On Monday afternoon, the Genesee County Jail hosted a hybrid forum in Flint, Mich. for six candidates campaigning for the Michigan Supreme Court, Appeals Court and the 7th Circuit Court of Genesee County. The event was hosted by Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson, Genesee County Ambassadors, Nation Outside and Voting Access for All Coalition (VAAC). 

The VAAC is an organization aiming to help Michigan residents learn about their right to vote. This forum was also part of the Genesee County Jail’s Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally through Education (IGNITE) program that is designed to provide high school level education and post-incarceration work opportunities for incarcerated individuals. Before officially starting the forum, Swanson talked about the importance of the forum to the upcoming elections and to IGNITE’s voter education section.

“We want people to understand who they’re voting for, who they want to represent them,” Swanson said. “We’re here to educate people, and those of you watching online I encourage you to educate yourself to watch the candidates and how they respond to the questions because these are the people that are going to represent you.”

The forum began with introductions for the candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court present at the forum. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the state and consists of seven judges. The first speakers were Justice Richard Bernstein and attorney Kyra Harris Bolden. Bernstein is seeking reelection in the Nov. 8 election. He emphasized how an individual’s background and experiences with challenges are important to take into account when reviewing a case. 

“It’s ultimately through our life experiences that we come to understand struggling, to understand hardship,” Bernstein said. “Ultimately, it is only those judges who truly understand what it means to face, understand and appreciate what it means to struggle (and) that have an empathy … to those who come before them.” 

Bolden echoed Bernstein, reminding voters that the decisions of the Michigan Supreme Court will set judicial precedents in the state for years to come. She encouraged voters to choose people they trust to make judgements that will impact voters both today and in the future.

“The Michigan Supreme Court doesn’t just affect people in this room today, it will affect generations to come,” Bolden said. 

The forum then moved on to speak with several candidates for the Michigan Court of Appeals, the state’s intermediate appellate court which hears cases between trial courts before they arrive at the Michigan Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals is divided into four regional districts and voters will have the opportunity to elect new members this November. Sima Patel, who was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February, an incumbent candidate for the Second District Court of Appeals, was present at the event and is the first woman of Indian descent to be a judge for the Michigan Court of Appeals. Patel said having diverse perspectives on the bench is integral for the court be representative of its constituents. 

“I am the first Indian woman to ever sit on the Michigan Court of Appeals, I am one of a couple of judges who have ever had a civil rights experience,” Patel said. “I believe that no matter who you are, what your walk of life is, you deserve to have access to justice.”

The next speaker was Michael Warren, a judge in the Michigan Sixth Circuit Court and a sponsor and initial judge of the Oakland Circuit Court’s Data Management System in 2004. Warren referenced the ideology of the Declaration of Independence and its emphasis on the rights of the people. He said it is crucial for people to vote and decide on who will be part of the Court of Appeals this coming election.

“The ability to vote is the ability to change or alter the government if you don’t like it,” Warren said. 

The final speakers were candidates for the Seventh Circuit Court of Genesee County, which is a division of the state judiciary that is divided into the Civil-Criminal Division and the Family Division. Mary Hood, a circuit court referee attorney, said her background of becoming a mother at 18 and being the only African American lawyer on the court has shaped her career.

“What I find most important about my life (for) my career is my life experience,” Hood said. “I use my life experience, not just the knowledge that I’ve learned over the years and the law, to make good decisions.” 

Dawn Weier, an attorney at her own firm, was the last speaker to introduce herself. Weier gave an anecdote on one of her cases about a man who was charged with voluntary manslaughter and had served time in prison for five years after being charged with a felony firearm. Weier stated she verified multiple subpoenas and eventually was able to keep the man out of the county jail. She noted that she has worked hard as a criminal defense attorney and defended those who cannot afford lawyers. 

“Some people say ‘Oh court-appointed lawyers, they’re not very good or they don’t try hard,’” Weier said. “But some of my best resolutions have been for my court-appointed clients.” 

After each candidate gave their speech, the candidates participated in a Q&A section. Questions covered the main duties and goals of the Supreme Court and the process of having faster trials. Bolden said the main judicial duty is to make sure people have their voices heard by the Court. 

“I think it’s incredibly important to have access to justice and make sure that people feel seen and heard for the uniqueness of their case,” Bolden said. 

Meanwhile, in response to a question about having “speedy” trials, Bernstein said the court needs to move from operating virtually to operating in person.

“The accommodation is becoming in person and that’s backwards. We can’t do that,” Bernstein said. “In-person must be how we do as many things as possible, and the accommodation should be Zoom.” 

In response to a question related to the importance of the Court of Appeals, candidate Warren quoted the second phrase of the Constitution, specifically saying that the job of the court is to ensure justice. He also mentioned how members of the court should be well versed in the laws pertaining to Michigan.

“So many of our rights are defined by the Court of Appeals,” Warren said. “So it’s really important to have knowledgeable and experienced people there.” 

The final question for the Appeals Court candidates dealt with why they believe voters should elect them for the position. Patel said she believes her experience as a judge in the Michigan Second District Court of Appeals and as a civil rights attorney make her a good candidate. She also mentioned how her job is not to be divisive. 

“We are not partisan for a reason, because we’re not there to advocate for any policy,” Patel said. “We are there to advocate for people and to advocate for what the law and justice requires.” 

Questions for the Circuit Court candidates focused on what cases they believe should be tackled immediately and how judges can be more involved in providing community resources for families. Both candidates agreed on the importance of community involvement. Meanwhile, candidates also agreed that backlogs of cases were an issue that should be tackled first, particularly given the repercussions of the pandemic.

“We had cases that just weren’t being heard for the longest time, and now we’re getting back on track,” Weier said. 

The candidates were once again asked why they believe Michigan residents should vote for them. Hood explained how her experience growing up in Flint is an important part of her background and pointed to the lack of Black representation in the court.

“We do not have an African American judge in our family division,” Hood said. “We only have one African American judge on our circuit court, and she’s got to age out in two years.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Ji Hoon Choi can be reached at jicho@umich.edu.