Field of six Muskegon County lawyers vie for the 14th Circuit Court bench

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By Diana L. Coleman
Legal News

The Honorable James M. Graves, Jr., is stepping down from the Muskegon County Circuit bench at the end of the year. Judge Graves is believed to be the longest-serving judge in Muskegon County history. Due to age constraints for judges, he is retiring from the bench.

Judge Graves’ retirement has opened a floodgate of interested Muskegon County lawyers who filed for candidacy in the August 7, 2012, primary election. The term for the non-partisan office of Muskegon County circuit judge is six years and the office has an annual salary of $139,919.

The jurisdiction of circuit courts is felony cases, high misdemeanors and civil cases ($25,000 or more at issue), appeals from district court and administrative agencies and family division cases.

Running for 14th Circuit Judge are Muskegon County lawyers Joe Bush, Karen Groenhout, Raymond J. Kostrzewa, Annette Smedley, Michael Walsh, and David Wells.

Muskegon County Legal News submitted two questions to the candidates and listed below in alphabetical order are their responses.

The questions:

1. “What are your personal reasons for seeking a seat on the 14th Circuit Court judiciary?” and,

2. “What qualifications do you bring to that office and the citizens of Muskegon County?

Joe Bush:

1.  I have had the privilege of serving as an officer of the court here in my hometown since 1998 and have tremendous respect for our justice system. When I became an attorney, I wanted to give something back to my community that has given so much to me.  Throughout my career, I have done that by volunteering my time and energy to charities and non-profit companies that benefit the community. If elected, I will have an opportunity to continue to serve the community, but in an entirely new fashion. I want to be a judge to help ensure that the legal system is available to all and that the system works with fairness and justice to all.

2.  Beyond the required Constitutional qualifications, I have the experience, temperament, knowledge and perspective to serve the citizens of Muskegon County in this position. My first courtroom experience was prosecuting domestic violence cases and enforcing personal protection order violations as an intern for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office.  In private practice, I have handled hundreds of civil, criminal and divorce cases representing plaintiffs and defendants, from original jurisdiction through appeal. I have demonstrated the ability to think carefully under pressure, with restraint, discretion and sound judgment. I have the practical legal knowledge and work experience in all relevant areas of law under the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court. In addition, I have the perspective to see complex issues from all angles. With an open mind and seasoned critical reasoning skills, l will remain fair and impartial, so as to uphold the law consistently and protect the rights of the citizens of Muskegon County if elected your next 14th Circuit Court Judge.

Karen Groenhout:

1.  I am seeking the seat because I truly believe that Muskegon County needs to implement innovative judicial practices. I represent people in Neglect and Abuse cases. I believe that at least 80% of my Neglect and Abuse cases involve substance abuse. I have visited my clients in jail and have seen them suffering from the horrors of withdrawal. When they are released, the only thing they can think about is their next fix. We as a community continue to lock people behind bars without addressing the underlying issues. I belong to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and know that a drug court can save the county money, reduce the jail population, and have fewer children in foster care.  Therefore, I was the individual to bring this critical issue to light. I am thrilled that my colleagues agree with my commitment to this concept. With true passion for change in our community I decided to run.  I am running for the 14th Circuit Court judicial position in order to bring the reality of specialty courts to light. 

2.  My bench experience as a Circuit Court Referee, variety of knowledge, and passion for the Muskegon community make me uniquely qualified to serve as Circuit Court Judge. I have a sincere respect for the legal process and the community members involved.

I have zealously represented the county as a Circuit Court Referee in both Muskegon and Ottawa Counties, a Guardian Ad Litem for minor children, represented teens in juvenile delinquency cases, represented persons in criminal defense, and currently represents families involved in Abuse and Neglect proceedings. In addition to these county roles, I have assisted people with family law issues, social security, landlord tenant disputes etc.  Furthermore, I have worked alongside prosecution on numerous cases determining what is in the best interest of minor children.

Randall J. Kostrzewa: Response not available at press time.

Annette Smedley:

1.  I have always loved the law. My personal goals have been to practice law as an attorney and then advance in my career.  I have been a prosecutor and a defense attorney. I have more than enough experience needed to move to the next step, which is circuit court judge. This would allow me to continue my career and do what I love the most.

 2.  I have run my own law office for more than ten years while appearing in thousands of cases and trials in Muskegon County. My extensive court room experience has involved civil, criminal and family law cases in the Muskegon, Mason, Oceana, Newaygo, Manistee, Ottawa, Kent and Allegan Counties. I have appeared as the attorney for both the plaintiffs and defendants.  I have experiences with civil cases, murder, kidnapping, rape, larceny, home invasion, adoption, divorce, probate, contract law, juvenile, termination of parental rights, even entertainment law.  I am in the court room virtually every day. As a public defender I am not able to choose who I represent which gives me the ability to handle all types of cases and people (from the most calm to the most irate). I have been a lifelong resident of Muskegon County.  I have worked in factories and restaurants, Managed the household and family, while attending law school. I have 6 children and 10 grandchildren.  I was a navy wife for 14 years, Boy Scout den mother, Girl Scout troop leader, and foster parent.

Michael G. Walsh:

1. As president of the Muskegon County Bar Association in December 2011, I began to think of attorneys I’d like to see file for the judgeship being vacated by the retirement of Hon. James M. Graves Jr. I’d heard some names of those possibly interested, but no one with the kind of experience I’d vote for.

