Circuit Court candidates address judicial issues

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The four candidates running for two contested judicial seats on the 22nd Circuit Court - otherwise known as the Washtenaw County Trial Court--are three weeks away from the Nov. 6 election.

Jim Fink and Carol Kuhnke are vying for the seat now held by Judge Melinda Morris, who is retiring. And Judge Timothy P. Connors is facing a challenge from Michael T. Woodyard of Ann Arbor, a Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney.

The Legal News emailed each candidate six questions, and their responses folow.

Each will also have an opportunity to speak candidly when the Washtenaw County Bar Association, in collaboration with the Washtenaw Chapter of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, and the Old West Side Neighborhood Association, hosts a public forum from 7:30 to 9 p.m on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at Bach Elementary, 600 W. Jefferson, Ann Arbor.

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JUDGE TIM CONNORS

Judge Tim Connors of Ann Arbor has been a Washtenaw County judge for 21 years, having served as a district court judge, trial court chief judge and current circuit court judge with a family and civil court docket. He earned his bachelor's of arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1977 and his JD from Wayne State University Law School in 1980.

What is your general judicial philosophy?

Family and civil courts, which is what this circuit seat handles, should be healers of controversy. Decision making should consider the viewpoints of all affected individuals as well as the community-at-large. Dignity and respect in that process is paramount.

What, if anything, do you see as the greatest obstacles to justice?

Institutional barriers such as lack of standing and imbalanced allocation of resources. The cost of litigation is also a major obstacle.

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, lawyers, clients or litigants?

The judge sets the tone for the courtroom. Negative behavior such as bullying, untruthfulness or disrespect cannot be tolerated or rewarded. Civil discourse leads to thoughtful consideration of competing viewpoints and/or law and enhances the process and the outcome.

If you saw someone in your courtroom being poorly represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer, what would you do?

We are fortunate to have an educated, experienced and dedicated bar in Washtenaw Co. In the rare instances where there is inadequate information to make a fair and informed decision, I ask for it. In addition, I have facilitated or requested mentoring of new lawyers by senior lawyers where I felt it was helpful.

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your legal career? In your personal life?

Affirmation by the bar and community-at-large for the work I have done as your judge for the last 21 years. Evaluation of this work has resulted in:

Endorsement of Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh and numerous Court of Appeals judges;

Highest rating by members of the Washtenaw County Bar Association poll;

Outstanding rating by the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan;

Endorsements by the Vanzetti Hamilton Bar Association, the Michigan Association for Justice, the Washtenaw Association for Justice, labor unions including the United Auto Workers, Huron Valley Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 252, Washtenaw County Skilled Building Trades Council; The Washtenaw County Democratic Party and the Washtenaw County Democratic Party Black Caucus.

Personal: Being a part of a loving and caring community and family. This includes our latest addition, my first grandchild (born last week)!

In five sentences or less, why should voters support you?

It is about supporting the principles and values we share and believe in. Lawyers and citizens from this community know the good work we have been doing for the last 21 years. If voters want to continue those good works, I ask for their support.

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CAROL KUHNKE

Carol Kuhnke of Ann Arbor earned her undergraduate from the University of Michigan in 1990 and went on to receive her JD from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1993. She has been a partner at Davis & Kuhnke, PC since 1997, concentrating in civil litigation.

What is your general judicial philosophy?

Judges must follow the law, and where the law is unclear or gives discretion, must decide matters without bias or prejudice. Judges should be fair, courteous, and respectful, consider all arguments made to them, articulate the reasons for their decisions, and should do all within their power to ensure that cases move as expeditiously as possible. Lawyers and litigants can better accept an adverse decision when it is clear that the judge was fully advised and considered all of the arguments and issues; the public's belief that the process is fair is critical to maintaining respect for the judiciary.

What, if anything, do you see as the greatest obstacles to justice?

The greatest obstacle to justice is that the courts are inaccessible to many, usually because of the expense of litigation. Justice is denied to those who cannot afford to walk through the court's doors. I have spent my career representing people who have never been in court before and likely will not ever again.

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, lawyers, clients or litigants?

