The districts courts in East Lansing, Lansing and Mason could consolidate into a single Ingham County-based 55th District Court under legislation that’s swiftly moving through the Legislature in lame duck’s closing days.
The latest version of Senate Minority Leader Sam Singh’s HB 6344 moved through the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon and is slated to move to the floor this week.
Singh’s bill doesn’t mandate that courts be combined, but it does give the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, the city of East Lansing and city of Lansing the power to hammer out a deal before Nov. 1, 2019.
If the three governing bodies agree, the bill makes the consolidation official starting March 1, 2020. A new, eight-judge district court would be created with the hope of a new supercourt complex, according to Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and County Commissioner Todd Tennis.
If the move is made, all district judges would be elected countywide. Today, Lansing voters pick their 54A district judges, but have no say in those serving in 54B and the 55th courts. Under this law, all eight judges would run at large in Ingham County after eight years.
54A Judge Hugh Clarke is concerned getting rid of what is essentially community courts will create courtrooms that don’t reflect the city’s demographics.
Singh’s new bill reads that any crime committed in Lansing and Lansing Township must be heard in front of a jury made up of Lansing and Lansing Township jurors. It’s the same for East Lansing. Any crime committed in East Lansing must be heard in front of a jury made up of East Lansing jurors.
The 54A and 54B district courts operate out of the city halls in Lansing and East Lansing, respectively. The 55th District Court is run out of Mason.
The move is not unlike what other counties have done in the past. Tight budgets have fueled seven similar court consolidations in years past. For his part, Singh said he has been suggesting this move since 1999 when he sat on the East Lansing City Council.
City leaders have resisted until recently, when even East Lansing began feeling some fiscal strain. Lansing is all for it. They’ve wanted a new home for the 54A District Court for years. Both Lansing and Ingham County have been digging under sofa cushions to balance their budgets since the Great Recession.
The existing court staff would be 55th District Court employees under the bill. The various governments would hammer out specific staffing details, but the general idea is that once some of the older staff retire, there’s $1 million in savings in combining courts.
While legislators are onboard with pushing through the framework, there are concerns.
Lansing City Councilmember Peter Spadafore said he favors the court consolidation discussion, but he’s concerned the bill is “putting the cart before the horse.”
He’d prefer the local governments work out an agreement on their own and then come to the Legislature to codify it into law. Spadafore is concerned that having the Legislature craft the bill first with certain perimeters could be too restrictive in the negotiating process.
Rep. Rosemary Robinson, D-Detroit, is concerned the bill will still create situations where certain demographics in Ingham County won’t be represented in the judicial process.
Aaron Martinez from the Nichols Law Firm said after Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee that his firm had some concerns about the speed at which the bills seem to be moving. Singh said his bill has been in the hopper for six months, but Martinez said his team didn’t know about this change until recently.
Bruce Timmons, a judicial policy watchdog who advised House Republicans on judicial matters for 40 years, said the bill should stagger the judicial terms so everyone is not up at the same time. Kalamazoo did this with its court consolidations in the late ‘90s, he said.
Timmons also said something needs to be done about making sure Lansing Township residents in Eaton County are able to both vote for the judges and be involved in the jury pool selection process. That’s not made clear in the bill.
Whether these wrinkles are ironed out, the thrust behind the bill is that the Lansing area has a politically powerful legislator who won’t be serving after the end of the month. Singh is in a position to push the consolidation discussions right now and all signs are that he’s accomplishing that charge.
(Melinn, of MIRS the Capitol news service MURS, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)