New courthouse continues to be at the center of controversy

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 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
In Grand Rapids Township there sits a beautiful new courthouse for Kent County, but not everyone is happy about it.
The courthouse, which reportedly was built for a lower cost than estimated ($6.5 million rather than $8 million), consolidated two older courthouses in the 63rd District.
One of them has been a mainstay in the City of Rockford downtown for  more than 40 years.
Since 1972, Judge Steven Servaas presided there and directed a close staff in serving the people of Rockford and other areas in northern Kent County. The court was known for an informal and small-town ambience.
Servaas has expressed opposition to the move, primarily because he regards it as a waste of taxpayer money.
And the City of Rockford management is on record as believing that the District Court should remain there as a matter of law.
At the end of 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed, but in February Rockford appealed that decision to the highest court in Michigan. It remains to be seen whether the Michigan Supreme Court will hear the case. Although Kent County had until March 2 to issue its reply, there is no time clock running on when the Supreme Court decides whether to hear it or not.
A tangential drama played out in 2008 and 2009 when Paul Fischer, the director of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, pressured Servaas to resign because he did not live in the confines of his segment of the 63rd District. There were several other, to-date-unsubstantiated allegations at the time as well.
Many felt that Servaas was targeted by that commission because of his opposition to consolidating the 63-1 and 63-2 districts. However, in a June 2008 interview with The Grand Rapids Legal News, Servaas himself was not so sure and conjectured about other possibilities.
Another consequence of the way Paul Fischer of the Judicial Tenure Commission handled himself was that a number of prominent area attorneys submitted a grievance about him. That grievance was dismissed.
It is the City of Rockford, however, which has waged the on-going battle against the move, regarding it as an in-
convenience for Rockford residents and those across northern Kent County. “Every court is now located in the southern half of the county,” says Michael Young, Rockford City Manager.
Young also says that he has used the county’s own figures to demonstrate that there are no cost savings in operating just one court, but even though the county denies that, they have yet to produce figures to prove their case.
The City of Rockford purchased two-thirds of the old building, with  Kent County retaining the rest for use in court services which are legally mandated. Young says the county originally promised to have someone, presumably a magistrate, presiding over the court two days a week. When the time came, however, Kent County decided to have someone there for small claims cases only one day a month.
This once-a-month small claims schedule is in keeping with the Michigan Supreme Court case that nearly everyone agrees governs the decision, City of Center Line v. 37th District Court Judges. The case mandated that as long as cases within a district’s jurisdiction were handled within the district, they could be “at any place within the geographical area of the...district.” Small claims was the exception, and the court said it was sufficient if that court was held “once each 30 days.”
Rockford’s case revolves primarily around asking the court to reconsider what is meant by “the court shall sit.” MCL 600.8251(2) says “In districts of the second class, the court shall sit at any county seat within the district, and at each city and incorporated village within the district having a population of 3,250 or more.” In the Application for Leave to Appeal, Rockford City Attorney Steven Stapleton of Law Weathers quotes a case indicating that “the word ‘shall’ is unambiguous and is used to denote mandatory, rather than discretionary, action.” Indeed, the lower court and Court of Appeals focused more on the word “sit,” which they did not construe as meaning the full-time presence of a judge. Defense attorneys advanced the argument that the legislative intent could not be that each city or village of 3250 or more have a judge because the legislature did not provide enough judges for that.
County Administrator Daryl Delabbio says about the City of Rockford’s appeal, “It’s too bad they’ve chosen to take this action, but we’re moving on.”
Defendants’ attorneys Judy Bregman and Timothy filed two separate briefs in opposition on Feb. 26 and March 1 respectively. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will agree with Stapleton that it should “reexamine the holding of Center Line...” and “decide the jurisprudentially significant issue of first impression as to ... the definition of the phrase ‘the court shall sit.’”

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