I do not encounter many "difficult" people, but when I do, my approach depends on the person. Clients usually just need more information about the process or their cases or situations. When they are fully informed then they are generally more relaxed. I treat difficult lawyers with a kind and professional attitude. It is hard to be rude to someone who responds courteously.

If you saw someone in your courtroom being poorly represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer, what would you do?

I would call the lawyer aside to say that the client deserved better representation and that I expect better advocacy. Of course litigants are entitled to choose their counsel, but we all have an interest in effective representation and advocacy, as that is the way an adversarial process succeeds. Unethical conduct would not be tolerated.

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your legal career? In your personal life?

My greatest professional accomplishment is the respect of my clients. My clients usually need me only once, and have no need of my services once I conclude the case that first brought them into my office. Nevertheless, I receive holiday cards and kind notes from clients years after I have concluded their cases, and I count many former clients as personal friends. I have no need to advertise for work, as my clients (and other attorneys) refer their friends and family to me, which is the greatest compliment I can receive.

My children, Julia and John, who are 13 and 12, are my greatest personal achievement. I adopted them through a process in which they had no say, and I am so incredibly fortunate that they chose to adopt me back!

In five sentences or less, why should voters support you?

Voters should support me because I am the right candidate for Washtenaw County. I have nearly 20 years of solid litigation experience in circuit courts all over Michigan, and my experience litigating complex matters is essential to managing those cases from the bench. I have an appropriate judicial temperament and will treat all litigants, witnesses and counsel with dignity and respect. I am widely respected and endorsed by lawyers who have worked alongside me, as well as those I've litigated against, and the trial judges who have seen me try cases.

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JIM FINK

Jim Fink of Ypsilanti earned his degree in criminal justice from Eastern Michigan University in 1983, and worked in law enforcement for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department from 1977 to 1998. He graduated from Detroit College of Law in 1987, and went into private practice after retiring from the Sheriff's Department in 1998.

What is your general judicial philosophy?

The role of a judge is to apply and enforce the laws as passed by the legislature, consistent with the U. S. and Michigan Constitutions. At times, a judge must interpret the law, rule on the legality of a particular statute or ordinance, or resolve conflicts between two statutes or a statute and another rule or ordinance. A judge should not attempt to legislate or assume the role of the executive branch.

A judge must remain true to the rule of law, deciding cases on what the law is, not what the judge would like it to be. Judges should be ever mindful of Canon I of the Code of Judicial conduct, which states, in part, "[a] judge should always be aware that the judicial system is for the benefit of the litigant and the public, not the judiciary." A judge should ensure that each person before the court is treated with respect, whether that person is an attorney, a party, criminal defendant, witness or juror.

If elected, I will follow these principles and strive to have each person come away from court knowing that he or she was treated fairly, regardless of the outcome of the case.

What, if anything, do you see as the greatest obstacles to justice?

The greatest obstacle to justice is the lack of affordable legal services. Even those who are not indigent are affected by the cost of litigation. We in Washtenaw County are fortunate to have several organizations that provide high quality, low cost legal services such as the Washtenaw County Public Defender, Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Model Cities Legal Services, the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program, and The Michigan Poverty Law Program in addition to the many law firms and attorneys that provide pro bono legal services on a case by case basis.

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, lawyers, clients or litigants?

I am not easily offended, a trait that allows me to look past a person's behavior and focus on the issue to be addressed. My experience as a police officer helps me be direct and fair without being offensive. As an attorney, I usually allow others to express themselves, and then work toward achieving my clients' goals.

If you saw someone in your courtroom being poorly represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer, what would you do?

I have experience with just such a situation. In the recent past, an opposing attorney came to court impaired by alcohol and was unable to competently represent his clients. I requested a bench conference and the matter was adjourned so that the opposing parties were not disadvantaged. (The last information available to me regarding the attorney was that he received help through the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program.)

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your legal career? In your personal life?

My greatest accomplishment in my legal career has been to establish a reputation of integrity, civility and competency as evidenced by the high ratings I received in the Washtenaw County Bar Association poll and the endorsements I have received from active and retired Washtenaw County judges. I love that, in my practice, I am able to help people every day.

