Long-time prosecutor joins neighboring county office

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Michael Thomas (left), the former Saginaw County prosecutor, is now assisting the Genesee County Prosecutor’s office, headed by David Leyton (right).

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY PAUL JANCZEWSKI

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

After his over-two-decade reign as Saginaw County prosecutor ended, it seems only fitting for Michael Thomas to become a Special Assistant Attorney General working out of the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office.

The idea of placing an Assistant Attorney General in a county prosecutor’s office took shape months ago when Gov. Rick Snyder pledged financial support to crime-ridden cities up and down I-75. He saw crime spiraling in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw, and decided to add more State Police to help.

But prosecutors in those areas warned that, while having more cops was great, the plan also needed to include more prosecutors to try cases and keep the criminal justice system from getting bogged down on the back end.

Genesee County became the first to utilize the plan. And among the first four attorneys to staff that new position was Thomas, who entered law because he admired the legendary lawyer and civil libertarian, Clarence Darrow.

“I wanted to be like him and save the innocent,” said the 65-year-old Thomas.

Born in Saginaw, Thomas said he always had an interest in crime and justice. After graduating from high school in Saginaw, Thomas became the first member of his family to  earn not only a high school diploma, but also a college degree and advanced degree.

“My dad worked at the foundry,” he said, “and my mom dropped out of school to take care of a dying parent. But she had a great affection for and valued education.”

Thomas said the first books he ever read were encyclopedias his mother bought weekly at the grocery store after “saving up her pennies.”

He attended the University of Michigan, graduating with distinction in 1970 as a pre-law major. To pay for school, he worked as a commercial painter in the summer, eventually clerking for Saginaw attorney Jerome Burns.

“I took quite a pay cut to work for him, but he told me (if I wanted to become a lawyer) it was important to get some hands-on training,” Thomas said. “So he became my mentor.”

Thomas earned a scholarship to Rutgers Law School, graduating in 1973. He continued working for Burns while preparing for the bar exam, but knew he wanted to practice criminal law. When an opening came up for an assistant prosecutor in the Saginaw County Prosecutor’s Office, Burns was instrumental in helping Thomas.

“He told me, ‘You better know how to put a case together before you try to take it apart,’” Thomas said.

Thomas spent five years honing his skills there and left as chief assistant prosecutor.

“Back then, most people didn’t stay at the Prosecutor’s Office that long,” Thomas said, adding that they used it as a stepping-stone into their own private practice.

He left and went into private practice for 11 years, handling criminal defense, some court-appointed work and various other legal matters. But he learned a valuable lesson while in the Prosecutor’s Office. “The vast majority of people are truly victims of crime, and I could do a lot more good as a prosecuting attorney. They are the real public defenders.”

Armed with knowledge on both sides of the legal fence, Thomas applied to become the Saginaw County Prosecutor when a vacancy in the office occurred. Thomas eventually was elected to office six times, but he was defeated in the Democratic primary last year.

“I was pretty disappointed for a couple days,” he said. “But I had a long career there, six successful elections, 23 years, and I think we achieved a great deal of success there.”

Genesee County Prose-

cutor David Leyton was aware of Snyder’s intention to beef up law enforcement along the I-75 corridor, and specifically, to help Flint by reopening the city’s jail, adding more Michigan State troopers to help fight crime, and other efforts to rid it of the dubious reputation as the number one city in the nation for violent crime.

Leyton had earlier added four assistant prosecutors to his depleted office through state grants. From the beginning of Leyton’s term in office, he had lost nearly 20 assistant prosecutors through attrition and budget cuts. He negotiated with Snyder and state Attorney General Bill Schuette to increase the number of assistant prosecutors in his office, and eventually was successful in getting
four positions added. Later, lawmakers decided that the four positions would be funded through the state for a one-year term and possibly two.

In other words, pretty good negotiating on Leyton’s part. A staunch Democrat who ran against Schuette for attorney general, Leyton credited his former opponent as “very cooperative” on the new program. The new appointees are state attorneys, but “they work here, under my direction and supervision, and essentially, they’re no different than a Genesee County assistant prosecutor,” Leyton said.

Leyton’s new special assistant AG prosecutors started earlier this year at a cost to the state of about $400,000. “With my office back up to 32 (assistant and special prosecutors), we’re able to keep up,” Leyton said. “We’ve streamlined operations, and we’re very efficient.”

He’s proud of how the entire operation has jelled, but for prosecutors, “the work ethic has never been an issue,” he said. “And you’ll find that in prosecutor’s offices everywhere. They are dedicated employees.”

The key to prosecutorial work is preparation, Leyton said, and now he and his staff have some added time to get ready for cases. He estimates his office should have more than 60 assistant prosecutors, based on the workload generated in Genesee County.

“We’re still way under resourced, but we’re managing,” he said.

While Genesee County is the first to employ state attorneys in county roles, other counties, such as Saginaw and Wayne, may follow suit.

Thomas and Leyton became friends through the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM), where Thomas once served as president.  “I have the greatest respect for Mr. Leyton, his ethics and integrity, and commitment to doing something for his community,” Thomas said.

Leyton also has earned the respect of fellow prosecutors, who elected him PAAM president.

In his new role, Thomas is supervising the circuit court trial lawyers in Genesee County.

“He has a gold mine of prosecutorial experience and know-how,” Leyton said of Thomas. “And it’s been good to have him.”

Thomas also has a good relationship with Schuette from when he was a judge in the state Court of Appeals, and much respect for Snyder, a Republican.

“I hadn’t heard a governor talk about crime and doing something about violent crime for a long while,” he said. “Crime has nothing to do with politics whatsoever. The victims of crime in Flint are Democrats, Republicans, or whatever. They just want some help in their hour of need.”

Thomas also was a director of the National District Attorneys Association, and was sent to Seoul, Korea in 2000 as a part of training and instructing on an International Domestic Violence Training team. He also visited overseas on several lay missions through his church.

“I’ve always taken an interest in justice systems in other countries,” said Thomas, who along with wife Mary Jo has four children and 10 grandchildren. “I think we have the best in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We have a great freedom in this country, and one thing you learn is how blessed we are as Americans.”