As Judge Frank DeLuca prepares for his retirement, two candidates have emerged to fill his spot on the bench at Lansing’s 54-A District Court. Both lean on more than a decade of legal experience, a steadfast commitment to the community and a passion for blind justice as they eye potential reforms within the local court system.
Ayanna Neal and Cynthia Ward share a strikingly similar vision for the judiciary. They both view the judgeship as a way to give back to Lansing by helping local residents identify ways to overcome their legal troubles. They both want continued fairness in justice and they both believe they have the experience to make a difference.
Neal and Ward outlined a need for additional specialty courts. They both support the regional consolidation of district-level courtrooms in East Lansing. And they both think the only way to truly reduce recidivism is to address the root cause of why defendants land in the courtroom.
The term is for six years. Voters can select only one candidate when they head to the polls on Nov. 6. Hearing from both candidates, in their own words, might be the best way to inform your vote ahead of the election.
Neal, 43, of Lansing, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan and a law degree with a concentration in business transactions from Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
She has practiced law for about 16 years, mostly working as an assistant prosecutor with the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office.
“I’ve always been interested in running for judge,” Neal said. “With having been a public servant sitting as a prosecutor for almost 15 years, and with my experience handling all the types of cases that are handled in a district courtroom, being from Lansing and knowing what’s going on locally, I felt I was the best qualified.”
Neal also served on the Ingham County Equal Opportunity Committee, the Equal Access Initiative for Diversity and as a board member for the Lansing Educational Advancement Foundation. She has no prior experience holding an elected office but ran (and lost) a judicial bid for the 30th Circuit Court in 2012.
She said Lansing needs a specialty court to address drug-related crimes and, if elected, would work to give would-be felons another chance to keep their criminal record clean through probation and other programs. She said local residents ultimately need more help to overcome a growing nationwide opioid addiction crisis.
“People need treatment,” Neal added. “A person having a felony conviction or being incarcerated does not help them in terms of overcoming addiction.
For me, the issue is about addressing the root cause of those problems. And the root cause is often addiction. If we’re just giving out felonies, we’re not addressing the root cause.
“It could be a lack of education or a lack of a job and that breeds addiction. I’m a huge proponent of education. If you’re placed on probation and you don’t have a high school education, I’ll order — depending on the case — that they complete a high school diploma or earn their GED or find some sort of skilled training along the way.”
Neal said additional funding will be needed to implement any additional specialty courts or enhance access to addiction treatment. Those funds should also be used to construct or renovate a new courtroom if the cash can be made available, she said. Safety concerns and security issues continue to pervade the existing building.
“I feel like I would bring the perspective of being compassionate to people,” Neal added. “I look and see people in the courtroom like I would look at my son or daughter. I see what I can do to help this person. We all live in this community. Sometimes people just need that compassion and they need that second chance to get help.”
Neal touts endorsements from Plumbers and Piperfitters Local Union 333, Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wrigglesworth, Eaton County Prosecutor Doug R. Lloyd, Michigan State University Trustee Joel Ferguson, Eaton County Commissioner Joseph Brehler, multiple board members at both Lansing School District and Lansing Community College, Lansing 4th Ward Progressives and a host of local attorneys and judges.
Ward, 49, of Lansing, has a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Rutgers University and a law degree from Villanova University. She works as a state administrative manager at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and is licensed to practice law in three states.
“My career has been dedicated to serving the public interest,” Ward said. “I’ve learned that it’s just not enough to have legal representation when you talk about access to justice. Certainly, that’s an important factor but it’s so much more than that. You need a judge that knows how to treat people fairly and with respect and dignity.”
Ward, with no prior experience holding an elected office, previously served as an assistant dean and professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, among other law-related jobs dating back to 1995. She also bills herself as an “outsider” within the local judiciary and emphasized she’ll owe no political favors if elected to the bench.
“I have a philosophy of treating people fairly, respecting the law and recognizing the role that judges can play in our justice system,” Ward added. “I also recognize that I need to respect the three branches of government in this process. I think my judicial philosophy will only evolve if I’m elected to the bench.”
Like her opponent, Ward also emphasized the importance of addressing the root of criminal problems to ultimately help defendants and curb ongoing recidivism. She said her experience both as a civil rights lawyer and time spent teaching students in law school have helped to prepare her to “rethink” the administration of justice.
“Judges can’t go at it alone,” Ward said.
“A lot of legal issues being disposed include an underlying social issue that have presented themselves in a legal posture. It does no one any favors to impose a sanction and send them out of the courtroom.
We need to get to the root of the problem that brought them there in the first place.
“Some people say judges aren’t social workers but my entire life has been about collaboration and finding ways to help people. I’ve said this before: The court does not exist for me. It exists for the community. That’s why I haven’t advocated for one particular specialty court over another. That’s not for me to decide.”
Ward said the largest issue facing the courts are tied to the outdated facilities. The existing building is inadequate both in terms of space and security. Any future enhancements to the justice system would only be hindered by the physical condition of the building, she said. That will need to be addressed sooner than later.
“All of this amounts to an access to justice issue,” Ward added. “I think the court has multiple priorities to address but we certainly need to have an adequate courthouse to make those things happen.”
Ward touts endorsements from the every member of Lansing’s City Council, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 352, former Lansing Mayors Virg Bernero and David Hollister, multiple Ingham County Commissioners, board members at both Lansing School District and Lansing Community College, state representatives Joan Bauer and Tom Cochran and multiple judges throughout greater Lansing.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to accurately reflect Cynthia Ward's views on courtroom renovations.