Able assistant: Longtime prosecutor joins neighboring county office

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

After his more than two-decade reign as Saginaw County prosecutor ended, it seems only fitting that Michael Thomas is now a special assistant attorney general working out of the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office.

The idea of placing an assistant attorney general in a county prosecutor’s office took shape months ago when Gov. Rick Snyder pledged financial support to crime-ridden cities up and down I-75. He saw crime spiraling in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw, and decided to add more State Police to help those battered cities.

But prosecutors in those areas warned that, while having more cops was great, the plan also needed to add more prosecutors in those cities to try those cases and keep the criminal justice system from getting bogged down on the back end.

Genesee County became the first to utilize the plan. And among the first four attorneys to man that new position was Thomas, who entered law because he admired the legendary lawyer and civil libertarian, Clarence Darrow.

“I wanted to be like him and save the innocent,” said the 65-year-old Thomas.

Born in Saginaw, Thomas said he always had an interest in crime and justice. After graduating from Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw, Thomas became the first member of his family to not only earn a high school diploma, but also to eventually obtain a college degree and an advanced degree.

“My Dad worked at the foundry, and my Mom dropped out of school to take care of a dying parent,” he said. “But she had a great affection for and valued education.”  Thomas said the first books he ever read were encyclopedias his mother bought weekly at the grocery store after “saving up her pennies.”

Thomas attended the University of Michigan, graduating with distinction in 1970 as a pre-law major. To pay for school, he worked as a commercial painter in the summer, but eventually began clerking for Saginaw attorney Jerome Burns.

“I took quite a pay cut to work for him, but he told me (if I wanted to become a lawyer) it was important to get some hands-on training,” Thomas said. “So he became my mentor.”

Thomas earned a scholarship to Rutgers Law School, graduating from the East Coast school in 1973. He continued working for Burns while preparing for the bar examination, but knew that he wanted to practice criminal law. When an opening came up for an assistant prosecutor in the Saginaw County Prosecutor’s Office, Burns was instrumental in helping Thomas.
“He told me, ‘You better know how to put a case together before you try to take it apart,’” Thomas said of Burns.

Thomas spent five years honing his skills there and left as the chief assistant prosecutor.

“Back then, most people didn’t stay at the Prosecutor’s Office that long,” Thomas said, using it as a stepping-stone into their own private practice.

He left and went into private practice for 11 years, handling criminal defense, some court-appointed work and various other legal matters. But he learned a valuable lesson while in the Prosecutor’s Office.

“The vast majority of people are truly victims of crime, and I could do a lot more good as a prosecuting attorney. They are the real public defenders.”

Armed with knowledge on both sides of the legal fence, Thomas applied to become the Saginaw County Prosecutor when a vacancy in the office occurred.

Thomas eventually was elected to office six times, although he was defeated in the Democratic primary last year.

“I was pretty disappointed for a couple days,” he said. “But I had a long career there, six successful elections, 23 years, and I think we achieved a great deal of success there.”

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton was aware of Snyder’s concerns to beef up law enforcement along the I-75 corridor, and specifically, helping Flint by re-opening the city’s jail, adding more Michigan State troopers to help fight crime, and other initiatives to rid it of the dubious reputation of being the number one city in the nation for violent crime.

“(Snyder) wanted to do something about that,” Leyton said.

Leyton had earlier added four assistant prosecutors to his depleted office through state grants. From the beginning of Leyton’s term in office, he had lost nearly 20 assistant prosecutors through attrition and budget cuts.

He began negotiating with Snyder and state Attorney General Bill Schuette to increase the number of assistant prosecutors in his office, and eventually Leyton was successful in getting four positions added.

Later, lawmakers decided that the four positions would be funded through the state for a one-year term and possibly two.

In other words, pretty good negotiating on Leyton’s part. A staunch Democrat who ran against Schuette for attorney general, Leyton credited his former opponent for being “very cooperative” on the new program.

Although the new appointees are state attorneys, “they work here, under my direction and supervision, and essentially, they’re no different than a Genesee County assistant prosecutor,” Leyton said.

Leyton’s new four special assistant Attorney General prosecutors started earlier this year at a cost to the state of about $400,000.

“With my office back up to 32 (assistant and special prosecutors), we’re able to keep up,” Leyton said. “We’ve streamlined operations, and we’re very efficient.”

He’s proud how the entire operation has jelled, but for prosecutors, “the work ethic has never been an issue,” he said. “And you’ll find that in prosecutor’s office everywhere. They are dedicated employees.”

The key to prosecutorial work is preparation, Leyton said, and now he and his staff have some added time to get ready for cases.

He estimates his office should have more than 60 assistant prosecutors, based on the workload generated in Genesee County.

“We’re still way under resource, but we’re managing,” he said.

While Genesee County is the first to employ state attorneys in county roles, other counties, such as Saginaw and Wayne, may follow suit.

Thomas and Leyton became friends through the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM), where Thomas once served as president.

“I have the greatest respect for Mr. Leyton, his ethics and integrity, and commitment to doing something for his community,” Thomas said.

Leyton also has earned the respect of fellow prosecutors, who elected him PAAM president.

In his new role, Thomas is supervising the circuit court trial lawyers in Genesee County.

“He has a gold mine of prosecutorial experience and know-how,”Leyton said of Thomas. “And it’s been good to have him.”

Thomas also has a good relationship with Schuette from when he was a judge in the state Court of Appeals, and much respect for Snyder, a Republican.

“I hadn’t heard a governor talk about crime and doing something about violent crime for a long while,” he said. “Crime has nothing to do with politics whatsoever. The victims of crime in Flint are Democrats, Republicans, or whatever. They just want some help in their hour of need.”

Besides his involvement with PAAM, Thomas also was a director of the National District Attorneys Association, and was sent to Seoul, Korea in 2000 as a part of training and instructing on an International Domestic Violence Training team.

He also visited overseas on several lay missions through his church.

“I’ve always taken an interest in justice systems in other countries,” said Thomas, who along with his wife, Mary Jo, has four children and 10 grandchildren. “I think we have the best in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. We have a great freedom in this country, and one thing you learn is how blessed we are as Americans.”
 

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