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Dearborn Council Looks Into Eliminating District Court Judge Seat

Could Dearborn’s 19th District Court make do with only two judges?

The question being asked of all Dearborn city departments this budget season is: Could you do your work with less staff?

The ’s answer has been an emphatic no, but some members of Dearborn City Council are looking to do just that. And not just any position–a judge.

The idea was proposed publicly at a budget session earlier this month, but has been floating around as a possibility for longer.

Councilman Robert Abraham–an outspoken critic of the court’s operations–confirmed that there has been “a series of conversations” between council, Mayor Jack O’Reilly and City Attorney Debra Walling concerning what it would take to bring the court’s judge roster from three to two.

“I’m very serious about that being one of the more viable options to control the funding required for the 19th District Court,” Abraham said.

Historically, the court did not have a third judge until the early 1990s, when the state legislature approved a Michigan Supreme Court-recommended measure to expand the number of judges. The growth was based on the consistently growing caseload for the court, and happened with the blessing of the Dearborn City Council, which enacted a resolution stating that they had the funding and were willing to support the costs associated with a third judge.

But have shown that councilmembers are not happy to see the caseload continue to rise while the revenue drops.

“If we cut your budget, and you bring in more revenue, that’s great. But the overall general fund dollars have got to go down,” said Councilman David Bazzy. “If you were a private business, you’d be in bad shape. And just because you’re not (doing well) doesn’t mean the taxpayers should have to fund this.”

Councilwoman Suzanne Sareini added that it’s “time to get creative” in the face of budget woes, including looking at contracting out, or cutting positions.

Court Administrator Sharon Langen contested that the court is operating with as small of a staff as possible.

"I did a survey of other courts ... and if you compare our numbers to courts with a similar caseload, we're actually operating very efficiently," she said. "I don't think we could afford to eliminate another position."

The 19th District Court's caseload is just over 80,100, and the staff includes 11 full-time and four part-time clerks, three full-time and two part-time probation officers, and one full-time probation clerk.

But several councilmembers have questioned the accountability of district court operations, which are overseen by the state, but funded by the city.

“Look at the state, look at the county,” commented Councilman Mark Shooshanian. “There’s no accountability for the court system.”

Councilman Abraham suggested that the 19th District Court has not shown the ability to operate smartly, or with taxpayers in mind.

He cited issues like the court’s work program vans, two of which are no longer operational after continual washing of the interior with running water led to the bottom of the vans rusting completely out.

Meanwhile, Abraham believes that drops in revenue show that judges are being too lenient to lawbreakers, resulting in more unpaid and waived fines and fees.

“Chief judges do not believe that the court has to answer to City Council,” Abraham said. “We’re supposed to be on the same team, serving the same community and spending the taxpayers money as effectively as possible.”

The process for removing a judge seat could be set in motion by a City Council resolution, but ultimately would have to be suggested by the Michigan Supreme Court and approved by the state legislature. The decision could take more than a year, and which seat would be eliminated is unclear.

The downsizing could also happen in conjunction with a move that would make enforcing and collecting on parking tickets a function of the city, thus removing a significant number of cases from the court's caseload.

