Forum focuses on candidates

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 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
Seven candidates vying for two openings on the Washtenaw County bench took part in a meet-and-greet last week when the Western Washtenaw Democrats sponsored a Meet the Judicial Candidates forum at the Historic Chelsea Depot. 
The event gave Washtenaw County judicial candidates the chance to introduce themselves and take questions from the audience ranging from views on gay marriage to what they think they won’t like about being judge, to their experience with grieving clients who’ve lost a family member.
Candidates running for the Probate Court seat to be vacant after the retirement of Judge Nancy C. Wheeler include Jane Bassett, Tamara Garwood, Constance Jones, Julia Owdziej  and Tracy Van den Bergh.
Those running for the Circuit Court post now occupied by Judge Donald Shelton, who will retire in September, include Patrick Conlin, Veronique Liem, and Michael Woodyard. Woodyard was unable to attend the forum.
The top two vote-getters in each of the August primary elections will move on to the general election on Nov. 4.
Roy Schmidt, chair of the Western Washtenaw Democrats, noted that the races are non-partisan, as was the event at the Depot.
Jane Bassett
Ann Arbor attorney Jane Bassett said that most of her 20 years of experience in the county has been in probate law, elder law, and LGBT family law.
She said one thing that sets her apart from other candidates is her experience in veterans benefits and Medicaid planning, helping people restructure their resources in order to stretch their dollars and support themselves.
“I think Probate Court is a really good place to work hard to try to preserve family relationships,” she said.
Bassett said she has a strong background dealing with exploitation issues, which have increased following the downturn in the economy. Recognizing red flags that can prevent further problems is important, she said, as is appropriate prosecution, without embarrassing the victim. 
 
Tamara Garwood
Garwood, an Ann Arbor attorney with 15 years of experience, noted that while a student at the Detroit College of Law, she worked in the Wayne County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. She said addition to the fact that she could handle a docket as a law student, that experience taught her that she needs to serve her community and assist the vulnerable. Running for judge in Probate Court is an opportunity to do that, she said.
After law school, she went into private practice, handling family law and probate matters, she said.
“I’m a trained mediator, I’m an arbitrator, I work as a Guardian ad Litem as well,” she said. “And I love what I do.”
Garwood said she’s recently heard concerns from the public about open access to justice, and how confusing Probate Court and family law can be. She said she hopes she can address those concerns for them.
Garwood said her business card says she’s an attorney and counselor, and that on the bench, she would be fair and treat everyone before her court with respect.
 
Constance Jones
Jones began by noting the fact that five women are running for the open seat “in this or any county.”
“So that’s pretty incredible,” she said.
Jones, who was raised in Washtenaw County, said she has experience in every aspect of law, and in recent years has focused in the probate area.
She said she wants to be judge of the Probate Court because after 26 years of practicing law, it feels like a natural progression, and something she is ready to do.
A second reason she wants the job, she said, is something that’s become more apparent to her as she’s gone out speaking to people who’ve signed her petition.
“This is a position of great service to the community,” she said.
“I want to serve this community, and I think I could serve it very well.”
 
Julia Owdziej
Owdziej, who is the Washtenaw County Deputy Probate Register as well as a Juvenile Court referee, talked about her 23 years of law experience, including her role as Washtenaw County assistant prosecuting attorney, in which she tried every kind of criminal case in every court in the county.
She said all the candidates are qualified.
 “I think what sets me apart is the amount of time that I’ve spent in the courtroom, the number of trials I’ve done, first as an advocate as an assistant attorney general, and then as a prosecutor,” she said.
Owdziej said that when she left the Attorney General’s office early in her career, she realized that nobody would believe the number of trials she had handled and actually underplayed it on her resume.
Owdziej emphasized her extensive work with juveniles in crisis. 
 
Tracy Van den Bergh
Van den Bergh, an attorney at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, said she has two sets of relevant experience she plans to bring with her to the position: Her legal experience, and her social work experience.
She said that prior to becoming an attorney, she worked for more than a decade as a clinical social worker treating families, individuals and children suffering from poverty, mental health and substance abuse issues.
“The Probate Court deals every day with individuals in crisis,” she said.
Van den Bergh said her experience in law and social work handling tough issues will bring a new perspective to this division, and that she looks forward to serving all residents.
Patrick Conlin
After talking briefly about his Washtenaw County roots, the Chelsea attorney made a confession.
“I must get it out of the way right away and confess to you all that I went to Notre Dame,” said Conlin, to laughter.
He said about 50 percent of his work at Keusch, Flintoft & Conlin is family law and divorce, and much of the rest is  general civil litigation.
“So I’ve tried cases in the Circuit Court; I’ve tried cases in the District Court; I’ve represented both plaintiffs and defendants in these civil matters, where the money at issue has been way over $25,000 and the money at issue has been way under $25,000,” he said. 
Conlin said he’s represented both the rich and the destitute, and all are at their most vulnerable when they’re in court.
“And the opportunity to serve the people of the county by being able to help those people and move their matters along to resolution can’t be understated,” he said.
 
Veronique Liem
Liem emphasized her 25 years as a family law attorney.
Noting that about 65 percent of civil cases are family law/divorce cases, she said the election of Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge is an opportunity to choose someone who has experience and knowledge of these cases.
“They are demanding sometimes,” she said. “They are very emotional.”
Liem said that in addition to her many years in family law, her own experience as both a stay-at-home parent and a working mother have helped her in her career because she saw first-hand the effects of those choices.
Liem said she brings the experience of someone coming here from another country without resources or connections, who had to work hard to be where she is today.

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