On March 29, longtime prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III notified the county that he would resign the office he has held since 1997, effective July 2. Dunnings was charged March 14 on multiple prostitution and pandering counts.
His departure leaves a six-month gap until a duly elected prosecutor takes office in January 2017. Ingham County Circuit judges will appoint an interim prosecutor.
It’s not the first time. It happened in 1986, when Peter Houk, Ingham County prosecutor since 1977, was appointed to the Circuit bench.
However, Circuit Court Chief Judge Janelle Lawless said “this [year] is a little bit more interesting — unfortunately, because of the circumstances of the vacancy — but also that it happens to be an election year as well.”
Monday morning, a day after the application deadline, Lawless checked her mailbox one last time for letters and resumes.
“We’re not disclosing who has applied, but we had a total of six persons who are interested,” she said. In Michigan, the judicial branch is covered by neither the Open Meetings Act nor the Freedom of Information Act.
However, on Tuesday Lawless said she would release the names today. (See related story)
Two well known figures have publicly confessed to applying: former State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and former District Court Judge Thomas Brennan Jr.
Lawless said the entire Circuit bench will meet privately next week “to discuss the applicants and what our next process is.”
“There is no real process or set procedure courts have to follow,” Lawless said. “There are seven of us [Circuit judges] here. If you were a county where there were only one judge, that judge would make the appointment.”
Whitmer, former Michigan Senate minority leader and a rising star in the state’s Democratic Party, is used to perpetual speculation about her political future. Her application for interim prosecutor has been viewed as a possible steppingstone to a future bid for governor or attorney general.
“I’ve been teaching at the University of Michigan all year and practicing law with Dickinson Wright,” a Lansing firm, “and I’ve immensely enjoyed both,” she said. “I have figured out, though, that I really care about public service. I’m always eager to be helpful to the community in which I grew up and I know that about myself.”
She said her top priority, if selected, will be to “try to earn back the confidence of the people of the county and to build morale within the office,” and to open up communication with the public and the press.
“To the extent that’s what the Circuit bench thinks are the priorities, I would be interested in being helpful,” Brennan, the son of Thomas E. Brennan, founder of Cooley Law School and Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, has also applied for the interim position. Brennan, who retired from the 55th District Court in 2004 at age 52, could not be reached for comment.
Brennan has the distinction of being the subject of a rare formal complaint submitted by Michigan’s Judicial Tenure Commission to the state Supreme Court. In 1989, the commission censured Brennan for plagiarizing material in an article published in 1987 in the Cooley Law Review.
Meanwhile, four Democrats and two Republicans pack the primary field.
Patrick O’Keefe, 41, who has run his own criminal defense firm in downtown Lansing for the past two years, is running in the Democratic primary. O’Keefe was an assistant prosecutor in Kent County from 2003 to 2007 and in Ingham County from 2007 to 2013.
O’Keefe said he would involve himself more vigorously in the office’s day-to-day affairs than Dunnings did. He wants to reach out to criminal defense lawyers and organization such as the Innocence Project to avoid putting innocent people in jail. He also wants to “hold law enforcement accountable when their actions cross the line.”
“There’s no greater need for transparency than now,” O’Keefe said.
Brian Jackson, also running in the Democratic primary, was Eaton County prosecutor from 2013-14 and worked in the Lansing City Attorney’s Office. He practices law, primarily criminal defense, at his own firm.
At 32, Jackson is the youngest candidate in the field, which he considers an asset. He said the current criminal justice system is failing and he would introduce a “progressive way of prosecuting.”
Billie Jo O’Berry, running in the Republican primary, said she would “prioritize cases and focus on serious repeat offenders.”
O’Berry has served in the Lansing City Attorney’s Office for 29 years, working under five city attorneys and three interim city attorneys. She works chiefly as a prosecutor for the city.
O’Berry, Jackson and O’Keefe all praised the county’s growing number of diversion programs and specialty courts, including sobriety courts in Lansing and Mason, Judge Thomas Boyd’s Mental Health Court in Ingham County’s 55th District Court and East Lansing’s 54-B Veteran’s Court, which O’Keefe would like to expand throughout the county.
Jackson said he has carefully studied “school to prison pipeline” and strongly favors alternatives to mass incarceration.
“I’m not trying to hammer people to the point where they can’t re-enter and become successful citizens again, especially young people, first offenders and non-violent crimes,” Jackson said.
O’Berry said specialty courts and diversion programs are “invaluable tools” for a prosecutor. In 1975, O’Berry helped establish the first Ingham County pre-trial diversion program and has run Lansing’s diversion program since 1987.
O’Keefe said he strongly supports “taking a common problem such as alcoholism or substance abuse and treating it in a different way than just locking people up and throwing away the key.”
Three remaining candidates in the Aug. 2 primary did not respond to emailed requests for interviews.
Carol Siemon, of East Lansing, running in the Democratic primary, worked in the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office from 1983 to 1995, heading the juvenile division. Siemon, 59, has specialized in child welfare and juvenile justice programs in the public and private sectors as an attorney and consultant.
Thomas English of Lansing, running in the Democratic primary, is a 60-year-old retired administrative law judge and former U.S. Army judge advocate.
Monica Stephens of Lansing, running in the Republican primary, was an assistant prosecutor in Jackson County until she left the office last November, according to a Jackson County staffer. Stephens is listed as a Jackson attorney specializing in children’s rights.