'Encouragement and support for all courts'; New SCAO head outlines his vision

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By Frank Weir

Legal News

It's been just a few weeks and former Jackson Circuit Court Judge Chad Schmucker has settled in as head of the Supreme Court Administrative Office.

The move marked the end of 20 years on the bench in Jackson for Schmucker and there was a bit of reminiscing as he boxed things up in his old office.

"In 20 years, I saw just about everything here," he said. "I gave up a great position and I know that. If I had wanted to, I could have kept the job for as long as the constitution would allow, which would mean until 2028."

But Schmucker has always been interested in court administration and had assisted the SCAO in a number of its projects, particularly with the Michigan Judicial Institute, the educational branch of SCAO. He has a particular interest in case management systems. And as most know in Jackson, he helped develop the county's specialty courts. He presided over its Recovery Court after the retirement of Judge Charles Nelson.

"It was as if I designed my career path 20 years ago to lead to the SCAO position. I didn't have that in mind; the job only opens every eight or 10 years but my interests just seem to have meshed with the SCAO requirements."

And then there was that ticking clock.

"After 20 years I was ready for a change. And when you get to your mid-50s, which I am, you realize the opportunity bus comes along only so many times, and probably for the last time in your 50s. There are a variety of reasons why people don't get on that bus but if you don't, it's not coming by again."

Schmucker laughed that a good friend made light of his analogy. "He acknowledged that it's always scary to make a big change like this and noted, 'You're getting on the bus and that's great, but do you know for sure where it's taking you?'"

Maybe the more important point is where does Schmucker want to drive the bus? In what direction will he take the SCAO?

"My vision for myself and the SCAO is not to spend all my time identifying problem courts. Rather, I hope to provide encouragement and support so all courts can be top performers." Schmucker acknowledges that some courts, and judges, simply are not interested in SCAO support, but most are.

"Most want to be top performers and I want to help them with that. I like sports analogies; my goal is not to ensure that someone is a star of the team. What I'd like to do is make sure everyone who wants to gets on the first string. With the right support, that can be done."

And he is adamant that he can accomplish that vision, despite current talk about judicial downsizing--more likely now as Gov. Snyder and the state legislature look for budget cuts.

"The Supreme Court just wants to have the right number of judges. It is not saying that if you need seven judges you only get six because we're broke. The Court wants to downsize only where an excess of judges has been determined. We don't expect delays and backlogs due to downsizing. Every court that is downsized should still have the potential to be a high performing court."

Schmucker explained that the SCAO consists of several divisions designed to support the state's courts in different areas including technology, child welfare, friend of the court, alternative dispute resolution, trial court services, and judicial education.

SCAO assists about 250 trial courts across the state, Schmucker noted. And these courts are very different - everything from an urban court that may serve a two-square mile community to an Upper Peninsula court spanning 250 square miles.

The SCAO includes more than 200 employees, he said.

Schmucker hopes to continue his work with specialty courts; he believes they are the future.

"They are a way we can better serve our citizens, improve public safety in a fiscally responsible manner. They are more efficient and are less costly. They are the right thing to do, I think."

He acknowledges that the number of offenders involved in specialty courts are small but "we know jail just doesn't work. We keep trying that to no avail. With an expansion of the specialty court concept, we could serve a larger population that are not being served now."

Cost savings are very real, he says. "But it isn't saved for the same people that have to spend money to set up specialty courts. The corrections system, prisons and jails, save tremendously when we can prevent people from the revolving door of incarceration. But that doesn't mean the jails send the courts $300,000.

"You initially increase court expense at the county level, but in the long run, you save taxpayers thousands of dollars at the correction level."

Savings are particularly dramatic in the mental health area, Schmucker said. In Jackson's Mental Health specialty court that caters to those with mental health issues, medical expenses of the participant decline dramatically.

The reason appears to be that the courts ensure that individuals are following a treatment plan that includes medication and other supportive therapeutic measures. Although this doesn't save the court anything, society benefits.

"We didn't anticipate the cost savings for this population when we started a mental health court in Jackson County. But the savings have been dramatic. We just thought we could lower the number of police calls that involve individuals who are mentally ill and who tend to move back and forth from court to jail to the streets.

"Given medical costs, the reduction in required hospitalizations saves a tremendous amount of money. We even have the pharmacies involved and we know whether they are picking up their prescriptions."

The effort has reduced substance abuse related to mental health issues as well as the need for detoxification and overdose hospitalizations.

Technology, an abiding interest for Schmucker, will also play an important role in his SCAO work.

"I think almost every improvement in court efficiency by definition will involve an increased use of technology.

"There is no question that we can better serve the public by using technology more efficiently and I'm excited to be involved in that. I want to see it spread through the state's courts."

All in all, Schmucker leaves his role as a judge with no regrets.

"It's always good to go when you feel like you're at the top; when you feel like a high performer. In all areas of life, people tend to stay too long in one place, in one endeavor."

Published: Mon, Jun 6, 2011

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