Field of five judicial candidates will be narrowed to four in primary

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Because there are five candidates for two open positions on the 17th Circuit Court bench, a primary is required so that the field can be narrowed to four.

On August 7, voters will be asked to vote for two of the following: Curt Benson, Alida Bryant, Christina Elmore, Blair Lachman, Scott A. Noto.
More about each of the candidates follows. (Note: photo captions and bold headings below reflect the names as they appear on the ballot, and profiles are in alphabetical order.)

Curt Benson says, “I’ve appeared before a lot of judges in my practice, and I’ve come to see that what really makes the difference between a good judge and a mediocre or bad one is whether  they love their job or not. I have really enjoyed being a lawyer, I love the law, I know I would love being a judge too.”

Currently at Cummings, McClorey, Davis and Acho specializing in trial work, with a focus on commercial litigation, insurance law, and municipal affairs, Benson was a professor at Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School for 14 years. He is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus and still teaches classes, based on his schedule.

Prior to that, after graduating from Western Michigan University and receiving his J.D. from (then-called) Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Benson worked at Denenberg, Tuffley and Jamison, a Detroit firm with offices here; at Benson and Tacket with Tim Tacket; and then solo for eight years. He clerked for Cholette, Perkins and Buchanan.

He says that, much to his surprise, while in law school he discovered that he had a great interest in insurance matters. That has been the subject of several of the many articles, chapters, and professional lectures he has done over the years. He also speaks to community groups and civic organizations on a variety of topics.

Benson also served on the board of Grand Rapids Public Schools for six years, including two as president. He is well-known as the co-host of The Lawyers syndicated radio show, from which he has had to step back in order to run for the 17th Circuit bench.

“When I think about my career, I’m just ready to be a judge,” he says. “I’ve had thousands of hours of conversations about what it’s like with my father (Judge Robert Benson) and with Judge Markey (his life partner, Court of Appeals Judge Jane Markey), and I’m ready to serve the public in that way.”

He adds that his combination of experience qualifies him well. “I’ve taught and have the scholarship background, including teaching and writing on evidence and other subjects judges need to know, but I also have the real practical experience. I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and I’ve done so much in my career,” he says. “I feel as if I could walk right in to the job; I know there will be a learning curve but I’m intellectually curious and I’ll dive into it.”

Alida Bryant has also had a long career in the law, serving for over 24 years in the Kent County Office of the Public Defender. Prior to that she was briefly a labor and employment lawyer in Lansing. A native of Baltimore, Bryant received a degree in Political Science and Accounting from Mount St. Mary’s University before attending Drake University Law School.

“Now that I’ve seen that the circuit court is moving in a direction with treatment courts and especially the mental health court, I feel that the courts are recognizing that they can be part of a solution, to try to move people into a path to becoming more self-sufficient and law-abiding. Now for what seems to be the first time, courts are seeing the benefit of doing things differently. I want to become a judge and continue that work,” Bryant says
She is currently a part of Judge Joseph Rossi’s mental health court team, advocating for individuals to be eligible for that process. “I look at it from the perspective of the person who’s been accused and  advocate for why this person should be given that opportunity,” she says. “And the courts are a huge task, but I think people with mental illness is a group that has been largely overlooked for a very long time.”

Bryant is anxious to continue her path of public service in the judiciary role. “I feel that my qualifications are really strong. Not only do I have the temperament, but being an advocate and public servant in the defender’s office, I’ve proven I can work well with others. I know the docket, I understand a circuit court judge’s responsibilities, so I would go in knowing and understanding what it is the job requires.” she says.

Christina Elmore
is the only sitting judge of the group, but she is not an incumbent. She was appointed as a 61st District Court Judge in Feb. 2016 and elected to the position in November of that year.

From her vantage point there, she has observed the demographics of the people who come before the court.  “I believe there’s diversity needed in the 17th Circuit Court,” she says. “It’s a diverse county and people live here from all over the world, but the judges currently are much the same racially and gender-wise. As a African-American I know the importance of seeing people in power that look kind of like you.

