Two candidates are in the running for one open seat on the bench of Dearborn's 19th District Court. Here's what sitting Judge Richard Wygonik had to say about several local issues affecting the court, in his own words.
The same questions were submitted to both candidates via email and were answered in writing.
Why is serving as a district judge in Dearborn important to you?
I was a practicing attorney for over 30 years, before becoming a district judge in 2005. The law is my life and my life is in the law. I have always had a passion for justice and I believe in keeping Dearborn a strong and safe city. I am fair and impartial. I treat all who come to the court with dignity and respect. I believe that the court, as a separate and independent branch of government, functions to fairly resolve civil disputes and administer criminal cases with a dispassionate firmness in achieving accountability and compliance with the law.
What about your background makes you the most qualified candidate for the job?
In 2005, I was appointed district judge by the governor. I was elected to the bench by Dearborn voters in 2006. I have nearly eight years of active judicial experience. I have the support of many attorneys and am respected for my fairness and integrity. I have been endorsed by the Dearborn Police Officers Association and the Dearborn Firefighters. I have endorsements from multiple entities and unions. I am known to be independent of city hall pressures and mandates.
As a general background, I was raised in Dearborn and attended Dearborn Public Schools, graduating from Fordson High School. I attended Henry Ford Community College and went on to finish my baccalaureate from Western Michigan University. I obtained my Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University.
After graduating in 1972, I practiced law as a trial attorney in all phases of law. During my legal career, I served as a Wayne County Circuit Court Mediator, and executive Board Member of the Mich. Trial Lawyers Association, Vice President of Polish American Citizens for Equity, and as a hearing panel member of the State Attorney Discipline Board.
In the community, I am a member of the Dearborn Pioneers, the original Good Fellows, Bishop Foley Knights of Columbus, and the Dearborn ARC, working to help developmentally disabled children in our community. I am also serving my second year as president of the Polish American Legal Society.
Revenue and expenses for the court have been major topics of discussion this year within the city. How would you cut expenses and/or raise more revenue for the court?
The court is an independent third branch of government. However, state statute says that the local funding unit, the City of Dearborn, MUST provide funding for the "maintenance, operation, and financing of the district court." The district court collects money from filing fees in civil cases and assessments of fines and costs in criminal cases. Some of the fees, fines, and costs must be given to the state and the county. All the rest is given to the city. The court keeps zero dollars. Nevertheless, the district court tries to fulfill its fiscal responsibility by operating as economically as possible, exercising prudence in cost containment measures and working to improve revenue.
In the past year, we have implemented a number of reforms. In these difficult economic times, we have streamlined administrative functions, combining a court clerk and administrator, eliminating an executive assistant position, instituting a deputy administrator responsible for probation, security, maintenance, and as assistant administrator.
We have also implemented in-house drug/alcohol assessments, increasing revenue by shifting fee payments from an outside vendor to the court. Civil infraction fines have been adjusted to reflect those in the surrounding communities. Our Law Day program is also now less costly and I believe, more effective for students because they come into the court. It also is safer for the community because we no longer transfer prisoners and defendants into our schools. Furthermore, all other operations are under review and discussion with the other two judges of the court.
Finally, we have settled three of the four legal claims that were pending against the court before I became chief judge and of which I had no part!
Should the 19th District Court cut one judge seat from its bench?
No. Last year (2011), the Dearborn district court handled over 80,000 cases. We are one of the busiest courts in the State of Michigan. The Supreme Court Administrative Court Review said that the under current standards, Dearborn is trending in the direction of needing more, not fewer, judges.
Where do you see the most room for improvement in the court's programs or services? (i.e. traffic, civil, juvenile, work program, etc.)
We are currently reviewing all court operations, including, traffic, civil, juvenile, and work program. Necessity comes before luxury in time of budget constraints. However, we have growing awareness of the problems and needs of our veterans with service-related substance abuse and mental illness. Therefore, we have begun the process of creating a Veteran Treatment Court for those veterans charged with non-violent crimes.
What is your favorite thing about the city of Dearborn?
It's why I became judge, I love the people and the neighborhoods, they deserve the best treatment and service the court can provide. That's my job!