Senate approves bill that would keep 79th District Court open.

March 13, 2020

Judge Pete Wadel is the current District Court judge and will be retiring in December.

Senate approves bill that would keep 79th District Court open.

LANSING — The Michigan Senate on Thursday, March 12, unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) that would restore Mason County’s 79th District Court, which is slated for elimination.

 Senate Bill 754 would reverse the decision in the 2018 Judicial Resources Recommendations (JRR) report to eliminate the 79th District Court effective upon the retirement of Judge Peter Wadel on Dec. 31 of this year.

 “This JRR recommendation would affect both the courts and residents seeking justice,” said VanderWall, who represents the Michigan 35th Senate District. “If the 79th District Court is eliminated, there will only be two remaining judges in Mason County. That is insufficient for the caseload and will harm the courts’ ability to maintain the county’s current high level of services for constituents.”

 Mason County Probate Judge Jeff Nellis, one of the two judges that would remain if the district court were eliminated, stressed the importance of keeping the court. The other remaining judge would be 51st Circuit Court Judge Susan Sniegowski.

According to the Michigan Judicial Branch’s website, the district court is often called the people’s court. More people have contact with the district court than any other court. The district court handles most traffic violations, all civil cases with claims up to $25,000, landlord-tenant matters, most traffic tickets, and all misdemeanor criminal cases (generally, cases where the accused, if found guilty, cannot be sentenced to more than one year in jail). In addition, small claims cases are heard by a division of the district court.

All criminal cases, for persons 17 years or older, begin in the district court. The district court explains to the defendant the charges, his or her rights, and the possible consequences if convicted of the charge. The court also determines the bail amount and collects bail. If the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor that is punishable by not more than one year in jail, the district court will conduct a trial and sentence the defendant if found guilty. In felony cases (generally, cases that are punishable by more than one year in prison) the district court will set the bail amount and hold a preliminary examination to determine if a crime was committed and if there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the crime. If so, the case is transferred to the circuit court for trial.

  There are 105 district courts in Michigan. District court judges are elected for six-year terms.

“We believe that retaining this judgeship will directly benefit our constituents,” Nellis said. “We will be able to maintain the high level of service and timely case processing that we currently provide, while retaining the time and judicial resources required to facilitate truly deliberative decision-making.”

 VanderWall said there are other ramifications to the proposed change.

 “Given the on-the-record time requirements, the reduction to two judges would make it nearly impossible to create and implement drug and specialty courts,” he said. “And it would result in a loss of subject matter specialization, end the courts’ ability to assist other jurisdictions and necessitate staffing increases.”

  SB 754 now heads to the Michigan House of Representatives for further consideration.

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