Nov. 29 2018 09:58 AM

Larkin: Specialty courts jeopardized in merger

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If district courts are ever to be merged in Ingham County, the local officials behind the plans will need to navigate their way around some vehement objections from multiple judges that preside over the courtrooms.

Judges in East Lansing’s 54B District Court have emerged as leading opponents amid ongoing discussions to consolidate their jurisdiction with Lansing’s 54A District and Mason’s 55th District courtrooms.

Plans very much remain in their early stages, but 54B Chief Judge Andrea Larkin contends proper justice could be at risk.

“I’ve never understood this concept of big government being equated to good government, especially in terms of the courts,” Larkin said. “We have these three branches of government. Our goal is to deliver fair and impartial justice, and we’re doing that. I just don’t know why we would want to turn this into a bigger bureaucracy.”

The consolidation concept requires legislation that would dissolve court boundaries and shift the judicial electorate to a countywide vote. Local officials would have about a year to sort out the details — and come to a consensus — should the bill continue to advance in an upcoming lame duck House session at the Capitol.

Preliminary discussions have also included the construction a near-$23 million courtroom supercomplex near the border of Lansing and East Lansing on a cornfield owned by Michigan State University.

Lansing, East Lansing and Ingham County would likely split the tab based average caseloads, early cost estimates showed.

Larkin faced widespread criticism last week over her concern about mixing college students with more hardened defendants in a consolidated justice system. But she and 54B District Court Judge Richard Ball also raised a few other arguments. They contended speciality courts operating in East Lansing could be in jeopardy under a merger. A newly installed chief judge would take the reins after consolidation. And there’s no promise they’d maintain the existing system.

The speciality courts are funded largely through grant dollars and provide specific programming based on defendants who are dealing with substance abuse or mental illness stemming from military service.

Most take a non-adversarial approach with treatment plans and provide frequent interaction with courtroom employees.

Droves of court employees, veterans and recovering addicts joined Larkin and Ball at an East Lansing City Council meeting to voice their opposition to the concept, after which the Council passed a resolution supporting court consolidation. The Sobriety, Drug and Veteran’s Treatment Courts have played an important role in the community. Larkin and Ball would hate to see them go.

Cost and revenue loss are other concerns.

“This is going to cost a significant amount of money for East Lansing,” Larkin said. “I see no savings. We could possibly lose a local court, and we’d also lose the fines that come into that court. We’d lose our ability to elect judges. This court is highly efficient. It’s been used as a model for other courts for years. I don’t see an upside.”

Operational consolidation won’t require the construction of a new facility, according to 55th District Court Judge Thomas Boyd. But early cost estimates, should officials lock down the plans, indicate Lansing could pay up to $1 million per year for the next 20 years. East Lansing would then be on the hook for $500,000 annually.

Those costs, at least in theory, would be driven down through a reduction in operational costs. No employees would be fired in the merger, but some positions would be left unfilled over time, officials said.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor suggested Lansing could save as much as $1.8 million annually over time through employee attrition. Officials in East Lansing weren’t able to provide a solid figure. Other estimates outlined in a recent report — generated in part by Boyd — show a three-way savings of up to $1.1 million across the county.

Ball said courtrooms are designed to focus more on impartial justice than efficient justice. He contended East Lansing could also stand to lose those savings by forcing police to travel farther to reach a new courtroom. And “absolutely no details” have been shared to show any specific cash incentives for the city of East Lansing, he said.

Larkin said consolidation would only lead to a more impersonal avenue for defendants that need help. She also noted that detailed conversations about consolidation have largely been kept locked behind closed doors. She was only made aware of the ongoing plans by reading City Pulse and eventually inviting herself to the table.

“If anyone makes the claim that this courtroom needs to operate more efficiently than it already does, then they have no respect for due process,” Ball added. “That should never be the goal of the justice system. If someone comes in, courts just aren’t designed to deliver justice efficiently. Operationally, we’re extremely efficient.

“The business of delivering fair and proper justice cannot be judged by efficiency.”

Boyd countered: “If we can do a better job with less money, it’s incumbent on us to do that,” Boyd contended.

Judge Hugh Clarke of the 54-A District Court in Lansing has also expressed misgivings.

Consolidation would eventually force district judges to run for election countywide and not just within their local communities. He contended that electoral tilt would only make it more difficult for judges of color to land a spot on the bench.

“I’m not an accounting major but I’m not confident this plan makes any financial sense either,” Clarke added.

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage on regional court consolidation.

kyle@lansingcitypulse.com