Shannon Has Good Chance To Win Election, But Will He Be Seated as Judge?
Patrick Shannon of Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island has mounted a campaign to become the next Chippewa County Probate Court Judge, but winning the election won’t be enough to seat him on the bench. That’s because the state has ruled that the probate judgeship in that county will be eliminated in September, with the retirement of Judge Lowell Ulrich. According to the state, Mr. Shannon is essentially running for a post that no longer exists, while Mr. Shannon contends that he won’t stand for this move by the state, which he says deprives Eastern Upper Peninsula residents of needed court services. He intends to challenge the state’s decision after the election.
“Ideally,” Mr. Shannon said Monday, July 30, “I get enough votes to win the election, and then the fight’s on, either legally or politically.”
He is unopposed in the August 7 Primary, and listed as his opposition on the November 6 General Election ballot is the now-retiring Judge Ulrich. When Mr. Shannon filed as a candidate, Mr. Ulrich was a viable candidate, but has since decided to vacate the post September 30.
According to the state, Chippewa County has been overstaffed by one judge for years, and the retirement of Judge Ulrich opens the door to eliminating one position. The State Court Administrative Office studies the need for judges every two years, called a Judicial Need Analysis, and Marcia McBrien of that office said that, for six years, the analysis shows there is one more judge than is truly needed, based on case loads.
“Our position is that, as soon as Mr. Ulrich retires, there will be no seat for [Mr. Shannon] to run for,” Ms. McBrien told The St. Ignace News.
On the recommendation of the State Court Administrative Office, the state legislature made the elimination of the Chippewa County Probate Court judgeship official and in the form of state law. The move was announced to Chippewa County.
From the State Court Administrative Office, Chad Schmucker advised Chippewa County Administrator James German of the upcoming consolidation of the duties of probate judge with the duties of district court, upon Mr. Ulrich’s departure. In his letter to Chippewa County May 7, Mr. Schmucker doesn’t appear to leave any opening for rescinding the move. He wrote, “The Act does not give the Governor the option to appoint anyone to the position. There is also no language in the Act that allows the position to continue if an election is already in progress…Ballots for the November election are usually printed before the end of September so I presume there will still be an election in November. However, based on my reading of the statute, if Judge Ulrich resigns in September, regardless of who wins in November, the position will no longer exist.”
The Judicial Need Analysis shows case numbers dropping in Chippewa County, said M s . McBrien. “That’s the reason for the determination.”
In 2003, she points out, case filings totaled 9,514 in circuit, district, and probate courts combined, and by 2010, that number dropped by more than 1,500, to 7,949. Categories of cases shifted, too, with a small spike in criminal cases but “a significant drop” in civil and family court cases.
“To give you a little background, in the past, from 1989 to 2009, the legislature has been very reluctant to eliminate judgeships,” Ms. McBrien said, even at the recommendation of her office and even as the state’s population has declined. In 2011, her office recommended eliminating 45 trial-level judgeships, she said, to bring numbers to the levels they should have been adjusted to gradually over the past 20 years. If all 45 were eliminated, it would save the state $7,086,195, or an average of about $157,471 per judge.
Mr. Shannon’s position is that some of those judgeships slated for cuts were ultimately politically protected from the chopping block, and the Eastern U.P. isn’t in a position of political power, compared to courts downstate.
“It’s a U.P. versus an L.P. issue,” he said.
Further, he said, the State Court Administrative Office relied on faulty numbers in its analysis, because Judge Ulrich did not involve himself in cases of divorce for families with children, pushing those cases through circuit court and skewing the numbers of cases going through probate court.
Mr. Shannon does not yet have accurate numbers on hand, though, he said. He intends to research that further after the Primary election. He knows from experience, he says, that there is ample work in Chippewa County for a family court judge. Probate deals with abuse and neglect cases, all family court matters involving children, juvenile delinquency, and estate and property matters.
“Family court was always a very busy part of my workload as prosecutor,” he said. “We have two tribal courts in Chippewa County and five prisons. And these court changes will effect Chippewa, Mackinac, and Luce counties, because families migrate between communities.”
As for the position of the State Court Administrative Office that the judgeship does not exist past September 30, “All that is, is their opinion,” Mr. Shannon asserts, “the opinion of a bureaucracy. Yes, it is signed into law. It’s a legal question whether that legislation will stand. The easiest way to do this would be a legislative fix, but that’s not going to happen.”
In Mr. Shannon’s view, it’s a moral question, too. Since Probate
Court protects the most vulnerable citizens, such as children, the elderly, mentally ill, and abused families, he finds it irresponsible of the state to eliminate a probate judge and funnel those cases through the district court judge instead.
“I’m angered by this and I consider it a moral issue,” Mr. Shannon said. “I’m not doing this for me. It’s shocking how little the people in Lansing think of the people in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. We didn’t get a say on this in the Eastern U.P., no one asked court workers or social workers. This is an access to justice issue, and our families are not going to get justice. Kids and the mentally ill don’t vote. It’s a disenfranchisement of the voters. How can they measure services to abused children? How can bean counters measure that?”
If the judgeship elimination stands, cases of the court will fall under the jurisdiction of Judge Elizabeth Church in 91st District Court, where staffing won’t change but “it’s a matter of our judge taking on additional duties,” said Court Administrator Ann Mikolowski Monday. “The probate judge has retired, leaving a vacancy they don’t want to fill. The state is trying to consolidate by making the district judge the district/ probate judge. She will have to absorb the workload.”
Still being determined between the judges of district and circuit courts are whether and how some of the probate or family court duties can be shared by those courts, Ms. Mikolowski said, and meetings on the matter are planned this week. The Circuit Court judge, Nicholas Lambros, will retire at the end of the year, to be replaced by James Lambros in January 2013. They will have a say in whether Circuit Court picks up some of the probate duties.
Mr. Shannon’s campaign and the election, already in the works when Mr. Ulrich announced his retirement, along with Mr. Shannon’s challenge to the state, won’t cost the taxpayers money, Mr. Shannon said.
“My wife and I are doing this ourselves,” he said. “It’s pretty important to us.”
“The state used immediateeffect legislation to push this through,” he continued. “I don’t think people in the Eastern U.P. will lie down and take it once they know what Lansing has done.”
Mr. Shannon has served as Chief Judge of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Court, Chippewa County Prosecuting Attorney for five terms, and assistant superintendent of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Schools. He has a business degree from Central Michigan University, a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan, a law degree from the University of Detroit, and a doctorate in education administration from Central Michigan University.
During his terms as prosecutor, he developed several programs, including crime victims and witness program, Straits Area Narcotics Enforcement, a child abuse and neglect protocol, and an elder abuse protocol. As the prosecutor, he served as president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, was appointed a Special Assistant United States Attorney for violent crimes on Indian lands, and attended the Federal Bureau of Investigation Institute. He also served as a tribal prosecuting attorney. Previously, he was appointed Chief Judge of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan and completed judges training provided by the State Court Administrative Office. Currently, he is the director of Charter Schools for Bay Mills Community College and is responsible for the oversight of 44 public charter schools located throughout Michigan.
He served in the United States Coast Guard Reserve and was honorably discharged in 1994. He has served on various boards, including as chair of the Michigan Community Dental Clinics and currently as vice-chair of Mackinac Straits Health System. He owns a home on Mackinac Island.
Chippewa County voters will go to the polls for the Primary election Tuesday, August 7. The General Election is Tuesday, November 6.