Judge Cooper discusses role of 51st Circuit Court.

November 1, 2014
Judge Richard Cooper

Judge Richard Cooper

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief.

For the first time in 36 years the 51st Circuit Court will have a new judge, beginning January 2015. Since 1979, that court has been ruled over by the Honorable Judge Richard Cooper. Cooper’s term expires at the end of this year and, by law, he must retire based on his age.

Mason County has three courts: Probate/family (Judge Jeff Nellis), 79th District Court (Judge Pete Wadel) and 51st Circuit Court (Judge Richard Cooper). However, by decree of the legislature, the district court will be eliminated when Judge Wadel retires and then the duties of that court will be divided among the other two Mason County courts.

The circuit court is defined as the trial court with the broadest powers in Michigan. In general, the circuit court handles all civil cases with claims of more than $25,000 and all felony criminal cases (cases where the accused, if found guilty, could be sent to prison).

The family division of circuit court handles all cases regarding divorce, paternity, adoptions, personal protection actions, emancipation of minors, treatment and testing of infectious disease, safe delivery of newborns, name changes, juvenile offenses and delinquency, juvenile guardianship, and child abuse and neglect. In addition, the circuit court hears cases appealed from the other trial courts or from administrative agencies.  The friend of the court office is part of the family division of the circuit court and handles domestic relations cases where minor children are involved.

Judge Cooper said about a third of the 51st Circuit Court’s activity is divorce. “Divorce cases have a life of their own,” he said. “Percentage-wise, 95 percent of divorced parents do pretty good and cooperate with each other with the best interest of the kids, even if those parents have no interest in each other. In about 5%, the anger of the divorce itself doesn’t go away over time.”

Though the 51st Circuit Court covers both Mason and Lake counties, it’s roles in those two counties are different.

During Gov. John Engler’s administration, Lake County’s court system was made into a trial court system, where the probate court judge oversees all cases, including criminal matters at all levels.

The circuit court, for lack of a better term, compliments the trial court in Lake County.

Most people are familiar with the circuit court handling criminal cases involving felonies — offenses when the consequence can be over one year incarceration. In Mason County, the 79th District Court handles lesser crimes, such as civil infractions and misdemeanors. Those areas are handled by the trial court in Lake County, along with the felonies.

Lesser known about circuit court is that it handles some unique areas of the law.

Boundary disputes are actually common place, Cooper said. “This is when property owners are fighting over their property lines. It’s a non-jury judgement,” Cooper said, adding the disputes often can be traced to the late 19th century when land was surveyed by a variety of different types of surveyors.

“When the original government surveyors went through this area, say in the 1870s, they had a huge amount of work to do,” Cooper said. “Their equipment was very basic compared to the lasers that we have now. The fact that they did as well as they did is worth mentioning. But it has caused some conflict through the years.”

Circuit court also mandates inland lake levels. “This is a fun one,” Cooper said. The judge must weigh many factors when deciding a lake level, he said. Some property owners may be in flood areas while others may be in high areas. The judge can regulate the creation of lake boards and decide on cases that involve weed control. Cooper used the example of Bass Lake in Summit Township, where some residents did not want chemical weed control to be used. Ultimately he ruled for the use, reluctantly, he added.

The circuit court also oversees cases that involve government agencies. Most often in this area, the Department of Natural Resources is often a subject of court cases. Cooper said these cases may involve wetlands or sand dunes and property owners. The wind towers in Riverton and Summit townships have been the most recent subjects of court cases involving regulatory agencies.

One of the areas that occupy a lot of the circuit court’s time, actually a lot of time with all three Mason County courts (because jurisdiction is alternated between the three judges annually) are personal protection orders.

“These have been a ton of work” Cooper said. “More than I think anybody expected. The original idea was that there are certain people who need protection against others. This is in cases especially when someone, often a woman, may be stalked by someone else or has been physically threatened.”

Cooper said the problem is that PPOs are often misused and overused.

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, voters in Mason and Lake counties will vote for a new circuit judge, who will begin on Jan. 1, 2015. The choice in candidates are Paul Spaniola and Susan Sniegowski.