What Could Happen If East Lansing’s Court Is Abolished?

Monday, April 22, 2019, 7:30 am
By: 
Dan Totzkay, Alice Dreger, and Chris Root

A new Preliminary Fiscal Analysis obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) shows that consolidating the District Courts of East Lansing, Lansing, and Ingham County would not save nearly as much money as originally anticipated.

The analysis, dated April 1, shows East Lansing would reap savings of about $30,000 to $42,000 annually.

But that savings would come with the abolition of the 54B District Court in East Lansing, along with the abolition of Lansing’s 54A District Court. These would no longer function as independent courts, distinct from the County’s 55th District Court.

Under an emerging plan being called “consolidation in place,” East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows told ELi yesterday that in the negotiating sessions, “everyone is now in agreement on” keeping the physical courtrooms “in the same or similar locations that exist now.”

Acording to Meadows, East Lansing would “continue to host two courtrooms in City Hall” and “our lockup will also remain in City Hall.” Lansing will have its own courtrooms, and Mason will host a County jail.

What would change is the courts’ administration.

No longer would East Lansing have a separate 54B District Court in terms of the way the judges are elected and the court is run. Judges would ultimately be elected at large, county-wide, with the county court’s Chief Judge deciding much about how the courts are run.

Meadows did not respond to ELi’s requests to explain the potential advantages of court consolidation for East Lansing.

“Consolidation in place” means the facilities stay here, but who controls the court changes.

Under consolidation, Lansing’s 54A District Court and East Lansing’s 54B District Court – currently run independently – would become part of a single Ingham County 55th District Court.

The original plan for cost-saving had at its core a reduction in the number of judges, with associated staff reduction. Right now, East Lansing has two judges, Lansing has four, and Ingham County has two. The original plan was to reduce the total from eight to seven. But that idea was dropped last year.

Previous discussions had also considered constructing a new building for a consolidated court. But that idea, too, has dropped out of the plan.

Under the newer “consolidation in place” concept, it appears that Lansing and Ingham County will move forward with separate projects to construct new courts and only the court administrations would be merged.

The plan to construct a new “combined justice complex” in Mason, approved by County voters in August 2018, is now moving forward, and Lansing is moving to build new facilities somewhere in Lansing in order to sell Lansing’s current City Hall for commercial redevelopment.

Consolidation negotiations are continuing in closed-door sessions, with Mayor Mark Meadows (above) representing East Lansing’s interests. Court personnel who do not wish to be named tell ELi there’s been little involvement of their ranks in the process, although they are interested in participating.

Meadows told ELi on Friday, “No decisions have been made on Court consolidation yet. Everyone continues to meet.”

He says more information will probably be available in mid-summer.

Loss of East Lansing control is a concern among critics of the plan.

Meadows indicated in his reply to ELi on Friday that he is “unaware of any ‘local control’ losses being proposed.”

But some control would shift from being confined within East Lansing’s borders to being dispersed throughout the county.

Most significantly, instead of East Lansing voters electing two local judges, one of whom is chosen by the Michigan Supreme Court to be the Chief Judge, under county-wide consolidation, all voters in Ingham County would together elect all eight at-large judges. The Supreme Court would selected one of these eight judges as Chief Judge.

This contrasts with the current system, wherein the three separate District Courts each has an appointed Chief Judge.

This change is mandated by the State bill which sets the terms for consolidation talks. It is not up for discussion in negotiations among local governing units.

The current Chief Judge of East Lansing’s 54B District Court, Andrea Larkin (below), pointed this out when she and 54B’s Judge Richard Ball raised an alarm about consolidation last November.

Larkin noted that moving from electing two judges in East Lansing to eight County-wide means loss of East Lansing-centered control because, according to Michigan Court Rule 8.110, the Chief Judge is responsible for administration of the Court and assignment of Court personnel.

This Chief Judge makes major decisions about what happens at courts – everything from establishing local court rules to setting internal operations policies to deciding what kinds of specialty courts will be pursued to determining which judge and courtroom manages which kind of case.

A county-wide Chief Judge could decide, for example, to dedicate East Lansing’s courtrooms only to criminal or only to civil cases and could heavily influence how bail and probation decisions are structured.

East Lansing City Council has indicated it would only approve the consolidation if East Lansing’s interests are protected. (East Lansing’s City Council voted last November to participate in the discussions.)

Still, many details about the would-be consolidated Court cannot be negotiated as they are mandated by State law.

Ultimately, a majority of East Lansing’s City Council would decide whether to accept or reject consolidation – but State law determines certain parameters if consolidation is accepted.

