Judge Raven: Reflections of the past 18 years

November 1, 2012

Judge Raven listens to testimony

Story and photos by Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

This story first ran two weeks ago. However, because of the importance of the upcoming Probate Judge race, we felt it should run again. The story is not only about Judge Raven’s retirement but also about how Mason County Probate Court operates.

LUDINGTON – In 1994, attorney Mark Raven squared off against popular Mason County Prosecutor Cris Van Oostrum for the county’s probate judge seat. Raven won the election and has served as judge since. With the exception of that first race, no one has challenged him for the seat.

Earlier this year Judge Raven announced that he is stepping down at the end of the current term, which expires Dec. 31. He says it’s time to move on, though he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be doing in his retirement.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide who will be the next judge: Jeff Nellis or Nick Krieger. I thought it would be informative to talk to the current judge about what the probate court’s role and what it takes to do the job. So, I called up Judge Raven asked if I could tag along for an afternoon.

 

Probate Court is located on the main floor of the historic Mason County Courthouse. Judge Raven greeted me and welcomed me into his office. We started the conversation talking about one of his favorite topics, Michigan State. We then transitioned into talking about our alma mater high school, Mason County Central. Soon we were heading to a hearing.

I followed the judge down the narrow staircase leading into the basement of the courthouse. There is a small room with a court bench, stenographer’s station, two tables and some chairs. It’s a very cozy room, to say the least.

“If we get larger cases then we’ll go upstairs to the main courtroom or commissioner’s chambers,” Raven says. “But, this is typically where our hearings are called.”

When Raven became probate judge, the family court division of the office was started. Non-criminal family and juvenile matters are handled by Judge Raven’s court. Criminal matters are typically overseen by Judge Richard Cooper in Circuit Court.

The first hearing I observed was a protective procedure involving two teens who have been taken out of their mother’s home and placed in foster care.

The cases involve several parties, an attorney representing the Michigan Department of Human Services (the Mason County Prosecutor’s Office), an attorney representing the children and also an attorney to representing the mother. Social workers are also involved.

This particular hearing was a state mandated 90 day update on the case.

Ultimately Raven ruled the children should stay where they are.

Judge Raven heads back to his office

The next case was even more complex. It involved a mother, who is in jail for shoplifting, and the placement of her infant child. The father, who is not married to the mother, was also at the hearing but is not seeking custody of the baby. Instead, the mother’s parents currently have custody of the baby.

The cases are heart-wrenching and takes objectivity on all sides and especially from the bench. Later, the judge and I talk about this.

“This is a very serious juncture in the proceedings,” Raven says. “One of the most fundamental rights people have is the care, control and custody of their children. “It’s not unusual for parents who are in this predicament to voluntarily relinquish their rights because they recognize the circumstances and they realize they can’t appropriately provide for their children. I will ask them in the release hearing if they feel this is their own will and it is a thought out decision. They usually do say something like it’s in their child’s best interest.

“You feel bad when a parent has to say that. You have to admire them for facing up to it. It is not pleasant when the situation calls for it and I as the judge do what I have to do.”

While probate court handles a lot of family cases, it also deals with matters of property and wills.

Raven says the past 18 years have gone by fast. He credits his staff for much of the work that is done in the office.

“I have been so fortunate to have effective, pleasant people to work with. They are good people. The office staff, probation officers, case managers, attorneys, they are inventive and insightful professionals. I just can’t say enough about them. I have all the faith in the world for them and I will miss them all.”

Mark Raven is 60-years-old. He grew up in Scottville and is a 1970 graduate of Mason County Central High School.

He and his wife, Taryn, have three adult sons.

His dad, Dean, was the Michigan State Cooperative Extension Officer in Mason County for over 30 years, coming to the area in the mid-1950s. Dean Raven also was a founding trustee of West Shore Community College and served as a county commissioner, along as county commission chairman, for many years. A picture of Mark’s dad hangs on his office wall.