Santiago May 22, 2012 at 11:12 AM
Where do the $2,000,000 in jury verdicts against Judge Mark Somers fit into the District Court's budget? Or should that show up on our property tax bill like chief judge Richard Wygonik would like? Closing pools to support fools!
Frank Lee May 22, 2012 at 11:36 AM
Closing pools to support fools.... Priceless
Rich May 22, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Maybe this is the newest plan for the Mayor to get a new office. Just think how 'great' he would look sitting on the bench overlooking his kingdom's subjects.
Michael Matigian May 22, 2012 at 12:05 PM
What about looking at the number of City Councilman we have ?? Do we need them all ? What do they do ?? Can we do with a smaller city council.
cheryl May 22, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Good grief, O'Reilly will probably hire Plante and Moran to do another study to see if we should eliminate the judge.
Madison Grant May 22, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Grandstanding by city council members looking to shift the public's attention away from their mismanagement of the city. The undesputed fact is the 19th District Court is one of the busiest courts in the state and the staff there is supremely efficient. But, apparently, some knuckleheads in city council would like to reduce the court's ability to try cases, which will lead to more plea deals and more criminals on the streets. Good thinking, city council! What a joke.
Madison Grant May 22, 2012 at 02:21 PM
EXACTLY!
Madison Grant May 22, 2012 at 02:24 PM
This is such a BS, pure politics comment. The law is the law. And the case law is clear, despite the preference of the city attorney and the mayor. You cannot to choose to ignore verdicts because they're inconvenient.
laplateau May 22, 2012 at 02:31 PM
Perhaps this court is most efficient with a high case load, but I believe they, in way too many cases, judges either dismiss the case or reduce the fines. In some instances, this could well be understandable and appropriate, but one has to remember that these judges are elected by the citizens of Dearborn. They rely on citizen support at election time, so they could well be reluctant to fine those who they depend on for votes. Especially on residential and commercail property violation issues, the judges simply waive the fine, reduce it, or allow more time for compliance with code issues. These cases don't even get to the judges untill the enforcement officers have given the offenders every break in the book. That's one reason why Dearborn's "curb appeal" is seriously dimishished.
Madison Grant May 22, 2012 at 02:53 PM
@ Iampateau ... In a way, you make my point: The caseload is very high, and you can argue that the current three judges (whatever your opinion of them) are overworked. Indeed, a recent Supreme Court report on court report shows case load to be appropriate for 3.6 judges (1). Trying to shrink the court to two judges is just crazy and will result in MORE plea deals and MORE criminals on the streets. Not only is the city council and the mayor's idea bad, it's dangerous. (1) http://courts.michigan.gov/scao/resources/publications/reports/Michigan%20Judicial%20Workload%20Assessment-Final%20Report.pdf, Page 37
Lee Jacobsen May 22, 2012 at 03:13 PM
The bottom line is costs, which is why discussion on reducing to two judges is being discussed. The support staff, according to the city budget, has some of the highest paid clerical help in the state, especially when factoring in longevity bonuses and health insurance waiver bonuses. Put some term limits on the staff, and reduce those longevity bonuses. Better yet, eliminate the bonuses and just give longer vacations, stopping at a max of 4 weeks. The longevity bonuses have no upper limits, increasing an average of 10% per year. The city can't afford bonuses at this time. Sareini has pegged it, time to get creative and keep the judges, but reduce the cost of the staff. How hard can it be to find 'bonded' clerical folk to collect fines etc??
marooned in Dbn May 22, 2012 at 04:01 PM
No problem. Just do more 60/40 vote count victories for 4 or 5 new millages.
Frank Lee May 22, 2012 at 04:01 PM
This does sound like grandstanding, by council members incapable of promoting budgeting that works. Anyways it's not their call. It seems this council wants to tilt at windmills rather than produce. This council wants to blame it on the courts or charter but ignore their own failures. How about firing the people who botched the CSO, or look into why mayoral appointees are the highest city workers in MI
Madison Grant May 22, 2012 at 04:35 PM
@ Frank Lee ... Well put.
Lee Jacobsen May 22, 2012 at 07:28 PM
Good point Frank, but who will do the looking? City officials? Hardly! They obviously enjoy the status quo as it is....
Frank Lee May 22, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Lee J, why argue over a judges pay, when the mayor just announced a 4 million dollar proposal to by a foreclosed building, so he can ensconce his rotund body on a throne in the center of Dearborn and rule over his subjects. This is government Of, By and For the politicians.
Kent Gartner May 22, 2012 at 10:54 PM
Simply put Judge Summers payments are out of his own pocket, not the city's.....
Lee Jacobsen May 23, 2012 at 04:43 AM
Frank, cutting spending in govt is like eating a plate of sphagetti, one forkful at a time. The support staff for a judge are much more $$ than just a judge. A few hundred thou saved here and there adds up to some serious change. This forclosed building proposal sounds like 'meatballs' have entered the picture. Perhaps with a heavy slice of garlic bread. Our job is to find out more about it, and ask 'why?'.
whachadune May 23, 2012 at 01:04 PM
Dont' forget the three judges have three paid magistrates to "help" them, including one who was appointed whose busy running for a county judgeship but who also promised to deliver a block of votes to one judge who is trying to protect his seat. The district court is the biggest bastion of cronyism in the city. The judges hire or appoint whoever they want without any civil service approval. Just walk in and see the three security guys lounging around any afternoon.
whachadune May 24, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Ok, stay with me, because I think I have the answer: Chief Judge Wygonik, who wants to be reelected, has hired, at taxpayer expense, an expensive lawyer Robert Harrison to make the city assess homeowners for that huge verdict of $2 million. http://dearborn.patch.com/articles/debate-continues-over-payment-in-lawsuit-against-dearborn-judge http://dearborn.patch.com/articles/reports-former-dearborn-court-administrator-awarded-732000-in-case-against-somers The verdict is for the live in girlfriend of Judge #2 Hultgren, who compassionately thinks "Dearborn will suffer" until Judge #3 Sommers is removed from office. http://dearborn.patch.com/articles/litigant-julie-pucci-dearborn-will-suffer-until-judge-somers-is-off-the-bench Then Judge Sommers gets garnished, and decides he'd better collude with Judge Wygonik and the boyfriend judge to protect his bank account. http://dearborn.patch.com/articles/reports-former-dearborn-court-administrator-awarded-732000-in-case-against-somers Then Wygonik, who pays a lawyer to attend a council meeting to get Pucci paid, doesn't bother to show up at the actual council budget meeting. http://dearborn.patch.com/articles/dearborn-courthouse-budget-talks-stall-with-lack-of-input-from-judges BUT YES FOLKS, THE 19TH DISTRICT COURT IS RUN EFFICIENTLY!!!!!!!!
Fatima Fatibu May 27, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Obviously Wygonik is as braindead as Somers, if he believes the residents should be on the hook for Somers terrible judgement. O'Reilly and the City should be on the hook for backing the lack of common sense exercised by Mark Somers.
Fatima Fatibu May 27, 2012 at 02:15 PM
We only need 5 Council members, because then we might get better qualified ones, who will stand up to O'Reilly, instead of sucumming to all his wishes, because the are afraid of Bluto.

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