Judges Plead with Council Not to Consolidate East Lansing Court
Above: 54B District Court's Chief Judge Andrea Larkin and Mayor Mark Meadows
Over strong objections of two elected judges, court personnel, and citizens who say they or their children are alive because of the actions of East Lansing’s 54B District Court, City Council voted unanimously this past week to move forward on discussions of consolidating 54B District Court with the Lansing and Ingham County district courts.
For last Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Mark Meadows had set an agenda anticipating simply passing without any discussion a resolution supporting State legislation “that would allow for District Court consolidation to proceed if the County, the City of Lansing and the City of East Lansing can reach agreement on the details of such consolidation.”
But dozens of people showed up at the meeting to indicate serious reservations about the move, many providing detailed and passionate testimony during a public-comment period that lasted nearly two hours.
Council decided in response to discuss the matter, with several Council Members trying to reassure the public that they won’t vote “yes” on the final consolidation unless East Lansing’s interests are protected. But many who came to object – including 54B Court’s two elected judges – still felt this was all moving too fast and too much out of the public eye.
Before Council passed the proposed resolution to support action at the State level, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann offered an amendment to have the resolution expire on October 31, 2019. The terms of Altmann, Meadows, and Council Member Shanna Draheim expire in November, 2019. (They can run for re-election.)
Altmann explained, “I would like this Council to make this decision” on consolidation, not a future Council. Council voted 4-1 in favor of that added expiration date, with Draheim voting against the time limit.
According to the resolution, the City of East Lansing’s impetus for the possible consolidation is to “enhance public assets,” “review and analyze the option for a regional cooperation with area partners including the establishment of service authorities,” and to promote “Sustainable High Performing Government.”
But few details have been made publicly available with regard to what a court consolidation might save or cost East Lansing, where courts and jails might be located, and what would happen to the three specialty courts now run out of 54B: the veterans’ court, for military veterans, including those suffering from PTSD; sobriety court, for people with alcoholism: and drug court, serving especially those with opioid use disorders including addiction.
East Lansing’s judges criticize the Mayor’s actions:
The 54B District Court has two judges, Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball. Just re-elected unopposed, Larkin first won her seat in 2012 when she ran against Meadows and won by 13 percentage points. (Meadows subsequently ran for City Council in 2015 and was elected, and was then named Mayor by Council.) According to an appointment made by the Michigan Supreme Court, Larkin now serves as Chief Judge of 54B, with Ball’s ongoing support.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Ball told Council he and Larkin “are of one mind” on the matter and that they were trying “to figure out exactly what is happening here and why.” He objected to what he described as inadequate consultation with Ball, Larkin, and other court personnel by Meadows and others engaged in the consolidation discussions.
Meadows, Ball said, had told them previously that certain items were “non-negotiable” to him, including making sure a consolidated court would be located no farther than the Frandor shopping center. But, Ball said, now Meadows seemed to consider “non-negotiable” items negotiable.
Ball suggested that East Lansing’s interests were being bargained away as the City of Lansing is under pressure to find a place to house its police, jail, and possibly its courts. Lansing’s administration has been seeking a way to replace its aging City Hall. (Read more about that at the LSJ.)
On Wednesday night, Ball said that the Ingham County Controller is currently estimating that the City of East Lansing could be billed $500,000 per year for 20 years for the cost of a new court building, if the courts are consolidated into one building.
Substantial additional costs may accrue to the City of East Lansing for having to transport arrested individuals farther, having to take police officers out of the City for court appearances, and having to pay the County for booking, security, and more.
Ball and others told Council that the ongoing claim is that savings will be achieved about eight years after consolidation, following attrition of court personnel. (None would be laid off from consolidation.) But, he said, there was an open question about which governmental entity or entities would realize savings, if any really would.
Larkin’s mother passed away just two days before last Wednesday’s Council meeting, but Larkin said she felt the issue too important not to leave her visiting relatives to speak to Council.
Larkin told Council that if consolidation happens, going to court will be like going to the Secretary of State’s “supercenter” in Frandor, where one takes a number and waits in a crowd for impersonal service.
