IONIA — The multiple courts of Ionia and Montcalm counties are about to be consolidated underneath one chief judge.
Ionia County’s 64A District Court Judge Raymond Voet was recently appointed chief judge of circuit, district and probate courts in Ionia and Montcalm counties. His new appointment will take effect Jan. 1.
Voet’s appointment is part of an ongoing trend by the Michigan Supreme Court to appoint one chief judge to oversee multiple trial courts with the goal of improved public service and more efficient courts.
While local judges are unanimously confident in Voet’s judicial capability, they are concerned about his new workload as well as the possible loss of local representation for local courts.
Michigan Supreme Court: ‘Working smarter for a better Michigan’
Starting in 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court began requiring chief judge candidates to submit applications detailing their goals for their courts. Chief judges oversee their courts’ internal operations, finances, case management, work assignments and more, per Michigan Court Rule.
A total of 148 chief judges were appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court in mid-October. Of those, 46 will oversee more than one trial court in their district as part of consolidation efforts.
Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. called the new chief judge appointees “judicial leaders” who will further the Supreme Court’s goals of improved public service, more efficient courts and greater innovation, including the increased use of technology.
“Increasingly, circuit, probate and district courts in the same judicial circuit are consolidating some functions and administration for greater efficiency and savings,” Young stated in a press release. “The Supreme Court not only encourages but drives this movement in part by appointing a single chief judge for multiple courts, rather than a separate chief judge for every circuit, probate and district court.
“Being a chief judge is a demanding job,” Young added. “It requires leadership, vision and administrative skills. In making these appointments, my fellow Justices and I look for all of those qualities, plus practical, innovative ideas about improving the courts. Our chief judges have to be committed to the goal of courts working smarter for a better Michigan.”
Voet: ‘This is a team’
Voet worked as a prosecutor from 1987 to 1999 in Ionia County before being elected judge of Ionia County’s 64A District Court in 1999.
This year, he submitted his name for consideration as chief judge, as did 8th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger, who has served as chief judge of circuit court in Ionia and Montcalm counties for the past four years.
The Michigan Supreme Court chose to appoint Voet as chief judge, but with a twist — he’s going to be chief judge of all courts in Ionia and Montcalm counties, not just circuit court.
Voet said he was honored to receive the appointment, but downplayed the significance.
“The only thing glamorous about the job is the name,” he said. “It just means more work, more bookkeeping, getting stuff to the state.”
Appointing a district court judge as chief judge is somewhat unusual, as opposed to the traditional appointment of a circuit court judge as chief judge. However, Voet noted that he is surrounded by experienced judges and the new move forward will be a team effort.
“We’re talking between 75 and 80 years of judicial experience among our judges,” he said. “We just had our caseload evaluated by the state. Everyone got excellent marks. Each circuit is a well-oiled machine. I won’t make any kind of change whatsoever without talking to everybody and having everybody on board. This is a team.
“It would be my hope that each judge will continue to run their court they way they want to run it because that’s what the voters elected them to do,” he added. “I’m not interested in telling other judges how to run their courtroom. They’ve worked too hard to get those jobs.”
Voet said the average citizen probably won’t notice anything when his new appointment takes effect, although he will become busier with more administrative duties in both counties.
Voet does have some goals in mind as he takes on his new responsibilities.
“I’d like to see more dialogue and interaction with the local bar,” he said. “I’d like to see the bar association become active again. I’d like to see a group photograph of everybody. I don’t think that’s been done for over 10 years. I’d like to encourage more of a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood among lawyers.”
Kreeger: ‘A move away from representative government’
Kreeger will continue in her role as chief judge of circuit court until Jan. 1. She said she has enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to serve people in both counties in that capacity.
Kreeger said she appreciates Voet’s willingness to take a turn at the administrative responsibilities that go along with being chief judge. Kreeger and Voet have already begun working together to ensure a smooth transition in the months ahead.
“Together, from a court performance perspective, my brother judges and I have a solid record of efficiency,” Kreeger said. “At the local level we are blessed with to have talented, committed and conscientious judges. It is an honor to serve with them.”
