STANTON — Two local attorneys are looking to unseat the longtime judge of Montcalm County’s 64B District Court in Tuesday’s primary election.
Kathleen Dunne of Greenville and Ronald Finegood of Stanton are both vying for the position currently held by Judge Donald Hemingsen of Sheridan.
The judge’s seat is a nonpartisan election.
Dunne, 54, is an attorney who specializes in bankruptcy, estate planning and Social Security disability. She’s been practicing law for more than 18 years.
One of Dunne’s concerns about the current District Court is what she says is an inability or unwillingness to address the conditions that cause criminal defendants to become repeat offenders. She wants to address this by implementing a drug court for misdemeanor crimes, as well as a teen court for youthful offenders.
“Judge Hemingsen has said that teen courts are either not permissible or not workable in district court,” Dunne said. “Teen court is not available to teens who’ve been charged as adults in District Court. But teen courts are authorized by statute and need not, but may, be supervised by the District Court. Teen court is a juvenile diversion program available to youths aged 11 to 16, who are charged with certain nonviolent offenses.”
Dunne said participation in her teen court would be voluntary and if a teen successfully completes their sentence, their juvenile record would be wiped clean. She said only 10 percent of teens who successfully complete their sentences are ever re-arrested.
District Court does not currently offer a drug court for misdemeanors, although 8th Judicial Circuit Court offers a drug court for certain felony offenders. Dunne wants to offer a drug court in District Court, which she says would focus less on criminal prosecution and more on the underlying substance abuse problem, as well as reduce the repeat offender rate
“The State Court Administrator’s Office, which oversees all Michigan courts, uses a detailed formula for determining appropriate judicial staffing levels in each jurisdiction,” Dunne said. “That formula is based on each judge spending only six hours per day, 215 days per year on case-related work, including research and preparation. That means that each judge has 46 work days for other things, which leads one to ask: why wouldn’t a District Court judge have time to implement programs such as teen court or drug court?”
Finegood, 63, has been practicing law for almost 35 years. He is actively involved in the Montcalm County community as a board member of the Substance Abuse Council, board member of the Medication Disposal Coalition of Montcalm County, advisory board member with North Kent Guidance Services and committee member and legal counsel for the Stanton Old Fashioned Days Committee.
Finegood said in his first three years of law practice (1979-1981), he handled more than 100 jury trials. He has appeared in courtrooms throughout Michigan and dealt with cases in circuit court, divorce court, district court, juvenile court, probate court, the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Federal Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
“I have a broader range of legal experiences than my opponents,” Finegood said. “Having appeared in many courts, I have had the opportunity to observe many judges, seeing the good, the bad and the ugly. This has helped me develop a philosophy that will guide me when I am elected District Court judge.”
Finegood said he has been approached by many Montcalm County citizens who have alleged that favoritism plays a part in the “justice” that is handed out in 64B District Court.
“If you know someone, you get a break that someone else does not get,” he said. “I believe that all who come to court, from the staff to the attorneys to the parties, need to be treated with respect and dignity.”
If elected judge, Finegood wants to start a Veterans Treatment Court, as well as educate the public and the youth about the role of courts and the court system and address what he says is a “high level of frustration” with the Montcalm County court system.
Hemingsen, 64, has been District Court judge for more than 17 years. He previously practiced law in Stanton from 1978 to 1996. He has been endorsed by every attorney with a law office in Montcalm County — not including his two opponents — as well as all judges in Clinton, Gratiot, Ionia and Montcalm counties.
Hemingsen believes one of his strongest assets for re-election in his experience. He says his two opponents have only conducted one criminal trial and no jury trials of any kind in Montcalm County’s District Court.
“I care very much about the District Court as an institution,” Hemingsen said. “I spent a good deal, more than half of my professional legal career, in the District Court as a judge and as a practicing attorney. It’s a real honor to serve the people. I’m very proud of the work that my staff and I have done. It can be very difficult work, but it’s also very satisfying.”
Hemingsen said if re-elected, he will continue to meet the challenge of forced staff reductions in District Court brought about by budget cuts. He says he will do this by improving efficiency and joining with other nearby courts to share resources and better deliver services. He says Montcalm County has already been invited, along with other counties, to apply for status as a regional mental health court and to join with Gratiot County for a recovery court.
“Now is an exciting time to be a judge,” Hemingsen said. “There are many changes that have begun in the legal system. Our Supreme Court is gradually pursuing a goal of unifying the court systems. I have a good deal of experience in working with all of the courts and judges in our county and that is something I’m looking forward to, in continuing that process of making the courts more efficient and user-friendly. I hope the people will consider the past 18 years and give me the opportunity to continue to serve.”