Court ‘requires an ensemble cast’
ALPENA — Judges are powerful.
But, as Northeast Michigan judges are quick to point out, they are not omnipotent, and they require a team of prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, other government officials and more to make the system run smoothly and the way it’s supposed to.
The News reached out to three judges to talk about their jobs:
BIG-PICTURE, WHAT IS YOUR JOB?
Ed Black, 26th Circuit Court judge: “My job is to uphold the rule of law, protect the rights of the parties, and adhere to the requirements of due process while providing the just, speedy, and economical determination of every action.”
Aaron Gauthier, 53rd Circuit Court judge: “Our court has a mission statement that encapsulates how I see a local judge’s overall function: ‘The mission of the 53rd Circuit Court is to administer criminal justice and resolve civil disputes in a way that respects public resources, protects individual rights, and promotes public confidence in the rule of law.’ One of my priorities has been to increase communication between the court and the community to foster a greater awareness of the court system and a greater confidence in its fairness and importance to a peaceful society.”
Thomas LaCross, Alpena County Probate judge and 88th District Court judge: “A judge’s job is conflict resolution, pursuant to the Constitution. If I’m doing my job, I’m making sure due process is given, because society and the individual are entitled to that process.”
WHAT ARE THE TOOLS YOU HAVE AT YOUR DISPOSAL TO DO THAT JOB?
Black: “To have a servant’s heart, follow the law, and ensure dignity and respect is afforded to each party in a fair and just manner. Beyond that, the court is not one person. The Friend of the Court, Juvenile Division, and Circuit Court staff are a team. We work in tandem and have to coordinate with the clerks, the District and Probate courts, and those other entities which we touch. We are all tools in the greater ‘system.'”
Gauthier: “The primary tools to accomplish this mission are the people involved in the justice system. A successful circuit court depends on good communication and cooperation with the county board, other elected officials, prosecutors, attorneys, state governmental officials, and many other partners and stakeholders. If a court were show business (which it’s not!), I’d say that it is not a solo performance by the judge, but it requires an ensemble cast made up of the entire team.”
LaCross: “I have three primary tools to do my job: I have the law itself. I have the court rules of procedure — the ‘bible’ that tells me what to do. And I have an excellent staff. When you talk about the court, you’re talking about more than just the judge. I have a particular function, but there are 15 other people, between probate and district, who do the necessary stuff of the court. The state, too, provides a complex set of guidelines to ensure due process.”
WHAT’S SOMETHING PEOPLE THINK YOU CAN DO BUT YOU CAN’T?
Black: “People sometimes believe that, just because a person is charged, they should be held in jail until trial. However, this violates the principle that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. There are very rare, exceptional circumstances that would permit a court to set no bond. Absent those circumstances, an individual is entitled to a bond that is reasonably related to ensure their appearance and the safety of the community.”
Gauthier: “A judge is not a king or queen, empowered to do whatever they want. Some people might be surprised to learn that a judge sometimes has to make decisions that even the judge doesn’t particularly like as an individual person. A judge must apply the law as it is, not as the judge thinks it ought to be. When a law violates the Constitution, a judge may invalidate the law to enforce the Constitution, but, otherwise, my power is limited by the laws passed by the Legislature.”
LaCross: “I cannot, nor can the court system, completely resolve every single conflict. If someone goes to court and says, ‘I want absolute justice,’ it’s not usually going to happen. In court, you do your best to present properly, to admit properly, to review properly, but defects can happen, little misstatements can happen. The ultimate resolution isn’t perfect. Nothing is perfect, short of Heaven. But, we do pretty good.”
Contact your courts
∫ 26th Circuit Court, 720 W. Chisholm St., Suite 1, Alpena, 989-354-9573 or alpenacounty.org/circuit
∫ 88th District Court, 719 W. Chisholm St., Suite 3, Alpena, 989-354-9678 or alpenacounty.org/district
∫ Probate Court, 719 W. Chisholm St., Suite 4, Alpena, 989-354-9650 or alpenacounty.org/probate-court-alpena-michigan
Presque Isle County
∫ 53rd Circuit Court, 151 E. Huron Ave., Rogers City, 989-734-3288 or presqueislecounty.org/53rd-circuit-court
∫ 89th District Court, 151 E. Huron Ave., Rogers City, 989-734-2411 or presqueislecounty.org/89th-district-court
∫ Probate Court, 151 E. Huron Ave., Rogers City, 989-734-3268 or presqueislecounty.org/probate-court
∫ 26th Circuit Court, 12265 M-32 W., Atlanta, 989-785-8022
∫ 88th District Court, 12265 M-32 W., Atlanta, 989-785-8035 or montmorencycountymichigan.us/DistrictCourt
∫ Probate Court, 12265 M-32 W., Atlanta, 989-785-8064 or montmorencycountymichigan.us/probate
∫ 23rd Circuit Court, 106 Fifth St., Harrisville, 989-724-9400 or alconacountymi.com/?page–id=430
∫ 81st District Court, 106 Fifth St., Harrisville, 989-724-9500 or alconacountymi.com/?page–id=142
∫ Probate Court, 106 Fifth St., Harrisville, 989-724-9490 or alconacountymi.com/?page–id=571
About this series
Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of government transparency laws and the First Amendment and a time to advocate for more openness by those in power, from local government to the federal government.
This year, The News decided to get back to basics and asked various government leaders in Northeast Michigan to open up about their jobs and what they can and can’t do on behalf of the people they serve.
Check out The News every day this week for the latest Sunshine Week installment.