Nov. 30 2018 09:17 AM

Local lawyers rush to defend East Lansing judge


FRIDAY, Nov. 30 — Ingham County commissioners shot down a resolution that sought to condemn “racially charged” statements made by 54B District Court Judge Andrea Larkin after several lawyers came to her defense.


The commission’s law and courts committee voted yesterday against a countywide resolution that aimed to condemn Larkin for what was labeled “coded, elitist and racist” statements. The resolution ultimately failed by a 7-0 vote before it could leave the committee.


Lansing Commissioners Ryan Sebolt and Thomas Morgan, who do not vote on the committee, authored the resolution. Morgan was absent for personal reasons. The vote was a surprise after commissioners had previously voted 12-1 to refer the resolution to the committee.


Larkin’s controversial rhetoric stems from a recent interview with City Pulse in which she advocated against court consolidation efforts and mixing college students with those facing “more dangerous” felonies from Lansing. Larkin has denied she said Lansing. Several public officials, after the story was published, interpreted an offensive subtext behind her remarks.


The draft resolution read: “Judge Larkin’s comments appear to advocate for two justice systems: One for so-called upwardly-mobile citizens and students, and another for people living in urban environments” and noted that her expressed viewpoints on district court consolidation “only serves to divide our region.”


Some commissioners weren’t willing to trust the accuracy of Larkin’s comments as published in City Pulse. Others wanted to hear from Larkin personally before they were willing to consider her condemnation. Board Chairman Victor Celentino chalked it up to a “miscommunication.” Most just wanted to keep things friendly.


“There are some things that are in here that are going to divide the process of court consolidation going forward,” added Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw, noting Larkin remains dedicated to fair and impartial justice. “I think if we pass a resolution as strongly worded as this is tonight, we are going to torpedo that process.”


Earlier yesterday afternoon, more than 20 lawyers signed their names to a letter testifying to Larkin’s “integrity, fairness and professionalism.” It noted she has treated all defendants equally, regardless of their race, religion, national origin or socioeconomic status and is “well prepared” for each case over which she presides.


“Recent statements attributed to Judge Larkin are not consistent with the Judge Larkin we know, work with and respect. The spurious allegations against Judge Larkin are totally contrary to her as a person, jurist and judge,” it reads.. “Judge Larkin is a fine jurist and should not have her character challenged in this fashion.”


Signing the letter were:


Andrew Abood, Edward Bajoka, Mary Chartier, Dan Doyle, Steven Fiegelson, Mick S. Grewal Sr., Matthew Heos, Edward A. Hess, Richard Hillman, Shane W. Hilyard, Kurt E. Krause, David W. Meyers, Brian P. Morley, Michael J. Nichols, Wendy Schiller Nichols, Takura Nyamfukdza, Michael L. Oakes, Alex Rusek, H. James White, Toby White, Christopher Wickman and Edwar A. Zeineh.


Sebolt said the vote spelled the end of the road for any further attempts to condemn Larkin for her recent statements. He was “disappointed” in the committee’s vote but said he won’t be taking another shot at again passing the resolution.


“If there were things in the resolution that my colleagues were uncomfortable with, we always had the opportunity to change the resolution,” Sebolt added. “I was disappointed. I’d imagine this is probably the end unless something new comes up. The committee, at this point, made their feelings on the topic pretty clear.”


Morgan, who previously labeled Larkin’s comments as “divisive, disgusting and despicable,” agreed with Sebolt but emphasized that he doesn’t plan to shy away from “speaking up for what’s right” for Lansing in the future.


The controversy stems from two separate interviews City Pulse had conducted with Larkin in which she spoke against court consolidation. In them, she repeatedly expressed concerns about transporting and jailing college students with those facing “more dangerous” felony charges in Lansing.


Larkin submitted a rebuttal to the commission, which was the same as a piece in City Pulse earlier this week that she coauthored with fellow judge Richard Ball of 54B District Court.


Her letter noted the communities of East Lansing and Lansing are inherently different and again emphasized that younger defendants shouldn’t be housed with higher-risk defendants regardless of their enrollment status, hometown, race, culture or political affiliation.


“The most important consideration is whether residents want to lose their local courts which are reflective of their city’s needs,” Larkin wrote, listing other concerns about costs and the potential for a “one-size-fits all” justice system. “Each city will lose the opportunity to elect local judges who reside in the city where they serve.”


Sebolt still found sentiments addressed in her follow-up statements to be “deeply offensive” and “insensitive” to Lansing residents. He said Larkin’s letter incorrectly indicates that East Lansing residents are only prone to misdemeanors while violent felony charges are more likely to be levied against Lansing residents.


“One size does fit all in the justice system,” Sebolt added. “We’re all supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law.”


Larkin previously explained that one of her children attends Michigan State University.


“If they got picked up for urinating in public or assaulting someone outside a bar in East Lansing, would I want them to be housed with people from Lansing facing more dangerous felonies? I'm speaking as a parent, but I would not,” Larkin said, later denying that she said “from Lansing” in a meeting with City Pulse.


An unnamed source told City Pulse that Larkin, in a meeting with public officials, had specifically tied Lansing to her comments about college students. That information is what led City Pulse to interview Larkin on the issue. In another interview, she noted East Lansing is “just different” from Lansing in terms of demographics.


“People recognize the differences between a college town and the rest of the county. A lot of young people may get into a fight outside the bar or something. The issue is A.) Do you want them to be transported for a long period of time? And B.) Do you want them to be held in a lock-up with people from some other areas?”


Larkin also elaborated on the “trauma” of younger defendants crossing paths with hardened criminals from outside of East Lansing. In the context of this interview, Larkin was specifically asked about how East Lansing defendants would be impacted from potentially sharing a lock-up with defendants from Lansing.


“It's the experience,” Larkin said during the recent interview. “It's the trauma of being housed or being bused with somebody who might act out violently or have a serious mental illness and not be able to bond out for a few days. It's about the degree of the seriousness of the offense. It's not about superiority.”


“I'm just saying we have a lot of college students in East Lansing that are young and don't have their full frontal lobe development from a psychological standpoint,” Larkin added. “That maybe would've prevented them from doing something in the first place. There needs to be some recognition of the demographics in East Lansing.”


Larkin emphasized that “a lot of research” corroborates a theory that more violent criminal offenders serve as a bad influence for lower-level offenders when they’re housed together in the same facilities. But it’s only about the age of the defendant and their “criminogenic” risk factors, she later emphasized in the meeting at City Pulse.


The draft resolution, before it was defeated nearly unanimously, considered Larkin’s statements to be “beyond the pale for a supposed impartial arbiter of justice” and sought to condemn her “coded, elitist and racist” statements. It also demanded a public apology and sought a judicial review of Larkin’s past court cases.


Morgan, for his part, said he still expects Larkin to apologize for her “insensitive” commentary on the issue.


The Lansing City Council, spurred at least in part by Councilman Peter Spadafore, is also exploring a similar resolution, though no formal action has been taken. Several other officials — including the Lansing chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — have also taken umbrage with the remarks.


“Judge Larkin’s remarks appear to show a bias against anyone who lives outside of East Lansing, and people of color, thus affecting her ability to be a neutral arbiter of the law.” according to a statement from spokesman Randy Watkins. “Stereotypes have been affecting the criminal justice system and public policy for far too long.”


Larkin didn’t return subsequent calls for additional comment after her latest interview with City Pulse.


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


Editor's Note: This story was updated to accurately reflect the composition of the committee.