Larkin also warned that if East Lansing wants to keep up enforcement of its particular housing codes, noise and party litter ordinances, and the like, it will likely have to take up dealing with these through a new magistrate, a potentially costly proposition.
Ball and Larkin also warned that if 54B is consolidated, the people of East Lansing will lose the ability to elect their own judges, as judges will all then be elected county-wide. A chief court judge, chosen by Michigan Supreme Court personnel, would get to decide which judge would handle which cases, potentially eliminating any experience of a city-level court.
The question of a court’s purpose:
In speaking to Council, Judge Ball said that while 54B is generally “profitable” in that it brings in more revenue than it expends, profitability and efficiency are “not the responsibility a court can possibly have.”
“In our business,” Ball said, doing things quickly and with fewer people means less due process, less fairness, less attention to people’s needs and rights and interests. He objected strongly to the idea that a court should be judged by economic efficiency, suggesting such an approach was dangerous to basic principles of justice.
On the matter of costs, several court personnel pointed out to Council that the City administration has been increasing its charges to 54B, which is housed in City Hall – raising the rent, charging more for informational technology, and so on, effectively helping the City’s budget while stressing the Court’s.
54B Court Administrator Nicole Evans spoke at length at Council, providing many details about what the Court has done over the last several years to save money for the City and to work to reduce recidivism.
“Our judges cannot be pressured . . . to generate money for the City,” she said. “The court has not been turning a blind eye to the City’s budget,” but, she said, sometimes providing “access to justice” means higher costs, as when more interpreters had to be engaged to serve for students living here for whom Mandarin is their first language.
Evans suggested that when court’s net income goes down, that can be a sign of justice going up.
Specialty courts seen as especially at risk:
Of particular worry for many who spoke is the potential loss of the three “specialty” courts being run out of 54B with $250,000 in grants: the veterans court, the sobriety court, and the drug court.
Larkin and Ball have both strongly warned that consolidation could mean elimination or degradation of these courts, which they see as producing a profound public good. Whether these courts would continue would depend, by law, on decisions made by whomever the State might appoint chief judge of a consolidated court.
Several members of the public came forward to speak to how the drug court saved their or their children’s lives, and praised in particular Larkin and Chief Probation Officer Amy Iseler. From the podium Iseler spoke about why she thinks consolidation could destroy a major public asset.
Council says ongoing “discussions” make sense:
Throughout and after the impassioned public testimony on Wednesday night, City Council – and especially the Mayor – maintained that no decisions have been made, that decisions will be made in the City’s best interests, and that engaging in more discussions is a good thing.
“I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Meadows said, adding “I’m not committing anything” yet. He said there was no putting of the cart before the horse, no matter what Judge Ball said.
Meadows said he was quite concerned about court and jail accessibility including for those who rely on mass transit, about what the move could mean for ELPD officers’ work, and about what would happen with 54B’s location and case load.
In response to Larkin’s objection that Council was moving forward without adequate input being sought from East Lansing residents, Meadows said that if a plan is developed, he would bring it forward for public comment.
Draheim said that Council has “a responsibility to manage the City’s resources effectively and efficiently” and that that includes considering how money might be saved via court consolidation. She said she thought it was important to look at the options.
Council Member Aaron Stephens said he particularly appreciated the work of court personnel in trying to decriminalize substance abuse, and that he wanted to engage court personnel, MSU students, and the general public in the issue of court consolidation.
“The mayor has been in meetings [about this] and I have not,” Stephens said, but he emphasized that he saw the resolution passed last Wednesday as simply a way to advance discussions.
Council had been set to have “discussion only” (non-voting meeting) tomorrow, November 13, but that meeting has been cancelled without explanation. The next meeting of Council will occur on November 20. Anyone can comment on any issue during the public-comment portion of the meeting, and comments may be sent in writing to email@example.com.
Correction: This article originally stated that the terms of Altmann, Draheim, and Meadows expire on November 5, 2019. That is the date of the election for their seats, but their terms will end when elected Council Members are sworn in (usually about a week after the election), not on Election Day. As noted in the revision for clarity, they can all run for re-election.