A recent proposal aims to optimize the local justice system, erasing district boundary lines and fusing three courtrooms under a regional banner. Proponents said it will save cash — and a decades-old headache.
Discussions to consolidate Lansing and East Lansing’s 54-A and 54-B district courts with Ingham County’s 55th District Court have started and stalled for more than 20 years. Officials think the latest iteration to integrate justice into one countywide system might just have enough momentum to be forged into reality by 2020.
“The people who live in Lansing Township over on Lansing’s west side — God forbid they become the victim of a crime — literally have to drive right past a courthouse on their way to Mason to get justice,” explained 55th District Judge Thomas Boyd. “We owe it to local residents to provide a better service.”
Besides whatever benefits may accrue from court consolidation, there’s a new motivation: Lansing’s desire to move to a new City Hall. The Bernero administration had set a plan in motion that did not account for where 54-A District Court, housed in City Hall, would be located. New Mayor Andy Schor has suspended the new City Hall plan, saying he will not spend “millions” to relocate the courts (and also the police lockup) temporarily.
“I think our plans to move out of City Hall, at least in part, helped to restart these conversations” about consolidation, Schor said.
The consolidation concept, still in early planning stages, requires state legislation to dissolve the boundaries and could reduce the number of separate courtroom facilities in the local judiciary. Early proposals suggest one courtroom would handle cases for East Lansing and Lansing, Meridian and Lansing townships.
Another could take the outcounty areas. Another iteration of the proposal suggests residents in Meridian and Lansing townships — with a current district assignment in Mason — could save the drive and travel to a merged and newly constructed courtroom at the border of Lansing and East Lansing. Other suggestions would keep the system divided into three facilities.
The transition would also eventually shift the election of district court judges, placing fewer names on the ballot. One version of the plan would have two judges for Meridian and Lansing townships, four for Lansing and East Lansing and one for the balance of Ingham County in three separate locations.
Another would shift six judges — each assigned caseloads by a chief judge — to cover Meridian and Lansing townships, East Lansing and Lansing and one designated to cover the outcounty. Either way, the overall bench would shrink by one seat. And the election would shift to an overall countywide vote within eight years.
“It’s going to happen eventually because the way we’re doing things now is just unnecessarily inefficient,” Boyd added. “The question now becomes: Is now the right time? And we’re still having these discussions.”
But at least one judge spots a possibly unintended consequence on the horizon. 54-A District Judge Hugh B. Clarke Jr., who covers cases within the city of Lansing, contends the maneuver to shift the electorate into a countywide scheme would only make it more challenging for people of color to land a spot on the bench.
Lansing voters, for example, would no longer vote for a judge who strictly handles citywide cases, but would instead cast ballots for several judges to handle the region’s overall caseload. Census data indicate the city of Lansing is 21 percent black; Ingham County is only 12 percent black.
And Clarke suggested the electoral tilt could disenfranchise a significant African American voting bloc, making it “insurmountable” to elect a person of color to a contested countywide district court seat. He also posed similar concerns about unbalanced jury pools and the ability for Lansing defendants to find a fair trial.
“It goes without saying, it is difficult for African American defendants to (have) confidence in the jury system when they see no one in the jury pool that looks like them,” Clarke contended in a letter sent to local politicians and 54-B District Chief Judge Andrea Larkin. He also said its recipients have yet to formally respond.
Clarke outlined the issue before Lansing’s City Council earlier this month. Council members requested more information as they continue to mull an endorsement of the proposal.
But many other (mostly white) officials — including county commissioners, mayors and state legislators — aren’t convinced there could be a problem.
The legislation clearly addresses the issue of balancing jurisdictional consistency during a jury trial. Criminal offenses that occurred within the city of Lansing or Lansing Township, for instance, would be hashed out before a jury of citizens from those two townships, according to a house bill introduced earlier this month.
And many politicians contended recent history doesn’t support Clarke’s assertion on judicial elections.
“I think we have a county where African Americans and women and anybody else is going to get elected based on their qualifications,” Schor said. “The evidence in recent history really shows us that.”
Claude Thomas, an African American, was elected in the 54-A District in 1980. Judges John W. Davis and Beverly Nettles-Nickerson followed — although initially appointed — and won subsequent bids for reelection.
