Big turnover in Alpena County courtrooms in recent years | News, Sports, Jobs - The Alpena News
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Big turnover in Alpena County courtrooms in recent years

News Photo by Julie Riddle Judge Ed Black works in his office in the Alpena County Courthouse last month.

ALPENA — A recent flurry of turnover in Alpena’s court system puts a little more work on everyone’s plates, but the dispensation of justice will happen as usual, court officials say.

Come November, Northeast Michigan will have replaced three judges in two years.

Alpena also welcomed a new 88th District Court administrator, head probation officer, jail administrator, and a new public defender office, all within the last six months.

As some personnel learn new positions and others adjust to new coworkers, local courts feel some growing pains, Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski said.

In addition to the changes at the Alpena County Courthouse, a pool of aging Northeast Michigan attorneys — including the 61% of Alpena County attorneys older than 60 — means more court changes may happen in coming years.

New judges include Ed Black in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court and Lora Greene in Montmorency County’s Probate Court. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will name a new judge for Alpena’s 88th District Court and Probate Court to take over after the October retirement of Thomas LaCross.

Each new judge comes with his or her own temperaments, expectations, and preferences, and attorneys and court staff have to put in extra hours learning how to best interact with the new judges and other key court staff, Muszynski said.

David Funk, a longtime Alpena attorney, keeps a little book where he jots notes about the preferences of the different judges before whom he practices, from what to wear to their birthdays.

To most effectively represent his clients before the new jurists, he will have to start from scratch.

“I’m about done with change,” Funk said. “You just get used to people, and they move on.”

The new judges, too, must spend extra time attending training and making sure they get up to speed on current laws, especially given recent significant criminal justice reform legislation enacted in the past year, Black said.

Still, Black said, judges prepare for the role their whole careers by regular study of the law as attorneys. Shakeups of even key court positions, while making for some longer work days, create opportunity for courts to dust off old routines and make sure they operate at peak efficiency, he said.

“Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to have change,” Black said. “To me, it’s an exciting time.”

LEARNING THE ROPES

The three new judges join two Presque Isle County judges installed in early 2019.

They have plenty of help, though, even if they have few experienced judges around from whom to seek guidance, said Aaron Gauthier, 53rd Circuit Court judge in Presque Isle and Cheboygan counties.

Appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2018 as two other judges in the county retired, Gauthier appreciated the help provided by the state to acquaint new judges with their new duties.

The Michigan Judicial Institute, a training arm of the State Court Administrative Office, prepares new judges, court administrators, probation officers, and other major players of the judicial system for their roles.

The state pairs new judges with experienced judges from counties near or resembling their own in a mentorship that lasts as long as the new judge needs it. New judges can visit mentors’ courtrooms, call or email, or even text from the bench, according to John Nevin, communications director for the State Court Administrative Office.

The state provides formal training on judicial topics such as evidence-based sentencing, courtroom and jury management, and how to move cases along efficiently.

New judges also learn judicial protocol, such as what organizations they can join, to what extent they can use social media, and how to become a successful leader in the courthouse and community, Nevin said.

The amount of administrative work required of a judge surprised Gauthier, who spent his first six months on the bench daily referencing online bench books that help judges know what to do.

“It’s not just show up, walk out wearing a robe, and get to make decisions on the fly,” Gauthier said.

REAL-LIFE TRAINING

Annually, the state provides a report detailing how quickly the judge resolves cases and other measures of efficiency.

In addition to voluminous reports and required paperwork, judges spend hours preparing for hearings, pouring over extensive pre-sentencing reports and other court records, researching cases decided elsewhere, and writing opinions.

“I think it’s exciting, but that’s because I’m a dork,” said Black.

Any attorney worth his or her salt should be able to step into a judgeship, he said. While the state offers helpful training and reams of books as resources for new judges, work as an attorney best prepare a judge for the job, Black said.

The new assortment of judges presiding in Northeast Michigan, while causing court staff some extra work for a time, will be neither better nor worse than the judges who came before, Greene said.

“It’s only going to be different, in the sense that we’re different people,” she said. “We might have a different outlook on things.”

Other recent changes in Alpena courts include the retirement of 88th District Court Administrator Mary Muszynski and probation officer Phil Kieliszewski, both after working for the court for more than four decades.

JUDICIAL TURNOVER

At least two Alpena attorneys — Muszynski, the county prosecutor, and Alpena County Family Division Referee Kim Schultz — told The News they submitted their name for consideration by the governor.

Whitmer’s office would not say how many people applied for the judgeship by the Aug. 20 deadline.

Whoever Whitmer picks will have to run for election in 2022 if they wish to continue in the position until the end of LaCross’s term in 2024.

If either Muszynski or Schultz get the appointment, Alpena County will then have to replace them.

Black took full command of the 26th Circuit Court in Alpena and Montmorency counties upon the retirement of Judge Benjamin Bolser, who presided over many Circuit Court cases after the 2019 forced departure of Judge Michael Mack, 26th Circuit judge since 2009.

Mack retired effective January 2020 after the Michigan Supreme Court removed him from the position of chief judge over Alpena and Montmorency counties and replaced him with Bolser, who was then Probate and District Court judge in Montmorency County. Bolser then suspended Mack from the court docket.

Mack is under investigation by the Michigan State Police for undisclosed reasons. Officials have refused to comment on the still-pending investigation.

In February 2020, Whitmer appointed Black, then Alpena County prosecutor, to fill the remainder of Mack’s term. Voters elected Black to the bench the following November.

Black and Bolser shared the 26th Circuit Court — Bolser handling cases considered a conflict of interest for Black because he had worked on them as prosecutor — until this spring, when Bolser retired.

That retirement left another vacant judgeship, this time in Montmorency County’s Probate Court.

Alpena attorney Lora Greene filled that void in May, appointed by Whitmer. If Greene desires to remain in office, she will have to run for election in November 2022.

Judges of Northeast Michigan

26th Circuit Court

Keith E. (Ed) Black

88th District Court

Thomas J. LaCross

Montmorency Probate Court

Lora E. Greene

23rd Circuit Court

David C. Riffel

81st District Court

Laura A. Frawley

53rd Circuit Court

Aaron J. Gauthier

89th District Court

Maria I. Barton

Presque Isle County Probate Court

Erik J. Stone

Source: Michigan State Court Administrative Office

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