In my personal life, my greatest achievement has been to partner with Beth (my wife) to raise six amazing children who believe in helping others and being the best citizens and neighbors they can be. While I am proud of many things, nothing gives me more pride than my children, their spouses and my grandchildren.

In five sentences or less, why should voters support you?

Voters should choose judges who will best represent the principles of public service, justice for all and the rule of law. I am endorsed by nine of the ten Washtenaw County judges who are endorsing a candidate in this race, I am rated "outstanding" by the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan and I was rated first in the Washtenaw County Bar Association poll for this position. I have a strong record of fairness and integrity unrelated to partisan politics. Voters should support me because I am the best qualified and have the broadest experience in the justice system. I have broad based support from those who believe the quality of justice is more important than partisan politics, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

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MICHAEL WOODYARD

Michael Woodyard of Ann Arbor earned a bachelor's degree in English from Eastern Michigan University in 1996 and a law degree from Wayne State University in 2002. Since then, he has been an assistant prosecuting attorney in Detroit.

What is your general judicial philosophy?

If a judge could have just one quality, I would hope it would be respect. Respect for the litigants who appear before him, respect for the law he has sworn to uphold, and respect for the institution of public justice, for democracy, and for self. Respect for every litigant instills in the public the conviction that the judge is impartial and objective. Respect for the role of the judiciary and for democracy supports a judge against the winds of influence. And this bedrock respect for the institution of public justice and for democracy itself is what gives a judge the possibility of self-respect.

What, if anything, do you see as the greatest obstacles to justice?

One of the greatest obstacles to justice is the problem many experience in simply accessing justice. When a person is unable to or unsure how to avail themselves of the Court's powers, the whole community suffers. It doesn't matter if the difficulty stems from lack of awareness, lack of resources, or some other reason, the issue remains the same. I serve on the State Bar of Michigan Committee on Access to Justice, and we work to resolve some of these difficult problems, and make the Courts available to all. One thing I will pursue is taking court to schools, and bringing school children - of the appropriate ages - to court. Exposing young people to the court system will have the effect of educating them about their options and the essential role the Court plays in society.

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, lawyers, clients or litigants?

For ten years I have worked in court with people who are emotionally fraught: either they're accused of horrific crimes, their loved ones have been hurt or killed, or they are faced with the loss of their livelihood. In these situations, it is easy to loose one's cool. I have found that the best course of action is to be unfailingly professional and polite to everyone, the defendant, the judge, the victims, and the court staff. When people find that they are being treated professionally, with respect, they often respond in kind. I think people want to know they are being listened to and heard.

If you saw someone in your courtroom being poorly represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer, what would you do?

My role as judge is to ensure justice is done. This role is much the same as the one I've fulfilled for the past ten years as an assistant prosecuting attorney. APA's are referred to as ''ministers of justice'' and are expected to ensure that all who are before the court - defendant or victim - receive a fair shake, are heard, and given access to justice. My role as judge will be broadened from that baseline, and, given the appropriate circumstance, I will have the power to actually intervene if a litigant is being poorly represented. That said, our system of justice is adversarial, and each side to a controversy is presumed to be intelligent and acting in their own self-interest. So if someone sues someone else, it is presumed that they are in court with a lawyer of their choosing. It's not the role of the judge to upset that relationship.

What has been your greatest accomplishment in your legal career? In your personal life?

The greatest accomplishment in my legal career is to have represented the people of the state of Michigan in cases of infant abuse, some in which an infant was murdered. Mastering the complex science, social dynamics and emotions in such a case required years of effort, and I have been fortunate to have been given the support necessary to form such a base of expertise. Personally, I am more proud of my two children than anything else in the world. They are the future, and when I look at them I am reminded that, with just a little care we are all in great hands.

In five sentences or less, why should voters support you?

For the past ten years in court, I have been an advocate for justice on behalf of those who have been harmed by someone else. I have been responsible for more than 800 investigations, more than 100 trials, ten years in court every day. This background in advocating for justice is richer and more developed than that of any other candidate. If the voters want a judge who is committed to the idea that people should be accountable for their conduct, that the court plays a role in making neighborhoods safer, and the community benefits when good people serve, than I am the candidate that should earn their vote.

Published: Mon, Oct 15, 2012

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