Judicial candidates face off in public forum held by Grand Rapids Bar Association

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Photo 1: 17th Circuit Court judicial candidates, left to right: Curt Benson, running for the Civil/Criminal Division judgeship; Deborah (who said she goes by Deb) McNabb, for the newly-created Family Division position; and Joe Rossi, also running in the Civil/Criminal Division contest

Photo 2: Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge attorney, and past president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, Pat Geary moderated the forum.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Nasty weather Wednesday night did not prevent about 30 intrepid souls and three candidates for two judicial positions from coming out for a public forum on races the candidates and organizers deemed very significant in their impact on the public.

As Curt Benson, a candidate for the 17th Circuit Court Civil/Criminal judicial opening, said in his opening remarks, “Quite frankly, whoever wins these races is likely to be your judge for another 20 years or so. It’s rare for a sitting judge in Kent County to have any opposition, and even if they do, the incumbent usually wins. So whoever you elect on November 8 will probably be your judge for a long time.”

Benson is running against Joseph Rossi. The two were the top vote-getters of three running in the August primary.

Deb McNabb would have been running against Ben Symko for the new Family Division judicial position (which will appear on the ballot as “New Judgeship”), but for personal reasons, Symko decided to drop out of the race in August. However, his name will still appear on the ballot  — another reason it is very important to spread the word about the judicial contests.

McNabb was called “exceptionally well qualified” for the position by the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) Judicial Candidate Review Committee earlier this month.

The GRBA sponsored Wednesday night’s forum, held at East Grand Rapids High School. Circuit Court Judge Christopher Yates, current GRBA president, was instrumental in organizing the event and gave introductory remarks.

Then Immediate Past President Patrick Geary of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge took over as moderator, finessing the candidates’ prepared statements and audience questions into a session that fit precisely into the allotted time of one hour.

In her opening remarks, McNabb gave a simple outline of her career and how it qualifies her for the Family Division judgeship.

She came to Michigan to attend Alma College after being raised in Miami, Fla., and as she had her four children moved back and forth between the two states to provide caregiving for her mother. She worked for almost five years at Migrant Legal Aid on employment law, seeing the effects on children and families of the challenges seasonal migrant workers face.

She then became a referee for the Circuit Court in 1991, and has served in that capacity ever since. “I handle basically half of the docket. We cover motion day, abuse, neglect, juvenile delinquency, personal protection orders, et cetera. Essentially the only thing we don’t do are jury trials. So I have significant experience in the family division,” she said.

She added later in the forum that she had derived valuable experience from working with the Youth for Understanding exchange program, having hosted two youth, one from Germany and one from Turkey. She also has remained on the board of Migrant Legal Aid, and commented, “I still have a heart for that work. That and my ability to speak Spanish have enhanced my understanding of our diverse community. I understand the issues that many people face dealing with families, maybe non-traditional families.”

In response to an audience question about what motivated the candidates to seek office, McNabb said, “I’ve been serving as a judicial officer and I love the work.” She told of being hired by Curt Benson’s father, Judge Robert Benson, who asked her at the time if she would ever like to become a judge. “That’s kind of been in the back of my mind for the last 25 years,” she said. “I’m still very passionate about the work I do. It’s tough emotionally, but I’m energized by it every day.”

In his opening remarks, Joe Rossi related his life story to his quest for the Criminal/Civil Division judgeship. He attended University of Notre Dame on an ROTC?scholarship, and graduated with honors as an English major. He then served in the Persian Gulf War and elsewhere as a member of the U.S.?Marine Corps, and was also in Compton during the Los Angeles riots “to restore law and order in that area,” as he described it.

In fact, he noted that one of the drivers for his seeking the bench sprang from his service. “I recognize the importance of the rule of law. I saw what Kuwait looked like when Saddam Hussein went in there. I also saw what Los Angeles looked like. I want to serve the public as a judge to maintain that law and order,” he said.

Following that, Rossi returned and received his J.D. from Notre Dame Law School. He joined Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, handling a variety of cases all across the state. He followed that with a stint as a U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. In 2010 he landed at the firm of Drew, Cooper and Anding where he works currently, founding the area’s first whistleblower practice.

Benson’s path differed in that, after working for several law firms such as Cholette, Perkins and Buchanan, and Denenberg, Tuffley and Jamison, then   in the partnership of Benson and Tacket, he became a full-time professor at WMU-Cooley Law School, his legal alma mater.

He noted that he has taught Evidence, Civil Procedure, Contracts and Insurance Law, all critical areas for a judge to comprehend deeply. “I think I have that hard-core practical experience that will serve me well, but I also have the scholarship aspect,” he told the audience.

A Distinguished Professor Emeritus after his 14-year career, Benson now is a civil and criminal litigator at Witte Law.

He is a Fellow of The Michigan Bar Foundation, which recognizes professional excellence and service to the community, as well as a sought-after TV?and print commentator and former co-host of The Lawyers Show radio program.

Benson pointed to his experience on the Grand Rapids Board of Education as an additional qualifier.  “I went into all parts of the city and learned things I’d never known growing up here. What I learned is to see problems through the eyes of others,” he said.

Benson also noted that the third candidate in the August primary, Thomas Murray, had endorsed him.

Both candidates have merited numerous endorsements, and both are rated AV Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell.

Though the forum was completely civil, as participants noted is the custom in the West Michigan legal profession, Benson and Rossi disagreed courteously about the role of the rule of law in the circuit court position.
In answer to an audience question about what philosophy will guide them if they are elected, Rossi replied, “My philosophy is going to be to follow the rule of law. I know that gets bandied around a lot, but the first thing I’ll turn to are the plain words of the statute. The advantage of being a judge who follows the rule of law is predictability of the system for the litigators.”

Benson responded, “I agree with Joe, but there’s simply more to it than that. The legislature can’t imagine every case where a law will apply, so the legislature itself and the Michigan Supreme Court grant incredible discretion to trial judges. Decisions all along the way rest with the discretion of the judges, by design.”