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 Wayne Law alum makes history in Calhoun County

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

For 54 years, there has not been a female judge in Calhoun County. However, that changed last month when voters elected Sarah Lincoln, an assistant prosecutor, to a 6-year term as a 37th Circuit Court judge.

“The last judge was Mary Coleman, who went on to the Michigan Supreme Court. I feel like I’m stepping into a really big pair of shoes and will carry on the tradition of having female judges who excel at what they do,” said Lincoln, 41, of Marshall.

A Detroit native, she earned her undergraduate degree in history from the University of Michigan in 1995 and her juris doctorate in law from Wayne State University in 2000. Lincoln defeated Marshall Mayor James L. Dyer, tallying 17,171 votes to his 11,892. She will succeed Judge James Kingsley, who is retiring. Lincoln’s path in pursuing a career in law came at a young age thanks to her aunt, Amanda Behe, who was an attorney and later an administrative law judge in California. “With my aunt, I had some general idea of what a judge did,” said Lincoln. “I looked to her as a role model, thought what she did was fascinating. I always thought being an attorney and a judge would be something I’d enjoy. She was very passionate about it. She inspired me to go into law.”

While in law school, Lincoln interned at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Child Abuse Unit, which was founded by retired assistant prosecutor Nancy Diehl. “(Diehl) was phenomenal. I had the ability to run hearings, do misdemeanor casework, sit in on felony-criminal trails with more experienced attorneys. The people in that unit were very generous with their time, allowing interns to participate in bigger cases,” Lincoln recalled fondly. “(Prosecution) is not only an exciting job, you could make a profound difference for people in the community with that kind of work. After my internship, it was pretty obvious in my mind that prosecution was where I wanted to start my legal career.”

Upon graduation from law school and passing the state bar exam, Lincoln was an assistant prosecutor in Muskegon County for one year. For the last 13 years, she has been an assistant prosecutor in Calhoun County. She stated it was a pleasure practicing law in front of the aforementioned Kingsley and Judge Allen Garbrecht.

“(Garbrecht) told me I had the temperament and intellectual curiosity to be a judge. That got me thinking,” said Lincoln. She confessed with a laugh that when she decided to run for election that she didn’t have any idea what she was doing. “I went into this thinking, ‘If I could figure out how to run a campaign, I had a pretty good chance in this race.’ (Dyer) is known in Marshall (and won the majority of the vote in that city), but I had more name recognition in Battle Creek, which is where majority of voters are from. A significant majority of what a judge does is criminal law, so I had an advantage,” explained Lincoln. “I’m lucky that when I decided to run for judge, I had some significant contacts in the community that I developed in my job as an asst. prosecutor. I had strong support from law enforcement. I think I received endorsements from all the local police unions. I had the opportunity to meet average citizens, jurors, victims of crimes – they knew me professionally and how I comported myself in court.”

Lincoln will be sworn in by Garbrecht on Thursday, Dec. 18, at 2 p.m. Her first official day as a judge is Friday, Jan. 2. Her investiture ceremony is being held earlier than normal since Garbrecht and his wife are going out of town for the holidays.

“(Garbrecht) supported me throughout and he’s the one who gave me the push in the right direction,” she said. “It’s important that he be a part of my investiture ceremony.”

Lincoln also gave her theory on why there haven’t been any females on the bench in Calhoun County for more than half a century. “A significant reason seems to be that… not a lot of women were attorneys in Calhoun County, although that number has grown significantly in the last 15-20 years. We haven’t had much turnover in this county. The judges (Kingsley, Brian K. Kirkham, Stephen B. Miller, and Conrad J. Sindt) currently on the bench have (more than) 100 years combined of legal experience. By the time the current judges reached the bench, the majority of attorneys were men… There hasn’t been much opportunity for younger attorneys to run for a judgeship,” explained Lincoln.

She also listed some of her goals as judge.

“I’d like to continue the Calhoun County tradition of having an excellent judiciary system. I would like to continue and expand the use of alternate treatment courts. I’d also like to begin to utilize newer technology in the courtroom in terms of how cases are filed, how lawyers communicate with the judge, how witnesses are called, and using the Polycom system (video conferencing) allowing witnesses and defendants to appear remotely,” explained Lincoln. “I feel like, not only given my gender, I’m much younger than many judges. There’s been a lot of turnover in the last 5 to 10 years. I’m just the first step in pretty significant yet exciting changes that are coming to this county.”