ESCANABA - About 9 a.m. Sunday morning Ludington Park was almost empty, even though the weather was spectacular. A light breeze from the south cooled the warm land mass.
A stranger might have come to the conclusion that money for Ludington Park maintenance was being wasted. He might have surmised that because people were not using the park when the temperature was 75 and the sky was clear the park could not be justified by its per person use. The stranger would be making a quantitative judgment instead of a qualitative judgment. He would not consider the Fourth of July or giggling kids using Harbor Hideout.
A downstate quantitative analysis is being applied to our county judicial system. From time to time the State Court Adminstrator's Office (SCAO) has proposed eliminating U.P. judges. Past legislatures have ignored SCAO's suggestions, but a renewed effort is afoot.
SCAO uses the number of cases processed by a court as a basis for its recommendations. It compares the assembly line courts of Wayne and Oakland counties to U.P. justice. It is the same form of mentality that led the state to drop the state fairs.
Each county needs a probate judge, a circuit judge and a district judge. Some counties share judges. Each kind of court has its specialty. Probate courts help those who can't help themselves: the deceased, children and the disabled. Probate courts make sure a dead person's will is properly worked out and that neglected children and the disabled are protected.
District courts conduct trials of criminal cases that could result in jail sentences under one year, small claims, landlord tenant and civil cases under $25,000. Felony cases that will be tried in circuit court must first stop in district court for preliminary examinations.
Circuit courts conduct criminal trials that could result in incarceration in excess of one year, civil case with a value in excess of $25,000.00, protective orders and divorces.
Judges are not fungible. They work better if they work in their specialized areas. They also administer their staffs.
In August the SCAO recommended that the legislature eliminate one judge from Delta County. It does not recommend which kind of judge should go.
Menominee, Dickinson and Iron counties share two circuit judges, two district judges, and three probate judges. SCAO says eliminate two. Presently, the two circuit judges regularly travel to each of the three counties.
SCAO did not take into consideration traveling or, thinking or writing time. Nothing in the SCAO study discussed whether its recommendation will result in a better quality of justice.
If put in charge of Ludington Park, the SCAO may only approve slides because children can be "processed" through a slide fairly quickly. It would look askance at Harbor Hideout and volleyball, tennis and basketball courts.
Under the SCAO proposal judges would be under increased pressure to process more cases in less time to meet the SCAO's artificial production schedule.
Some of the work presently performed by judges, who are paid by the state, would be performed by a quasi-judicial official, like magistrates, whose salary will be paid by the local government.
The plan shifts judicial expense from state to local government.
The SCAO could follow our judges for an extended period of time to see what they do. Its representatives could chauffeur our traveling judges.
The ball will be in the legislature's court. The question is whether our U.P. legislators will preserve our bench.
The SCAO also recommended a reduction of the Court of Appeals from 28 to 24. The only court it has not suggested be reduced is the Michigan Supreme Court. The court could be reduced from seven to five justices.
Eliminating the last 2 elected or appointed Supreme Court positions would save salaries of the justices as well as their support staff. Maybe no recommendation was made because the Supreme Court appoints and controls SCAO.
Like Ludington Park Yoopers deserve quality when it comes to justice. It's up to Representative McBroom and Senator Casperson to preserve our U.P. judicial quality.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Richard Clark, Escanaba, practices personal injury law throughout the Upper Peninsula. He can be reached at uppermichiganlaw.com/richard-clark.html