Passenger steps down from the judiciary immediately into role as city attorney

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legal news photos by cynthia price

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Those who are sorry that 61st District Court Judge Donald Passenger is retiring — and there were many at the reception held for him last Friday — may take comfort that he is not going very far, neither physically nor in terms of his contribution to the legal system.

“He’ll be involved in a different part of the picture, but it’s still the same picture,” said Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish at the gathering.

And Mish should know — she will be his new boss. In an unusual but well-thought-out move, Passenger has taken a position in the city attorney’s office.

As the newest member of the enforcement division, his immediate supervisor will be Anita Hitchcock, who has been head of the enforcement division only about a month, appointed to replace Michael Tomich after he retired.

Hitchcock says she will be using the former judge as a resource and is grateful to have someone with his experience on the team. “I’m very excited about our growth together,” she says, “and I think he’s going to have an awesome impact on our office. I’ve always thought he was very intelligent, very innovative, and I’m already going to him with questions.”

For his part, Passenger is very happy to be part of the city attorney’s office team. In addition to the enforcement division, where he and Hitchcock are joined by Nadine Klein, there are five attorneys in the municipal affairs division, and four in the civil litigation division.

“I’ve only been here three days, but already I can see that the people here are great,” he comments.

Indeed, spending more of his career around people was one of the three main reasons Passenger decided to pursue this course. “As a judge it’s necessary to maintain an appropriate neutrality or distance. After all, you may be upsetting half the people with your decisions — and over time that tends to grow and you become more isolated. It’s nice to be a little more collegial, just to be me again.”

He hastens to add that he always felt that members of his staff were valuable colleagues, and he will miss them a great deal. “They were very good to me and very loyal and cared about the interests of the people in Grand Rapids. I always approached it as a team, and I believe I was one piece of the team, not that they were working for me, but that we were working together for the people.”

The primary motivation for his move was the need for a new challenge. “After 20 years in the same position, even though I loved being a judge, it was pretty much the same thing every day,” Passenger says. “So I started looking for a change of pace. I looked at private practice, but when I saw this it was just perfect.”

Passenger is no stranger to the private sector. Prior to his appointment by John Engler in 1995, Passenger was with Mika, Meyers for five years, followed by five years at Twohey Maggini.

The Caledonia native (who also spent his youth in many other cities as his father, a minister, moved around) received his Associates degree from Grand Rapids Community College, his Bachelors from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, and his J.D. from Notre Dame Law School.

With five children ranging from a junior in high school to a doctoral student at Notre Dame, Passenger admits that compensation was a third driver behind the change. “In over 12 years, judges in Michigan have not gotten a raise, even a Cost of Living raise, and there’s not necessarily any hope for raises in the foreseeable future.” Citing opportunities with  his pension, Passenger observes that he “isn’t hurt financially” by the move.

“If I was all about money, I wouldn’t be working here in the first place,” he points out. “I turned down some private opportunities that would be much more lucrative, because the bottom line is, I really enjoy public service.”

Indeed, Passenger’s public service passion resulted in one of his greatest accomplishments while a judge, the community court which offers down-and-out Heartside residents the ability to go to court without having to be in the possibly-threatening official courthouse and counseling to help them out. Though he gives credit to his staff for pushing him to do it, Marge Palmerlee of Dégagé Ministries said, “He really made it happen.” And Mel Trotter Ministry’s Dennis Van Kampen added, “It allows people to move into the life they really want and need.”

Other accomplishments he is proud of are developing the online register of action for the district court, the first in the state to offer that — “I don’t think I’m overstating that I was one of the key figures in that,” he says — and his work with the Michigan District Judges Association,   serving as an officer, working with legislators, and commenting on bills.

Though much of what he will do in the city attorney’s office is similar to what he saw on the bench, some is quite dissimilar.  “We do three basic things: we enforce Grand Rapids city ordinances, we act as a prosecutor in juvenile matters, and we interact with city departments to provide both training and information that helps them to formulate their policies,” he explains. He is particularly excited about the juvenile justice work.

“I know I’m still in the honeymoon phase,” he says, “but I feel reinvigorated.”