Judge Wadel reflects on 18 years on the bench, 45-plus year law career.

December 16, 2020

79th District Court Judge Pete Wadel

Judge Wadel reflects on 18 years on the bench, 45-plus year law career.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Judge Peter Wadel has spent the past 18 years serving as the 79th District Court judge in Mason and Lake counties. He was first elected to the position in 2002 following the retirement of Judge John Carney. He then subsequently served two more six-year terms. Because the Michigan Constitution requires a judge to retire at the age of 70 (unless the judge is elected prior to the 70th birthday), Wadel was unable to run for re-election. 

John Middlebrook, who currently serves in the Mason County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, was recently elected as the next district court judge. He will be sworn in prior to the end of the year. 

Wadel is a 1965 graduate of St. Simon High School in Ludington. He then received a bachelor’s degree in 1969 from Notre Dame University and a law degree from Notre Dame in 1973. He said he initially began his college career taking pre-med classes. “Chemistry and I didn’t agree,” he said. “I moved on to accounting and didn’t like that. I ended up with a degree in psychology.”

Wadel became a juvenile probation officer in the South Bend, Ind. area, knowing that it was likely he was going to get drafted into the military to serve in Vietnam. 

“Working in the probation office opened my eyes. I had a first hand observation of attorneys and the courts and it gave me an inclining that I could do this,” Wadel said. He applied for law school and was admitted to University of Michigan and Notre Dame. He chose to stick with Notre Dame. 

Wadel applied for a draft deferment but it was denied by the draft board. His name was put in the draft lottery for the following year — his lottery number wasn’t selected and he avoided the draft. 

Following law school he planned to return to Ludington to practice law. But, those plans fell through. Wadel then had the opportunity work for the Michigan Senate Labor Committee under the request of State Sen. Oscar Bouwsma (R, Muskegon), who was the chairman committee. Wadel served as council and helped oversee the creation of the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was adopted in 1974. He then worked for the Michigan Department of Labor. 

Judge Wadel listens to Ludington Police Officer Tony Kuster testify in a probable cause hearing in the Baby Kate case.

Following his tenure there, he wanted to practice law. Wadel transitioned back to Ludington where he opened a practice with his brother-in-law, Jack Bulger. There, he worked for 10 years before Gov. John Engler’s office asked him to return to Lansing where he worked on the privatization of the state’s accident fund. Following that role, he transitioned into working for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. 

When Judge John Carney announced his retirement in 2002, Wadel chose to run for office and return home to Mason County. Wadel defeated opponent Terry Shaw in a close election, 7,602 to 7,338, with just over 50 percent of the vote. 

Wadel said he hopes that he has been able to help people while he has served as a judge.

“The most rewarding part of being a judge is being able to provide certainty in the lives of the people who come before me,” he said. “The decision I make is not necessarily the decision they want — some are pleased with it and some are unhappy with it and sometimes both are happy or unhappy, but we live in a civilized society and once a judge makes a decision in a court of law, those people can move on.” 

Wadel said the speediness of the courts has greatly improved over the years. 

“There was a time when a matter, especially a criminal matter, could take 18 months or a year to resolve. Now, it’s typically under 180 days. While those going through the courts today may not appreciate this improvement, I certainly have seen things get done much faster.” 

Wadel said technology has played an important role in making the courts more efficient. His court was one of the first to adapt teleconferencing, which allows defendants and their attorneys to be in another location. This system has saved the courts (and the taxpayers) a lot of money. 

“It used to be a defendant who was in a state prison would have to be transported up here for a hearing,” Wadel said. “This required two guards and was a day-long process. Now, that defendant can be in a room with his/her attorney at the prison and confer with the court remotely.” 

Arraignments are typically handled via teleconferencing, saving the Mason County Sheriff’s Office from driving defendants back and forth to the courthouse throughout the day. 

Recording keeping has improved as well over the last 18 years. Court records are now stored electronically with less risks of those records getting lost. Those records are also more accessible to the public as well. 

The recent pandemic has actually also pushed the courts to handle more cases online. While some cases cannot be handled online, due to the state’s constitution, many can. Most 79th District Court hearings are handled by Zoom and are accessible to the public on the court’s YouTube channel. Wadel said he anticipates that this practice will continue. 

Technology does have its challenges, however, especially in a rural area. Wadel said there have many several instances in the past several months where the defendant’s Internet connection was not able to keep up with the streaming, making the process inefficient. 

Wadel said one area that has not seen major improvements in the local courts is security. 

“Mason County lags behind in security compared to almost every other court in the state,” Wadel said. “I realize that there are some economic issues with that, but I would really like to see the county commission address this concern. It will only take one major event to put the safety of those at the courthouse at risk. The pandemic has proven that the courthouse can operate with one point of entry and security, as a security guard has been hired to screen people as they come in.” 

Wadel did add that he believes the Mason County Board of Commissioners and County Administrator Fabian Knizacky have done a great job in keeping the county in a good financial status. 

“In 2008 many courts across the state were making major cutbacks, due to reduction in income,” Wadel said. “Mason County’s courts were able to keep going with no major changes and this is thanks to the financial state of our county due to the county commission and Mr. Knizacky.” 

Wadel said, if allowed, he will continue to serve as a visiting judge, which is allowed by the state constitution. 

Wadel also praised his staff over the past 18 years for their dedication and professionalism. 

The district court judge is elected for a six year term. 

In Michigan, the district court handles most traffic violations, civil disputes seeking money damages up to $25,000, landlord-tenant disputes and criminal cases in which the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor that is punishable by not more than one-year imprisonment. 

The district court judge may appoint magistrates, who set bail and accept bonds in criminal matters, accept guilty pleas, impose sentences for dog, game, traffic, motor carrier, snowmobile and boat law violations. The magistrate may also issue arrest and search warrants. Attorney magistrates may also hear small claims cases or perform other duties described in the statute, as directed by the chief judge. Mason County has an attorney magistrate.

A person 17-years-old or older, who is charged with a crime will begin his or her case with an appearance before a district court judge. In an appearance, the district court will explain the charges to the defendant along with his or her rights, and the possible consequences if convicted of the charge. The court also determines the amount and conditions of bail and collects it if the defendant is able to post a bond.

If a 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 he or she is 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. Mason County is covered by the 51st Circuit Court under the judgeship of Susan Sniegowski.

District courts also contain a small claims division which handles civil cases up to $5,500. For these cases, the parties must agree to waive their right to a jury, representation by a lawyer, rules of evidence and to appeal the decision of the district judge. If the parties do not agree to these terms, the case is heard in the district court’s general civil division.

In Michigan, there are 105 district courts. The courts were established under Act 236 of 1961, which consolidated several courts of limited jurisdictions, such as traffic courts and municipal courts. 

The 79th District Court was set to be terminated at the end of this year, coinciding with Judge Wadel’s retirement. Public Act 82 of 2020, which originated as Senate Bill 754, sponsored by Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington), restored the court. 

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