District courts celebrate golden anniversary


by Cynthia Price

Though last year there were many celebrations around the state honoring the 50th anniversary of the birth of the district court system in Michigan, the first district courts officially opened on January 1, 1969.

So the chief judges of the 62B and 63rd District Courts of Kent County, William G. Kelly and Sara Smolenski respectively, decided that January 2019 would be a good time for another party.

On Friday, January 11, a group of well-wishers came to the 63rd District Court out on East Beltline to enjoy cake and conviviality.

The Michigan State Constitution of 1963, which took effect January 1, 1964, stated: “The offices of circuit court commissioner and justice of the peace are abolished at the expiration of five years from the date this constitution becomes effective or may within this period be abolished by law.”

As several people at the gathering noted, one of the main differences between the district court system and the municipal courts which preceded it is the requirement that the judge be a lawyer. Previously, justices of the peace and those presiding over municipal courts did not have to be – which lives on in the practice of appointing magistrates.

The changeover was not accomplished without controversy, particularly since the legislation had to be enacted in time to elect those judges. At the last minute, the legislature reached a compromise and Governor George Romney signed the act establishing district courts in June of 1968.

At the beginning of 1969, 34 district courts opened up with 150 district court judges. Of those, 124 had been elected the previous November and 26 were incumbent municipal judges “grandfathered”?in.

The celebration last Friday benefited from the presence of the man who literally wrote the book on the subject, Judge Kelly. In honor of last year’s golden anniversary as commemorated statewide, Judge Kelly authored The First 50 Years of Michigan District Courts for the Michigan District Judges Association, an association founded almost immediately after the district courts in March 1969.

Judge Kelly, who spoke briefly, has been on the bench since 1979, and he was preceded at the Kentwood Municipal Court by his father, Judge Joseph Kelly. “We look forward to the next fifty years,” he concluded.

The co-host of the event, Judge Smolenski, also served as emcee, a role to which she is very accustomed. She read a list of all of the Kent County district court judges, including those deceased, noting that of the jurists not present several, including Chief Judge Pablo Cortes of the 62A District Court, had expressed regrets that they could not come.

Judge Smolenski has her own family history in the district courts. “There has been a Smolenski on the district court bench every one of those 50 years,” she said. Her father, J. Robert Smolenski, began his term in 1968, and her brother Michael Smolenski was a 61st District Court judge until the end of 1990 before serving on the Circuit Court and then the Court of Appeals. Sara Smolenski herself was elected in 1990.

She noted with pride that the district court is often referred to as “the People’s Court” because it is the court most people are likely to interact with. It covers civil claims for damages up to $25,000, small claims for up to $6,000, landlord-tenant disputes, land contract disputes, and civil infractions/traffic violations. District courts also handle criminal proceedings, including most misdemeanors with maximum possible penalties of one year or less in jail, including driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license, simple assault, and shoplifting, as well as conducting preliminary exams in felony cases. Courts also issue arrest and search warrants and set bail/accept bond. They are also authorized to perform civil marriage ceremonies.

Judge Smolenski thanked 63rd District Court Administrator Hilary Arthur  for her assistance in organizing the event.