Once again, a Detroit court is in trouble. And once again, the state Supreme Court has had to send in managerial reinforcements to help get the court back on track.
It has happened before. It is non-partisan occurrence.
The 36th District Court – which hears arraignments, misdemeanors, and small claims – is under the supervision of Court of Appeals Judge Mike Talbot, assigned by the state justices to help the local court. The district court is $4.5 million over budget and has been slammed by a review team from the National Center for State Courts.
In the 1970s, a Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court sent a retired appellate court judge, T. John Lesinski, to oversee the old Detroit Recorder’s Court, the city’s felony trial court (the court was later merged with Wayne Circuit Court). At the time, the Recorder’s Court had a huge backlog of cases. A crash program was instituted to get criminal cases heard in a timely way. For this to happen, a lot of feathers had to be ruffled. Lesinski butted heads with Geraldine Bledsoe Ford, a much-beloved local jurist and pioneer on the bench, but who was slow in moving her cases.
The late Thomas Giles Kavanagh, the chief justice at the time, said in a 1990 interview for the state Supreme Court Historical Society that Lesinski was appointed because “for years, there had been complaints . . . about the way Detroit Recorder’s Court was being run, that judges were not attending to business. They were goofing off, and it was just a bad situation.”
(Kavanagh first ran for the court as a Democrat, but a reapportionment ruling made state Democrats so angry that he had to run as an independent for reelection, which he won.)
Ultimately, the judges of the Recorder’s Court responded to the criticism, Kavanagh noted, adopted better procedures and it became a much more efficient court.
Kavanagh’s pithy analysis of Detroit Recorder’s Court sounds a lot like the National Center for State Courts criticism of the deficit culture of the 36th District Court. The center’s review team said the “reluctance to embrace the crisis situation in which the court finds itself is disturbing. It evidences a complacent attitude among court leaders; an unwillingness to act boldly to address and share their portion of the financial predicament of” Detroit, which provides most of the funds for the court.
The review team’s report said the court appears to be “overstaffed and not as efficient as other comparable court systems.” Newark’s comparable court has about half the caseload, but handles it with just one-third of the staff and number of judges – not least because it effectively uses computers to cut down on paperwork and make it easier for citizens to pay traffic tickets online, the report noted.
Talbot is playing it smart. He’s not looking to pick any fights. In a statement issued by the Supreme Court, he’s quoted as saying he wants to work with the judges and staff of the district court. Chief District Judge Kenneth King has also made conciliatory comments to the local media.
If we are lucky, Talbot’s temporary stewardship of the court will work out as well as Lesinski’s tenure at Detroit Recorder’s Court.