Candidates exchange ideas at judicial forum


 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
Four local attorneys Wednesday explained why they should be elected to the Washtenaw County Trial Court during Wednesday night’s Washtenaw Community 2014 Judicial Candidate Forum.
Washtenaw Community College’s Towsley Auditorium was the setting for the event, which included a meet-and-greet followed by two one-hour sessions in which candidates took turns answering the same pre-selected question presented by a moderator.
Judge Julia Owdziej and Tracy Van den Bergh are vying for the seat on the Probate Court, while the Circuit Court seat will be filled by Patrick Conlin, Jr. or Veronique Liem.
The four, who were the top vote-getters in the primary election in August, discussed their various backgrounds and skill sets, and why they would be an asset on the bench.
All agreed that the public often lacks a clear sense of what each court in Washtenaw focuses on, and that incumbent judges should be evaluated by members of the bar.
Each presented concise descriptions of what the probate and circuit court judges handle.
When asked if she agrees with Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. that Michigan must give its judges raises for the first time in years in order to continue to recruit and retain judges, Van den Bergh noted that, as an attorney for Legal Services of South Central Michigan, their salaries already seemed high.
In Michigan, circuit and probate judges are paid $139,919. 
Van den Bergh said her extensive background working with the mentally ill, and as a social worker, makes her particularly well qualified for probate judge as she would often be working with a vulnerable population.
She said she would take a pro-active approach on the bench, and work with local community and university organizations to bring in more funding to help those who most need it.
“We’re doing good work, but the judiciary should do more,” said Van den Bergh.
Of the four candidates, Owdziej was the only one to say that a new courthouse is “desperately” needed, though she added that convincing the public to pay more taxes would be challenging. She said she especially realizes the need for a new facility during her weekly dockets for the developmentally disabled, when she sees how difficult it is to accommodate more than one person with a wheelchair.
All four agreed that accessibility to the courthouse is essential, and that any necessary accommodations should be made.
Conlin said that as he goes door-to-door people frequently ask why judges are elected rather than appointed, considering the large amount of money campaigns require. He said he tells them there are pros and cons to the appointments, and that most contributions come from other lawyers.
Conlin said his years as a high school teacher required him to play the roles of coach, cheerleader, and sometimes parent, as he helped get people from A to B, while managing the chaos. He said that experience has been useful to him as a lawyer.
Liem said her background as an immigrant who arrived from France with no connections and few resources, having to rely on her own merits. She is a child of divorce who was divorced herself, which gives her an understanding of that process, she said.
The forum was sponsored by the Washtenaw County Bar Association Judiciary Committee in collaboration with the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan – Washtenaw Region, the Vanzetti-Hamilton Bar Association and the Old West Side Neighborhood Association of Ann Arbor.
Voters will go to the polls Nov. 4.


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