Michigan House Passes Bill to Allow Local Court Consolidation

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Sunday, December 9, 2018, 7:06 pm
Chris Root

Above: Rep. Sam Singh

Amidst many highly controversial measures being acted on in the Michigan legislature’s lame duck session, the House has overwhelmingly passed a bill that allows the governing bodies of Ingham County, East Lansing, and Lansing to consolidate their courts.

The bill, HB 6344, passed by the House on December 5, is on the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, December 11. A Senate vote on the bill is expected soon after the committee acts. (Read the summary version of the bill here.)

Although the bill does not have significant opposition in the state legislature, court consolidation is controversial among some of the stakeholders in Ingham County, including some in East Lansing.

The local governments of East Lansing, Lansing, and Ingham County now have the opportunity to develop a plan to consolidate the 54A District Court (Lansing), 54B District Court (East Lansing), and 55th District Court (the remainder of Ingham County except for Lansing and East Lansing).

Under terms of the bill, they would need to come to agreement before November 1, 2019, on a plan that would start to be implemented on March 1, 2020. If they do not reach an agreement by then, enabling legislation would have to go through the state legislature again.

Consolidating three courts into a single county-wide system has come up for discussion off and on over almost two decades, but this is the first time it has gotten to the state legislature.

Representative Sam Singh, East Lansing’s representative in the Michigan House until the end of the year, wanted to get this bill through the legislature before his term ends. But he had made it clear that he would not introduce it without indications of support from all three of the local governments with an interest in the issue.

So, getting to this stage is a sign that restructuring the courts is being considered much more seriously than in the past. In November, East Lansing’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution indicating the City’s “support of 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 a consolidation.”

Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the parties will come to agreement on a concrete plan.

What the bill does: HB 6344 would abolish the 54A and 54B courts, which would be combined into a single 55th District Court for all of Ingham County. There would be eight judges – no change from the current number – four for the Lansing area, to which Lansing Township would be added, and two each for East Lansing and the rest of the county.

For the first eight years, the judges would continue to be elected by voters in the districts where the three courts operate. After eight years, however, all eight judges would be elected at large by voters of all of Ingham County. Work would be assigned by a single Chief Judge, who would be named by the Michigan Supreme Court.

All jury trials would be conducted with jury pools composed of residents of the political subdivisions in which the event occurred – either East Lansing, Lansing and Lansing Township, or elsewhere in Ingham County.

All full-time staff of the current 54A and 54B courts would be transferred to the 55th District Court. Their salary, seniority rights, annual leave, sick leave, and retirement benefits would have to be preserved and continued in their positions in the 55th District “in a manner not inferior to their prior status,” except for any changes to staffing or compensation agreed to by the three governing units in the consolidation plan.

Possible benefit of consolidation – saving money:

A lengthy consolidation plan completed in August 2018 by 55th District Court Judges Tom Boyd and Donald Allen and Court Administrator Mike Dillon projected savings resulting from “more even distribution of work allowing fewer people to perform the required tasks.”

For starters, this plan projected reducing the number of judges from eight to seven. The August report contained this conclusion from Laura Hutzel, Statistical Research Director of the Michigan Supreme Court: “If D54A and D54B were merged with D55, the courts in Ingham County would have a combined excess of at least 2.13 [judges].”

The August plan also projected a reduction in other court staff of between 11 and 14 FTEs (“full-time equivalent” staff), depending on whether the consolidation resulted in three or two court locations.

Room for cost-saving was based in part of the decrease in all types of cases heard by the three courts. These data were cited, comparing the number of cases from 2010 and 2017:

Non-traffic -18.20%

Traffic -35.76%

Civil -12.84%

Total Caseload less Parking -27.48%

By the time HB 6344 was introduced, however, the plan called for retaining all eight judges. And the House Fiscal Agency analysis of the bill as adopted by the House was neutral on the question of cost savings: “the intent would be for a net savings to occur, which would be achieved through attrition . . . It is not possible to estimate the fiscal impact at this time because the actual terms of the final agreement are not known.”

Singh was more optimistic about the cost savings in his final newsletter to constituents, saying: “For decades, Ingham County residents have experienced an inefficient and unnecessarily costly local court system due to Ingham County’s courtroom facilities being separated along district boundary lines . . . By unifying the courts, the county can reduce administrative costs, ultimately saving at least $1 million annually . . .”

What decisions have yet to be made:

The state bill dictates the formation of a single District Court staffed by eight judges who will eventually be elected county-wide, but other practical questions are up to the three governing bodies to work out, with a deadline of November 1, 2019.

The primary goal of the three jurisdictions is clearly to save money – expressed as “cost efficiency . . . and more effective use of judicial resources.”

Co-locating two or all three of the courts is not required by consolidation, but this is a particularly timely moment for that conversation. Former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero agreed to a proposal to sell the Lansing City Hall building, which is also the site of the 54A District Court and holding cells, but in the spring of 2018, current Mayor Andy Schor put a hold on moving forward with sale of the building until a decision was reached as to where to move the court and holding cells.

The location of the Ingham County court and jail also needs to be decided soon. County voters approved a millage in August 2018 to pay for a new jail and court complex. At the time, Ingham County Sherriff Wrigglesworth described plans for a new complex to be located in Mason on the site of the current jail, where the County already owns sufficient land and the relatively new kitchen and laundry facilities could be incorporated into a new jail building in order to save money. However, this design and location was not explicitly mandated by the millage.

