Economopoulos reflects on first year as judge

Jenny Lancour | Daily Press Delta County Judge John Economopoulos poses for a photograph in the 47th Judicial Circuit Court in Escanaba where he has served his first year presiding over a variety of criminal, family, and civil cases in 2017.

ESCANABA — Reflecting on his first year as Delta County’s circuit court judge, John Economopoulos commented that a lot of hard work went by very quickly in the past 12 months.

“It went by incredibly fast. It was a year of hard work fueled by gratitude,” Economopoulos, 46, said earlier this week, adding, “I’m thankful to be able to serve my community in this way.”

Economopoulos — the county’s 12th circuit court judge in the history of the 47th Judicial Circuit Court — began his new judgeship on Jan. 1, 2017, after being sworn in during the month before by his predecessor Judge Stephen Davis.

Economopoulos said the past year went smoothly and as expected because he was familiar with the job having been a local attorney for several years as well as being able to job shadow Davis for a few months during a transition period.

The judge is quick to note the court’s success also relies on his “fantastic staff,” which he feels fortunate to have inherited from Judge Davis; Brenda, Renee and Ramon help keep things moving forward in the fast-paced and complicated environment.

Economopoulos said the 2017 circuit court docket included a balance of criminal and domestic cases as well as some civil cases, such as lawsuits. The local court also accepts cases from other circuit courts when neighboring judges have conflict of interests, he added.

“Most of the criminal cases here involve narcotics, and those that don’t, have an element of substance abuse connected to them,” said Economopoulos, noticing most offenders have been younger individuals who are making poor decisions at an early age.

“It is an opportunity to redirect people toward a better path at an early age,” he noted on a more optimistic note.

Economopoulos said sentencing a defendant involves considering the facts without bias and applying the appropriate laws to the crime to impartially render a decision that is just.

“The law is the law. It’s the bedrock of a good decision-making process,” he said, also noting that sentencing can be an easily misunderstood process.

For example, just because two people commit an identical crime doesn’t mean each will receive the same punishment, he said.

While the laws and the facts may be similar in each circumstance, other variables play a part in an individual’s final judgment, such as a defendant’s past criminal history, which can enhance a sentence and even make a difference between serving time in jail or prison.

Other variables that affect sentencings include the charging process, plea bargaining, factual circumstances, and sentencing guideline scoring, which offers a range of sentencing time.

“I find it to be not a perfect process, but it’s the best process in a civil society,” commented Economopoulos, who often makes comments to defendants while sentencing them.

“I believe that communicating with the defendant directly during the sentencing is critically important,” he said, explaining that individuals should know why they’ve been convicted of a crime.

“I am blunt and honest about my observations in a given case. I state what they need to hear. I feel that’s my duty as a judge among other things,” Economopoulos added.

A lot of work goes into each case behind the scenes and in court, he said. In addition to the attorneys and defendants already going through the district court process, Economopoulos said his staff does a lot of preparations for hearings and trials. In addition, he does a great amount of research with each case so there are fewer surprises.

“I enjoy my work and the problem-solving aspect. I find it quite engaging,” he added.

Economopoulos especially enjoys the human element in criminal cases, which involves the lives of defendants and their families, and victims and their families, as well as the community.

“These are real people,” he said, emphasizing when dealing with human behavior, there’s also room for compassion.

Looking back on the trials that took place in 2017, Economopoulos said he was impressed with the intelligence of the local jurors who dedicated themselves to the trial process and more importantly, were very committed to following the rules of the court and the law. He was also impressed with jurors’ willingness to serve and sacrifice their time without complaints.

In addition to the many criminal cases he presides over, Economopoulos also makes decisions in conjunction with the Friend of the Court such as child support and parent time enforcement in divorce cases.

Economopoulos repeated that he loves his job in circuit court. He said he feels and appreciates the incredible responsibility which comes with being a judge whose role also involves listening while applying facts to the law whether deciding a criminal matter or a family issue.

On a final note, Economopoulos said he feels privileged to be able to serve the community he was born and raised in, which is the same community where he and his wife, Christina, are raising their children.

Economopoulos is a lifelong resident of Escanaba, where he graduated from Escanaba High School in 1989. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and went on to receive his juris doctor degree from Thomas Cooley Law School. He worked as a law clerk in Escanaba during the summers between his college and law school years.

After graduating from law school, he joined the law firm of Viau & Chapekis, P.C., where he became a partner before eventually establishing his own law office, Economopoulos Law Firm, P.C. He was serving his 18th year in private practice when he closed his law firm in May 2017 and began working as the domestic relations referee in the Friend of the Court Office prior to beginning his judgeship in circuit court.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143,