Next, I asked myself: What do circuit judges do and how does the experience of an individual lawyer match that? A circuit judge is a generalist, not a specialist.

At that point it struck me that my practice is a general one and I have exactly the experience that a circuit court handles: Criminal, Civil, Family, and Juvenile. I’ve served as an assistant prosecutor, criminal defense, civil plaintiff and civil defense, have referred a variety of personal injury and medical malpractice cases and then worked with those specialists; represented numerous individuals with divorce, custody, parenting time issues and parents facing termination of parental rights. I also have represented hundreds of children caught in the criminal justice system.

It was at that point, in March, when I came to believe that Mike Walsh would be the best candidate to serve Muskegon County as a circuit judge. My wife and I were as surprised as anyone in that I’ve never sought any office before and have been relatively apolitical due to my service in journalism.

2.  I have a unique background unrivaled by any of my competitors, all good people, by the way:

1.  Independence: I have no ties to any other office or official in the courthouse. An investigative journalist in the Chicago area and for The Muskegon Chronicle, I won numerous awards, including the State Bar of Michigan’s Advancement of Justice Award on three occasions. My work in the 1990s showed how our district court was squandering up to $1 million annually in ticket revenue. That led to a change in administrators. Another report showed how attorneys were “judge-shopping.” That led to a change in court rules.

1.  Education. While working full-time and, with wife Pat, raising a family of five children, I drove to law school three times each week in the 1990s for more than 3 years to earn a doctorate in law – after earlier earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and attending fellowships and seminars at institutions such as the University of Maryland and the U.S. Army War College. I also teach a law class to graduate students at Grand Valley State University.

2.  Experience that matters. A circuit judge is a generalist, not a specialist. As a journalist, I was able to observe some of the best judges in the Midwest, many here in Muskegon County, and to investigate how our judicial system was operating. As an attorney, I served as an assistant prosecutor in another county then entered private practice where I’ve helped hundreds of clients in every local court, courts throughout the state, and in United States District Court. I’ve prosecuted criminal cases and defended them. I’ve represented clients in a variety of civil matters. Parents enduring divorce, child custody and support issues, guardianships-conservatorships, and termination of parental rights have come to me for help as have juveniles charged with crimes. I’ve also helped people with adoptions and senior citizens with a variety of matters – some civil, but many dealing with end-of-life issues.

3.  Service to the Profession. I’m the immediate past presi­dent of the Muskegon County Bar Association and continue to serve on the Representative Assembly, the rule-making committee of the State Bar of Michigan. I also serve as editor of the Obiter Dictum, the local bar association newsletter. Those willing to endorse me publicly span the spectrum from police officers, attorneys, judges, educators, community leaders, and the general public. Those who know me best can attest to my ability to serve as circuit judge because they know I am fair, firm, and objective.

David Wells:

1.  I believe I would be an excellent judge and it would be an appropriate and satisfying finish to my legal career.

2.  I have 35 years of litigation experience (for plaintiffs and defendants – criminal prosecution and defense) in nearly every type of case encountered by a Circuit Court judge. I have experience with trials and litigation in all the following areas: criminal, malpractice (medical, dental & legal), personal injury (auto, motorcycle, slip and fall, products liability), foreign (non-US) parties, environmental, real estate, commercial and personal contracts, collective bargaining labor disputes, construction, employment disputes, discrimination (race, disability, gender, age), insurance claims (fire, auto, health-medical, life, business), unemployment compensation appeals, defamation, farming, nuisance, Court of Claims matters assigned to local circuit court, domestic relations (divorce, legal separation, child custody, parenting time, abuse and neglect, spousal support), zoning, business v business, governmental activities (open meetings, freedom of information, public employment/labor, public discrimination, public contracts), property damage, dramshop, collections and consumer protection.

I understand the challenges encountered by litigation attorneys both in private practice and representing public entities.  I have first hand knowledge and respect for the conflicts encountered by attorneys who are juggling their personal, business and professional lives.  I am slow to anger. I have an appropriate temperament. I have respect for all people in the judicial process. I am very organized. I have a strong work ethic.

I have considerable experience as a “neutral” in dispute resolution. I have been an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association for 15 years as the person of choice to decide commercial, labor, employment and medical cases. Some cases have been small and others quite large. Two years ago I was the sole arbitrator in a public contract case with $25 million in alleged damages. I am able to make tough decisions. I have experience writing concise and complete legal opinions. I have been a circuit court mediator in several circuits for more than 10 years. I have been a civil case evaluator in the Muskegon Circuit Courts ever since the court rule was first enacted about 30 years ago. The first few years I was designated as a “Plaintiff” evaluator, but for more than 20 years I have been a “neutral”.

I believe it is important that a circuit court judge have an excellent understanding of the Muskegon community, the challenges of its citizens, the challenges of parties involved in the judicial system and the resources and opportunities available. I am a fourth generation Muskegon County resident who has been involved in 20-30 community organizations. I have been a foster parent for Muskegon area children at risk. I have experience with disabled and special needs citizens. I have received numerous community awards for my activities including one from Michigan State University for my work establishing a vocational experience program for Muskegon minority and disadvantaged students interested in medical careers and the 2011 Distinguished Alumus award from Muskegon Community College. I understand what this community does and does not have to offer and believe I am well grounded in both the opportunities and challenges of the people who live in Muskegon County.