He said he admires his parents for instilling the values that he has.

Judge Raven is a graduate of West Shore Community College, Michigan State University and MSU’s Cooley Law School. After law school he moved away to Virginia where he practiced law there. He then moved back to the area and became Lake County prosecutor. After serving that term for four years Mark started his own practice in Walhalla. He also served as Scottville city attorney for many years. Running for judge was a new challenge for him.

“I saw it as an opportunity to experience a different side of the law,” he says. “Rather than being an advocate for one side I thought it would be a nice change of pace to become neutral and exercise my legal education in a different fashion.

“It was a career change that just added a different variety and spice into my working life.

“I have really enjoyed it. It’s been a great challenge and I am very happy that I decided to run. I am very honored to have served and I think it’s made it even more special because I’ve served in my hometown.”

Growing up in a rural community, Raven learned work ethic, which he says prepared him for his role as judge.

“In preparing for anything it’s important that all of us have varied experiences,” he says. “Mine were an accumulation of information and experiences throughout my life. In high school I worked summers on farms, picking cherries, bailing hay, pruning Christmas trees. I worked as a bank teller and delivered newspapers.

“Those early experiences are the types of habits that we learn and they mold us into who we are as adults.

A picture of the judge's dad, Dean Raven, hangs in his office

“Regarding my career as a lawyer, I believe my varied experiences there also helped shape me into the judge I am. When in private practice you learn to deal with people and ask the right questions. You learn how to run a business. Those things prepare you for when you have to cross examine someone in a court case.

“Being involved in hands-on courtroom experiences is indispensable for a judge,” Raven says. “It’s important to remember that just because someone claims they know the baseball rule book from cover to cover doesn’t mean they can play baseball.

“Judges need to exercise common sense. Judges have a great deal of discretion and can have enormous power and authority. It needs to be used cautiously. The decisions we make can often times be very long lasting. Non of us are perfect and a judge needs to be mindful of that.

“A judge needs to understand people’s shortcomings. We all have them. Plus, you can’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t get upset with people, whether it’s lawyers of citizens, when something happens and it’s not done maliciously, such as someone who is late for a hearing. Things happen. If it’s a constant thing, then that’s different. When you are working with people in the probate court you have to roll with the punches.”

Raven says a judge must also be a good listener. He relies on the advise of the other 102 probate judges, along with Mason County’s other two judges. “We ask each other questions. I have done it from day one and I still do it today.”

In the past 18 years, Raven says one of the most important changes he’s noticed is the increase of behavioral issues with children.

“The mental health component has changed,” he says. “Eighteen years ago I really didn’t see or hear about as many mental health related issues with children as we deal with now. I don’t really know why it’s changed. I think some of it is inadequate parenting. With that said, I don’t want people to think that all problems with children are the parent’s fault, but kids who are habitually getting into trouble or have serious behavioral issues typically are usually a result of inadequate parenting.”

The most important thing being a probate/family court judge has taught Raven: That for the most part kids are pretty good.

“Sometimes it’s lost in the mix that we have a tremendous amount of well behaved and bright kids in this county,” he says. “These kids have made great achievements in academics, athletics, music, art and drama.”

As we end our conversation, we head back into the hearing room. This time, the hearing is an emergency removal of a 3-year-old who has been allegedly beaten severely by his mother’s boyfriend. The boy was hit so hard that he had to be taken to a children’s hospital in Grand Rapids.

Because the mother was also allegedly involved with the abuse, Child Protective Services have recommended she only have supervised visits with him. The child is placed in his paternal grandmother’s home because the father is unable to care for him.

Judge Raven and the case workers and attorneys handle the case professionally, treating the mother and father both with dignity and respect in this delicate matter. The CPS worker explains the facts as he saw them. Because the mother requested to be represented by an attorney, she does not testify at this time. The hearing is adjourned until her attorney can represent her.

It’s the end of another day in Mason County Probate Court.

 

 

 

 

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