The parameters for the negotiations about the Ingham District Courts consolidation have been set by House Bill 6344, which was passed by the Michigan legislature in late 2018. Introduced by Rep. Sam Singh, the bill was signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

According to that State law, for consolidation of the District Courts to occur, the governing units of East Lansing, Lansing, and Ingham County would all need to vote in support. Here’s how that happens:

  • In East Lansing, Council approval requires a simple majority vote in favor.
  • In Lansing, according to Mayor Andy Shor’s Communications Manager Valerie Marchand, the mayor “makes the decision and legislation requires a resolution [be] passed” by Lansing’s City Council.
  • For Ingham County’s part, a majority of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners would have to vote to approve.

The State law sets a Nov. 1, 2019, deadline for all these parties to agree to and formally approve a plan about how this consolidation should be accomplished, within the already-established parameters of the State law.

The State law further requires employees from 54A and 54B to be retained and combined with the 55th District Court if consolidation happens. There would still be eight judges, the current total number of judges across the three District Courts.

The State law also calls for separated jury pools to be maintained for Lansing, Lansing Charter Township, and East Lansing. Jury pools for trials involving any “criminal offense or any other cause of action” that occurred in East Lansing would be drawn from East Lansing’s residents.

Under House Bill 6344, if the consolidation is approved, the new court system would go into effect in March 2020.

For the first eight years of the consolidation, East Lansing residents would still elect two judges. These would serve in the new 55th District Court. But after that, elections for all eight judges would be county-wide.

According to the April 1 fiscal analysis for the would-be consolidation, there are 6.5 more full-time employees across the three courts than the “optimum staffing level” for the consolidation.

The plan calls for additional positions to be “reduced by attrition over several years,” because “current employees might not possess the necessary knowledge, skills and education to fill certain new positions within the consolidated Court… [which] could result in additional [employees] to be phased out through attrition.”

No timeline is provided for exactly how long that process would take, so it is unclear when cost-savings would actually begin.

Although the consolidation law ensures no current employees of the 54A and 54B District Courts will lose their jobs, there is still uncertainty about their future in terms of where their jobs would be located and what they would involve.

There’s also much unknown about how consolidation might impact those facing the system as victims, as the accused, and as potential jurors.

Other than now being able to see what is included in the new fiscal analysis document obtained via FOIA, the public has been told little about the closed-door consolidation negotiations.

Now what?

If no decision is made by November 1, the provisions of House Hill 6344 expire. So, if local officials wanted to continue to negotiate court consolidation, the Michigan Legislature would have to pass a new bill that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would have to sign into law.

A new bill would again set certain parameters for the three local governments to try to reach agreement on a consolidation plan. Those parameters could change from the current parameters.

It’s important to note that the statewide context within which these local units are currently trying to assess possible financial savings via court consolidation is complex and fluid. As the April 1 Preliminary Fiscal Analysis document pointed out, “the current (Michigan) Court revenue model could be subject to substantial changes by 2020.”

Pending court decisions and work by a statewide Trial Court Funding Commission could significantly affect Court revenue sourcing. The statewide commission is chaired by 55th District Court Judge Thomas Boyd (below), one of three authors of the original plan for Ingham County court consolidation released in August 2018.

The statewide commission released an Interim Report on April 8. Its Executive Summary declares: “The commission has unanimously concluded that the existing system (in Michigan) is broken, and it is imperative to create a stable and consistent funding source for Michigan trial courts that removes trial court judges from the role of raising money for the operation of the courts.”

The concern is that trial court judges have a conflict of interest when their decisions can directly impact how much money their courts will have for use. Important cases are pending before both the Michigan Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court that deal with the question of whether fines assessed on defendants may constitute an unconstitutional tax or excessive fines under the 14th Amendment.

These larger, pending legislative and judicial decisions make it difficult to predict how East Lansing, Lansing, and Ingham County negotiations over possible cost-savings will end. But if consolidation is to happen, a plan will need to be produced in time for all three local governments to approve it before November 1.

 

Related material:

Consolidated District Court Preliminary Fiscal Analysis (obtained via FOIA)

Michigan House Passes Bill to Allow Local Court Consolidation (at ELi)

Clock Starts Ticking for Considering Controversial Court Consolidation (at ELi)

Judges Plead with East Lansing Council Not to Consolidate Court (at ELi)

In 54B District Court, the Emphasis Is on Healthy Recovery (at ELi)

Michigan Commission: Fund Courts So Judges Aren't Turned Into Fundraisers (at The Bridge)

 

 

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