Litigation attorneys hear from 63rd District Court judicial candidates

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PHOTO COURTESY OF COOLEY LAW SCHOOL

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

There are six candidates who want to be judge for the 63rd District Court, and five of them — Brent Boncher, Jody Jernigan, Chuck Boekeloo, Andrea Crumback, and Rock Wood — attended a forum at the Grand Rapids Bar Association Litigation Section Tuesday to tell some members of the legal community about themselves.

The remaining candidate, Jeffrey O’Hara, had a conflict with the meeting time but told section chair Sara Lachman that he would have been happy to attend otherwise.

The opening results from the decision of Steven Servaas to retire rather than seek re-election when his term ends in December. Servaas, at 27, was the youngest judge ever elected in Michigan when he began his career, and he will end it as the longest-serving judge in the state.

He also leaves “big shoes to fill,” as the candidates acknowledged. Several said that as they have been out campaigning in the community, they have been impressed by how many people spoke favorably about Servaas, as well as about 63rd District Chief Judge Sara Smolenski, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s section meeting.

The August 5th primary will narrow the field of six down to two.

Lachman, an attorney with Miller Johnson, served as moderator and had several questions prepared for the candidates. The first, of a rather philosophical nature, was, “What is the proper role of a district court judge?”

Rock Wood, first to answer based on where he was sitting at the table, said that he regarded the open position as a service position and that it was a judge’s role to be fair and impartial while at the same time really listening to the facts in each case.

Wood is currently a trial attorney with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, after spending the last 24 years at Dickinson Wright, where he specialized in civil law, contracts, licensing and regulation. He serves the community as a member of the Courtland Township Planning Commission and as an active member of the local Lions Club, and has been a member of the State Bar of Michigan Judicial Qualifications Committee. In addition, his father was a judge, and Wood spent a lot of time in his courtroom while growing up.

Most of the others agreed with Wood but added their own twists. Andrea Crumback indicated that she also expects a judge in a small district court like the 63rd to work toward efficient and effective operations of the court.

A civil litigation attorney with Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones, Crumback also handles criminal misdemeanor and family law cases, as well as collections, and practices before the Michigan Tax Tribunal and the State Tax Commission on property tax appeals. A former chair of the Young Lawyers Section of the Grand Rapids Bar, she received her B.A. from the University of Michigan, and her J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She is also on the board of Indian Trails Camp.

One of Crumback’s suggestions in response to later questions was increased use of Alternative Dispute Resolution in district court cases. She said her observation is that that has been successful at other levels, and thinks it could work.

Chuck Boekeloo has been practicing the longest of the candidates, since 1982, with wide experience in both criminal and civil cases. He graduated from Sparta High School, the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree in economics, and from the University of Detroit with his J.D. He has been involved as an advocate for neglected and/or abused children, and as a neutral case evaluator in Kent County. He was also formerly on the Rockford School Board.

“It’s kind of quaint to say it, but as a judge in a district court, you really are representing the people’s court, and you need to educate the people who appear before you on how the system works,” Boekeloo said.

Jody Jernigan replied to the question, “Especially since there are a lot of people in pro per at the district court, the judge needs to educate the person on the procedures and what’s appropriate — a lot of people coming into court are afraid to be there and not sure how to choose their words.”

She added that it’s also the judge’s role to be well-prepared and prompt, as a sign of respect for others’ time.

Jernigan, the junior partner and co-founder of Golden and Jernigan, is fluent in Spanish, having earned her B.A. from University of Michigan in Spanish. She taught college and high school courses on an Arizona Native American reservation, before earning her law degree cum laude from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She practices in bankruptcy law and family law, but is conversant with many other areas as well. Jernigan is an active member of the Western Michigan Debtor’s Bar, and does community work with Woman’s Life Rockford Chapter, which raises money for local charities and families in need.

Last to answer the question about a judge’s role was Brent Boncher, who said “The district court is the face of justice, it’s where the rubber meets the road for most people who have some kind of dispute. Judges should have a community-mindedness and serve the community as well as serving justice.”

A University of Michigan?(B.A.) and Wayne State University Law School graduate, Boncher is a partner in the law firm of Schenk Boncher and Rypma. He has a broad practice including contract law, construction law, personal injury, real estate, trusts and estates, and civil rights, and said he goes before the courts 20 out of the 83 counties regularly. He is also a trustee for Courtland Township, serves as the township’s representative on Grand Valley Metro Council, and currently chairs its Parks and Recreation Committee. He also is very involved with his children and has coached both soccer and Odyssey of the Mind teams.

Jeffrey O’Hara has practiced as a for over 25 years, and has lived in the area since he was five years old, graduating from Northview High School. He received a degree in Business Administration from Michigan State University, worked in the private sector, and got his law degree from Cooley Law School in 1985. His wife teaches second grade at Rockford Public Schools. He is active in his chair and also did a lot of coaching when his three grown children were younger.

At one point, Sarah Lachman threw the candidates a curve ball by asking them what judge they saw as a role model, after noting that in addition to Judge Smolenski, 17th Circuit Court Judges Mark Trusock and James Redford, who has thrown his hat in the ring for The Michigan Supreme Court race, were present. All the candidates responded with grace and honesty, though they generally named names of judges in other counties.

There was only time for one question from attendees, and Judge Trusock asked the candidates if they had spoken with someone from the 63rd Court, the second busiest in the state, to get a glimpse into what being on the bench there would really be like. Under different circumstances, all present had.

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