Following August’s five-way primary, two judges remain in contest for the Washtenaw County Probate Court judicial seat in the Nov. 4 election: incumbent Julia Owdziej and Tracy Van den Bergh.
Owdziej was appointed to her current seat as Probate Court judge by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last June after the retirement of Nancy Wheeler, the former Washtenaw County probate judge. Owdziej and Van den Bergh received the most votes out of the five primary candidates, with 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
Owdziej has served for nearly 15 years as a juvenile court referee, a position that handles juvenile abuse and neglect cases. She led Van den Bergh by three percentage points in the primary, and has continually emphasized that experience is key in this election.
“Just the fact that I have now almost a 15-year record of already being on the bench, already making decisions, as opposed to someone who’s been an attorney not quite eight years yet, is just a huge difference,” she said.
Owdziej graduated from Detroit College of Law and said her experience thus far as probate judge has been both rewarding and trying, as she works to reorganize and embrace the heavily family law-centered docket.
“I was pleased with the (election) results,” Owdziej said. “The other three folks who didn’t make it through have significant probate and general law experience.”
Van den Bergh’s background includes experience in social work and she currently works as an attorney with Legal Services of South Central Michigan. A graduate of the Michigan State University College of Law, she practices as an attorney with a focus in family law and works with mental illness cases.
Van den Bergh, who has been endorsed by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, said though this is a non-partisan seat, she hopes to make decisions fairly and with her personal values in mind.
“I really consider myself the progressive in this case,” she said. “Personally, I’m a Democrat and so I support Democratic ideals.”
While other candidates running identified themselves as progressive, Van den Bergh is hopeful that in this narrowed-down election, those Democratic votes will shift her way. Endorsement support has been strong from Ann Arbor, where she has garnered the support of Democratic mayoral nominee Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) as well as other City Council members such as Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) and Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5).
“I may not have the length of experience, and if you look at my endorsement list, you’ll see i have been endorsed by attorneys who have been practicing for decades. Julia has not tried a case or represented a client in twenty years. Honestly, I think having a fresh perspective having so much experience in social work and in practicing law.”
There will be two upcoming forums prior to the general election on Oct. 8 and Oct. 15.