But can they be elected initially? Judge Donald L. Allen, who serves alongside Boyd in the 55th District, has been elected twice after being appointed in 2008 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Clarke was elected also after being appointed in 2010 by Granholm as well. Because of his age, state law bars him from running again for judge.
Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings — the first African American elected to hold the position in Michigan — served for nearly 20 years and was reelected on multiple occasions. His sister, Shauna Dunnings, is running unopposed for a local probate court position. Two black women are also facing off for another slot in the 54-A District.
“Clarke’s concerns are perfectly typical of the things that have prevented any progress on consolidation during the past 25 years,” said County Commissioner Mark Grebner. “Somebody can always think of a reason not to proceed, and they make no effort to weigh that reason against everyday benefits to the public and the taxpayers.”
State Rep. Sam Singh, who represents areas in East Lansing, Haslett and Okemos, introduced legislation that would enable the merger, if the governments of each municipality pass a resolution in support of the measure. Ingham County’s Board of Commissioners, so far, is the only group to greenlight the concept.
“The major reason is this could save the people of Ingham County $1 million per year,” said Commission Chairwoman Carol Koenig. “Everyone realizes the savings. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to do this.”
The proposal would ensure no existing employees are laid off or fired, but some positions wouldn’t be filled over time. Koenig said a unified system would be much easier to coordinate and would require far fewer clerks and other administrative specialists. The savings might not materialize quickly but will flow in time, she emphasized.
Koenig said Ingham County as a whole would split $1 million in savings under the consolidation. Schor suggested Lansing would cut annual costs by as much as $1.8 million. Each variation of the proposal and possible transition over time could rapidly adjust those figures going forward, they both emphasized.
“There were reasons to consolidate for fiscal reasons,” Alderson added. “Savings would be one, but I think it’ll also lend to a better administration of our justice system.”
Wgile the City Council hasn’t taken a position. Schor strongly supports consolidation.
“It’s good government and efficient for the city of Lansing,” Schor said. “We’re on board as long as the system of judges remains effective and efficient. And honestly, I think this would provide better justice for the people.”
Another reason is consolidation would help solve the dilemma of where to house the district court and allow plans to move out of City Hall to go forward.
Former Mayor Virg Bernero selected a plan submitted by Chicago developer J. Paul Beitler to transform City Hall into a hotel, with City Hall moving to the old State Journal building on Lenawee Street. But Schor suspended the plan in March because it did not account for space for the courts and the police lockup.
Earlier this month, Beitler said he likely will pull out in January if the city does not make up its mind by then. Rising interest rates and development costs have put a ticking clock on the project.
East Lansing officials — who have historically opposed the consolidation — are waiting on a recommendation from staff before making any decisions. But recent financial concerns may have shifted long-standing opinions among those now looking to save some extra cash, explained Mayor Pro-Tem Erik Altmann.
“No one wants to lose the good things we have going for us right now,” Altmann said, noting the existing courtroom location allows for easy access for Michigan State University students. “I think everybody is interested in being a part of the discussion though. We have to think about the short- and long-term future.”
House Bill 6344 — introduced earlier this month by Singh — needs to pass through the House Judiciary Committee before plans can take flight. Even then, each municipality will have a one-year period to assemble logistics, financing and other elements before the consolidation to a new, 54th District Court takes effect.
Clarke also criticized the “cart-beforethe-horse” format of the legislation, arguing a unified plan should first be assembled before the idea heads into a lame duck session of the state legislature. He suggested the bill was politically motivated and said incoming representatives might not be as supportive of the proposal.
Singh, however, said the plan was modeled after Kalamazoo County’s 1997 consolidation and represents a “proven path forward.” The details will take time but it’s important to take legislative action first, he said. Schor agreed with the timeline. He said the plan could otherwise fall apart while the bill slugs throughs the Capitol.
“You can’t get too much of it preorganized,” Koenig explained. “Once we have the legislation, everyone will get on board and everything will just seem to fall into place. You would think you would do it the other way around but that’s just not reality. That’s just not how it works out.”
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage as consolidation plans develop.