Failing to unite the tribes

By Sam Inglot

54B District Court judge candidates, along with East Lansing officials, are against district court consolidation

East Lansing has no interest in consolidating its court system with those of Lansing and Mason, which could have saved $1.6 million a year for the county, according to a recent consolidation plan.

While they have absolutely no sway in the decision, the two candidates for the open judge seat in the 54B District Court in East Lansing — which would have been part of the consolidation — weighed in with their thoughts on the situation: Both are backing the decision of East Lansing officials against the consolidation.

“I do think that the three courts have differences,” said Andrea Larkin, one of two candidates to advance from the Aug. 7 primary election. “With East Lansing being a small town with a huge university, one of largest in the United States, it has a unique docket, and that makes consolidation less ideal in East Lansing.”

The plan was to consolidate administrative functions of the courts: the 55th District Court in Mason, the 54A District Court in Lansing and the 54B District Court in East Lansing. All three courts would have been run by a single, county-funded administration. The courts would have kept election districts, but the main jurisdictions would have been tweaked.

Consolidation discussions between the three courts began in February 2011, said 55th District Judge Thomas Boyd, a strong supporter of the consolidation plan. He said the plan would create more logical districts and save money, for Lansing in particular, and improve efficiency for citizens. He said in some situations, neighbors can be in different court jurisdictions and not even know it, which can complicate cases.

“If someone breaks into your house and your neighbor’s house, those cases could be in different courts,” he said. “Come on, that’s just silly and government shouldn’t be silly. We can do better.”

East Lansing was the only court not enticed by the possible savings, wrote James Hughes, the Supreme Court Region II administrator in an early July email to county and city officials. He also wrote that East Lansing was “pleased” with the way the courts currently operate.

“My concern is that the majority of the defendants are college students and that’s different than the 55th and 54A,” Larkin said. Also, “parking is an issue in East Lansing that’s vastly different than the areas served by the 55th.”

State Rep. Mark Meadows won the most votes in the Aug. 7 primary. He and Larkin will face off for the judge seat in November. It was “no surprise” that East Lansing didn’t want to join in on the plan: It isn’t the first time the college town didn’t want to play ball, he said.

Meadows was involved with a similar consolidation plan 10 years ago as the mayor of East Lansing. During those discussions, he said there was no way to guarantee East Lansing would keep its huge amount of parking revenues, which is a major part of the city budget. That plan was axed as well.

A bill pending in the state Legislature could “very likely” get passed this year that would, instead of consolidating, allow joint activity between district, probate and circuit courts. Judges would be able to rule on cases originating in other levels of the courts. Meadows said it would change the “nature of caseloads.”

While the two candidates oppose the latest consolidation plan, Meadows and Larkin said, if elected, they would be willing to explore future possibilities of consolidation and that the latest attempt was not in vein.

“These exercises are worthwhile because they make everybody think about how the system operates,” Meadows said. “It brings attention to the judicial system and how to make it highly efficient and convenient for citizens.”