“There are lots of other reasons I’m running. It’s not that I don’t love my job here, I really do. But I would like to take on a challenge. I feel a higher kind of calling, and I do things as I feel led to do them,” Judge Elmore says.

She notes that she also felt led to join the U.S. Air Force, where she was in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps for most of her 13-year service, eight in the reserves. The Ottawa Hills High School graduate went to University of Michigan for her undergraduate work and Tulane Law School for her J.D. After her JAG service, she was briefly at the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office but, already living in Lansing as the single mother of two young children, accepted a position as an Assistant Attorney General in the Michigan AG office.

She then went into private practice in West Michigan, working in a variety of areas, including representing parents in child abuse and neglect cases and juveniles in delinquency cases, and continuing to serve as a Special Assistant AG prosecuting those who failed to pay child support.

The decision to return to West Michigan was easy for her. “I worked in a lot of different counties and a lot of different courts, and there’s none that compare to the bar here – how the judges and attorneys get along and everyone is civil.  I always keep in mind that I’m serving the public,” Elmore says.

“I’m the only one of the candidates that has successfully gone through the vetting process for a judicial appointment,” she says. “I know my way around, and I’m not afraid of hard work.”

Blair Lachman
has spent his entire legal working career at the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office, with increasing responsibility. Five years ago he was named a Senior Prosecuting Attorney; he has an excellent track record with nearly 100 jury trials prosecuted and a 96% conviction rate.

His initial career choice was as a sports broadcaster. Hailing from Long Island, New York, Lachman attended University of Rhode Island for a degree in journalism, and then received a Masters’ in Sports Management from Adelphi University. Eventually deciding that the very competitive field was not for him, Lachman attended Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing for his J.D.

There, he met his wife, the attorney Sara Grey Lachman (recently featured in these pages), so when he was offered the it was not difficult for him to accept. The couple now has four sons. Lachman has served on the board of Safe Haven Ministries, volunteered at Kids’ Food Basket, and served meals to those in need through Interfaith Hospitality Network, Degage Ministries, and Mayflower Congregational.

“I feel like I have the specific experience needed for this job,” Lachman says. “We looked at the statistics. The most recent are from 2015 and at that time 79% of all filings in the circuit court were criminal,” adding that his business background will be helpful too.

He adds, “I think that a good judge is fair and balanced, and  always focused on justice. You have to look at every case. When a person needs a hard sentence, I’ll do that, and when I see an 18-year-old kid who I want to make sure he doesn’t become that 30-year-old hardened criminal, I’ll use different strategies. I have support from Democrats and Republicans, from the defense bar and the prosecutors. I have a history of listening and being fair and balanced. And what I will always focus on is justice.”

Scott A. Noto is an attorney with Willis Law, working from a Grand Rapids office for the Kalamazoo-based firm.

Noto, who is very proud that he was born and raised in this community, received a bachelor’s from University of Chicago and a J.D. from Loyola University Chicago School of Law before spending time in private practice. He then joined the U.S. Army where he served in the JAG Corps from 2009-2014. He continues to serve as a Judge Advocate in the Army Reserve.

He then practiced with Bloom Sluggett Morgan until joining Willis Law three years ago.

“Primarily my wanting to be a judge stems from the value I place on public service. As a member of our nation’s military, I’ve come to appreciate the sacrifices our service members make, and that’s what prompted my interest in the position.

“To be able to serve the area in which I grew up would be an honor. It’s a great opportunity and it’s a great community.”

He feels the broad range of his experience is an excellent qualification. “My more than 13 years of courtroom practice includes both civil and criminal, and I’ve been on both sides of civil cases,” he says. “I’m comfortable both at trial and with the different procedures in civil actions.”

Noto adds, “As a judge you’re first and foremost a public servant. You’re in a position of service and trust, and the public deserves your best professionalism, courtesy, and respect. They deserve to be heard, and to receive a decision that is clear, all of which I would do.”

In the November election, two of the four who succeed in the primary will fill the openings created by the retirement of
Chief Judge Donald Johnston and Judge Dennis Lieber; both of whom are ineligible to run due to their ages.

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