole Evans, have expressed strong concern that consolidation could threaten or at least reduce the effectiveness of the Drug, Veterans, and Sobriety treatment courts, that operate out of the 54B court.

They argue that these courts, which are currently exclusively grant-funded and so are not costing the local government money, are effective because significant time and attention can be devoted to the people they serve. They do not want the judges and staff to be forced to take on increased caseloads in the pursuit of increased efficiency, which could threaten the success of these specialty courts.

Would consolidation really save East Lansing money?

Judges Larkin and Ball, like Judge Clarke, also question whether consolidating the courts would result in cost savings for the City of East Lansing, in part because of the question of where the courts and jails would be. Consolidation has become intertwined with discussions now underway about whether to move the court and jail complex from Mason to a location closer to Lansing and East Lansing.

Ingham County voters adopted a millage in August to fund a new jail and court complex. Voters were told at the time they would likely be built in Mason, where the County already owns land and where relatively recently-built kitchen and laundry facilities for the jail could be incorporated into a new  building, to save on new construction costs.

Judge Ball told the East Lansing City Council that the expectation now is that East Lansing and Lansing City governments would be required to contribute to higher construction costs of a new court and jail facility if it is built elsewhere.

The City of East Lansing’s finances could also be affected on an ongoing basis if all the court rooms are moved to a new location. The City now receives several hundred thousand dollars in rent and IT (informational technology) service fees from the 54B Court, which is located in East Lansing’s City Hall building. These revenues to the City would presumably end if this space was no longer used for a court.

Ball and Larkin have also said that East Lansing could bear substantial costs in terms of having to pay the cost of ELPD officers spending substantial amounts of time driving to and from another location to deal with prisoners and court appearances.

What to expect next:

Discussions about consolidation have already begun in earnest among elected officials and staff people from the three jurisdictions, but we know few details of what is being considered because the meetings are not happening publicly.

East Lansing Mayor Meadows, who has been in on the discussions, told those who came to City Council’s November 7 meeting that he shares many of their concerns.

“If there is no financial advantage to us, we won’t be consolidating,” he said. “If there is inconvenience to the people of the city of East Lansing and the users of the court and the police departments, we won’t be consolidating.”

He went on to say that preserving the specialty courts is another important element in evaluating any consolidation proposal. East Lansing’s night court is also important to maintain, Meadows said.

With both the City of Lansing and Ingham County needing to resolve where they are going to locate new court facilities, whether a convenient consolidated location can be found that will be agreeable to all three governing units will likely be a central topic of discussion.

Ascertaining whether a particular plan would actually save money for the local units will also surely receive attention as negotiations move forward.


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