As in Lansing, East Lansing’s District Court and holding cells where people who are arrested can be held for up to 24 hours, are located in the City Hall building. The 54B District Court pays the City for annual rent of the court space and also pays for IT services.

Discussion is now underway among the three governments about building a new court and jail somewhere nearer to East Lansing and Lansing. A location near Michigan State University’s western border, perhaps near the Lansing Post Office on Collins Road, has been talked about.

Location of the county jail – and what might happen to the holding cells in Lansing and East Lansing – is not a component of the court consolidation bill, but these issues are being discussed together.

The time and practicality of transporting people who are arrested to holding cells is a concern of both the East Lansing and Lansing police. This time is currently minimized, but police driving 28 miles round-trip to Mason would be problematic.

Also, considerable staff time is required for transporting people from the jail in Mason to courtrooms in Lansing and East Lansing. Ingham County would like to reduce that time by having the jail and courts located closer together.

Controversies about multiple issues:

Judge Andrea Larkin, the chief judge of the 54B District Court in East Lansing, has strongly criticized many issues related to consolidation, including moving the court from downtown East Lansing, eliminating the holding cell in East Lansing so that young adult MSU students who are arrested would immediately be held together with people she considers to have committed more serious crimes, the possible loss of the Sobriety, Drug and Veteran’s Treatment “specialty” Courts, and the uncertainty of actually realizing cost savings.

ELi reported extensively on Larkin’s opposition expressed to the East Lansing City Council at its November 7 meeting.

Later, the City Pulse interviewed Larkin and reported that she said that Michigan State University students from East Lansing shouldn’t be forced to cross paths with “people from Lansing” who might be facing “more dangerous” felonies compared to the younger defendants that typically frequent her local courtroom.

“It’s the trauma of being housed or being bused with somebody who might act out violently or have a serious mental illness and not be able to bond out for a few days,” Larkin said. “It’s about the degree of the seriousness of the offense. This is an overwhelmingly young population. It’s not about superiority.”

Larkin shot back that the City Pulse had misquoted her and that she did not say “people from Lansing” in the interview. (The City Pulse maintained that she did.) She insisted that her concern was about the young age of MSU students, given “research which establishes that the human brain does not fully mature until closer to the mid- 20s.”

Larkin’s comments brought a response from Lansing Mayor Schor. He criticized her “false stereotypes” of Lansing and told the City Pulse: “I’m surprised and disappointed that Judge Larkin would push the false perception of Lansing only having hardened criminals and East Lansing only having wayward student offenders.”

Randy Watkins, a spokesman for the Lansing Chapter of the NAACP also criticized Larkin’s remarks, saying, “Judge Larkin’s remarks appear to show a bias against anyone who lives outside of East Lansing, and people of color, thus affecting her ability to be a neutral arbiter of the law.”

At the end of November, following the back-and-forth in the City Pulse, Ingham County Commissioners from Lansing Thomas Morgan and Ryan Sebolt drafted a resolution criticizing Larkin.

The resolution read, “Judge Larkin’s comments appear to advocate for two justice systems: One for so-called upwardly-mobile citizens and students, and another for people living in urban environments.”

The resolution also sought to condemn the “coded, elitist and racist” statements and demanded a public apology and sought a judicial review of Larkin’s previous treatment of criminal defendants, according to the City Pulse. The Commission referred the draft resolution to the Law and Courts committee by a vote of 12-1, but the Law and Courts Committee voted against the resolution by 7-0 after receiving a letter signed by more than 20 lawyers. The resolution is not expected to go any further.

At the November 27 meeting of the Michigan House Judiciary Committee, Chief Judge of the 55th District Court Tom Boyd, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, and East Lansing Mark Meadows testified in support of the court consolidation bill.

At the next Committee meeting on December 4, 54B District Court Judge Richard Ball submitted a letter on behalf of himself and his colleague Judge Larkin saying that the bill should not be passed during the lame duck session. He expressed their concern as a financial one: “… absolutely no information has been generated that would support a conclusion that the 54B District constitutes a drain on [the] City of East Lansing. Actually, the opposite is true.”

The letter continued, “Nevertheless Judge Larkin and I have said publicly if the City of East Lansing conducts a genuine study as to whether the 54B District Court constitutes a drain on the City's resources, and the City concludes the Court should be consolidated with other district courts in the county so the City can save money, any opposition the judges would continue to have would be pretty weak, given the power of the funding unit over the future of the 54B District Court.”

Another issue about court consolidation was raised by 54A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke before the Lansing City Council. He expressed concern that moving to at-large voting in Ingham County for all judges in a consolidated court system could lead to fewer African-American judges being elected.

This concern was addressed in a letter from 54A Chief Justice Louise Alderson and 55th District Court Judge Boyd addressed to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where this issue also had been raised. They pointed out that more African-American judges have been elected for the 55th District Court by county voters than for the 54B Court by Lansing voters.

Negotiations among East Lansing, Lansing, and Ingham County can be expected to continue to try to arrive at a workable plan with demonstrable cost savings that can gain sufficient support.

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