Judicial candidates face off in a series of debates as they battle for District Court and Probate Court seats

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–LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE
 

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Muskegon County Bar Association recently hosted three debates for the judicial candidates running for open seats on the bench in the District Court and in the Probate Court. The debates took place on Oct. 25, Oct. 26, and Nov. 1.

The two non-partisan races pit Geoffrey Nolan against Paula Baker Mathes for the District Court judgeship which will handle civil and criminal cases; and Joe Bush versus Brenda Sprader in the Probate Court, where, as noted above, reorganization has changed the caseload from what was thought to be primarily family law matters to a mix of family, probate, and Personal Protection Order cases.
 
After battling it out in two multi-candidate primaries, the two sets of candidates faced a variety of questions at the Nov. 1 debate held at Central United Methodist Church — some posed by moderator Dave Alexander of Downtown Muskegon Now and some from members of the approximately-20-person audience.
 
All four candidates are experienced litigators.

In the District Court contest, taken first (alphabetically), Paula Baker Mathes received her law degree from WMU-Cooley Law School in 1993, after attending Tulane University in New Orleans for her Bachelor’s in Spanish and international relations. She was an attorney in Colorado before starting at the Legal Aid agency in Escanaba. She then worked for many years in the Muskegon County Prosecutors Office, including a time as the chief narcotics prosecutor, during which she was the representative to Sobriety Court. She worked in private practice and then became a Public Defender for Muskegon County in 2012.

Her community involvement has consisted of membership in the Womens Division Chamber of Commerce, volunteering in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Lunch Buddy program, and serving on the board of the West Michigan Symphony, among others.

Geoffrey T. Nolan has been an attorney for 15 years, litigating in all types of courts throughout Michigan, including the Court of Appeals. He is a partner in Nolan, Nolan and Shafer, and has represented defendants in criminal felony and misdemeanor cases, plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases, personal injury victims in cases from under $25,000 up to millions, family law and guardianship/conservatorship clients, and juvenile offenders. He received his BS in Criminal Justice from Western Michigan University, and his J.D. with honors from MSU-Detroit College of Law in 2001.
 
He is active at Churchill Elementary School, was a board member for Love INC of Muskegon and the Greater Muskegon Jaycees, and is very active in legal professional organizations.

On the probate court side, Joseph S. Bush is a private practice attorney at Bush Law Offices. He has 15 years of trial experience in state district, circuit, and appellate courts, and federal district and appellate courts. He specializes in business and commercial, criminal, employment family, probate and real estate litigation. He is also the past president of the Board of Neighborhood Investment Corporation (a nonprofit), past president of the Muskegon County Bar Association, a trustee at Mission for Area People,  and a volunteer tutor and Junior Achievement instructor.
 
Bush went to Michigan State University and attended Michigan State University-Detroit College of Law, after which he practiced with a larger Muskegon firm before going solo.

Sprader is a Muskegon native, and an experienced trial attorney. She has worked as a public defender and now owns her own law firm in North Muskegon where she practices family and criminal law. She graduated summa cum laude from Grand Valley State University and earned her J.D. from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. 

In opening statements responding to what motivated them to run, Mathes said that she was inspired by working with the Sobriety Court as a prosecutor, which she continued to do after becoming a defender. Sobriety and other specialty courts help offenders stay out of prison by helping them address the problems that caused them to come before the court, such as substance abuse.

Nolan responded, “I come from a family of attorneys, one of nine — soon to be 11 — and I always wanted to be a judge. In my 15 years as a litigator, I’ve seen a lot of good judges but also a lot of bad, which to me comes down to not understanding that  courts are there for the public and the litigants, not for the judges.”

Bush said that he has realized through his trial experience that judges have a profound effect on people’s lives. “It’s my passion to help people, and as  judge I think I
can have a greater impact.”

“I think it’s important to have  judges who’ve worked with the people so they understand what the people who come before them are going through,” answered Sprader. “Also, I’ve worked in many counties around here and I’ve learned some techniques to improve the courts.”

The candidates also responded to questions about attorney and judge accountability — all agreed that as opposed to having it “soft,” lawyers and judges have an extra layer of discipline while they still must face the same charges anyone else does — and talked about how social issues such as poverty and domestic violence intersected with their own values and their view of the judiciary.
 
In reply to a question about judicial philosophy, all said that they would follow the statute carefully when it is plain and clear, but Nolan and Bush pointed out that in many less clear instances, our judicial system operates on the basis of case law. Bush mentioned stare decisis, defined as “the doctrine that rules or principles of law on which a court rested a previous decision are authoritative in all future cases in which the facts are substantially the same.”

The candidates addressed why they wanted to continue their careers here in Muskegon. All of them said it was because they love it; while Mathes was the only one not born and raised here, she said she fell in love with the city when she moved here in 2000 and then shortly thereafter fell in love with her husband, who was indeed born and raised here.

Final statements included: Nolan: “Temperament is important, and I have that. I’m not going to treat people disrespectfully just because I’m having a bad day.”

Mathes: “As a public defender, I treat my clients without money as well as a retained attorney would, and that’s the way I would act as a judge as well.” Sprader: “I am so passionate about becoming a judge. I’ve practiced in front of so many judges who don’t have the experience with family situations. I have the right experience to be compassionate.” Bush:?“I have the endorsement of people on both sides of the aisle and non-partisan people too. They know my abilities, and they believe in me.”