However, Kreeger expressed concern about the longterm future of the new trend.
“On a statewide level, this is a substantive change in direction from the Supreme Court,” she said. “While efficiencies can be realized from an economy of scale perspective, it is also a move away from representative government.”
Hoort: ‘The greater concern is what’s next?’
Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Judge David Hoort rotates between Ionia and Montcalm counties every other week, as does Kreeger.
Hoort expressed confidence in Voet’s abilities, but wondered whether the state is asking Voet to take on too much.
“In the real world, it’s going to be difficult for Judge Voet to be the chief judge of Montcalm County from Ionia County,” he said. “District court judges are very busy as it is. For him to get involved with the budgets for all courts, it’s going to be very hard for him to do that in Montcalm County. He’s expressed a great willingness to make this work. I wish him well on that, but it’s going to be hard. He’s only one person.”
Hoort also voiced concern about state statutes and the constitution. When the next local judge decides to retire, Hoort wonders whether the state will decide not to fill that position as part of the move toward “consolidation and efficiency.”
“The good news is we all seem to be on the same page, we are all willing to make things work,” said Hoort of himself and his fellow judges. “The greater concern is what’s next?”
Hemingsen: ‘I think it’s problematic’
Montcalm County’s 64B District Court Judge Donald Hemingsen echoed his colleagues’ sentiments that Voet is a fine judge. However, like Hoort, Hemingsen wondered whether current state laws will allow the “consolidation and efficiency” trend to be effective.
“The court distinctions that we have in Michigan, they’re in the state constitution and they’re also embedded in various statutes which would require changes by the legislature and really changes in the constitution,” Hemingsen said. “Nobody, to my knowledge, is offering or attempting to change the constitution or the statues which would really be necessary to consolidate the courts, so I’m not sure how effective this is going to be.”
Hemingsen also questioned the wisdom of having just one chief judge in charge of making major administrative and financial decisions for all courts in both counties.
“I think it’s problematic if you select a chief judge who has the power to make all of the important decisions for court — things like which cases get priority, how much standard fines and costs are going to be — to also have the power as chief judge to spend literally millions of dollars in county money, but not be accountable to county voters,” Hemingsen said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem at all for Judge Voet, because he’s essentially going to leave each judges with their own say in these matters. But the Supreme Court has indicated to us that they have the power to give us a chief judge from Lansing or Grand Rapids or anywhere else they deem appropriate who may not see things the same way.”
Sykes: ‘I don’t have a problem with it’
Ionia County’s Probate Court Judge Robert Sykes Jr. expressed his confidence in Voet, noting as Ionia County’s district court judge, Voet likely oversees the busiest court in both counties as far as caseloads go.
“He’s an experienced judge,” said Sykes of Voet. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll do an exceptional job.”
Sykes also voiced his support of state’s effort to make all courts more efficient.
“The single chief judge appointment, in my opinion, it’s just another movement toward the overall goal of court consolidation and improving the efficiency of the judiciary,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with it. We expect the legislative and executive branches to become more efficient. Why should the judicial branch not follow suit?”
Sykes noted that the new chief judge appointment should not be seen as a rivalry between the two counties.
“This should not be viewed by anyone as an Ionia (County) versus Montcalm County dispute,” he said. “It is an 8th Circuit Court issue and that comprises Ionia and Montcalm counties. We are joined, our counties are joined because we are included in the 8th Circuit. Yes, we do have our independent courts, but the movement is toward consolidating and making all the courts run more efficiently.”
Sykes echoed Voet’s theory that the average citizen will not notice any changes when Voet officially takes on his appointment next year.
“From the citizens looking from the outside, they’re not going to see any change, at least initially about how their cases or handled or the promptness in which their cases are heard,” Sykes said. “We’re very efficient in the 8th Circuit. We process cases in a very timely manner. The judges get along very well.”
Montcalm County Probate Court
Montcalm County’s Probate Court Judge Charles Simon III did not return messages from The Daily News seeking comment for this story.