Roundtable: The Judges

It's not often one gets to have a candid conversation over lunch with three judges. But that's precisely what we're bringing to you with this month's Roundtable.

Judges Philip Rodgers, Michael Haley, and David Stowe

sat down with TCBN Publisher Luke Haase for a fascinating conversation

about crime, the law, and life in Traverse City.

TCBN: Thanks for agreeing to this. Let's take a moment to have everyone introduce themselves.

Haley: I'm Mike Haley, 86th District Court, elected in 1996, and I serve Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Antrim counties.

Stowe: David Stowe, I'm the Grand Traverse County Probate Judge & Circuit Court-Family Division Judge. Elected in 2000.

Rodgers: Philip Rodgers, Judge with the 13th Circuit Court, elected in 1990, serving Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Antrim counties.

TCBN: Thanks. I want to begin by asking about drunk driving. Anecdotally, we hear stories of very strict enforcement in northern Michigan. True or perceived?

Rodgers: Well, remember back in the 1980s when you had MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), which was a very significant political force at the time. When I came to town there was very strict enforcement, including block grants to fight it, special patrols and more.

Haley: Well, we seem to be picking on the same people. It amazed me after being on the bench just a couple of years that I was sentencing the same individual who had just gotten off probation. I got a little depressed about my job. It felt like a revolving door instead of being a change agent. So we instituted this new drug treatment court program, and numbers now prove that repeat rates have improved dramatically.

Stowe: On the juvenile side, we're seeing a market decrease in overall recidivism rates. It's very encouraging.

Rodgers: Here's the thing about a DUI (Driving Under the Influence): you don't have to drive…alcohol isn't illegal! Pass out, walk, whatever. But don't drive!

Haley: I have to laugh…people will say, 'I just made an error in judgment. I was doing the math, having only one beer an hour.' And I'll think, 'yes, but you can't do that for two days straight!'

Rodgers: Keep in mind, with crime generally, you are going to find several factors in common with offenders. Substance abuse, limited education, a dysfunctional family, and-though it's changing-male and 25 years old or younger. People ask me all the time 'what's the solution to crime?' I say, 'be better parents…good parents can be married or divorced, but be better parents. Dave certainly sees that earlier than I do…

TCBN: Politically, you all have very little to 'run on' other than being tough on criminals. Your thoughts on your roles in crime and punishment?

Haley: It's easy to be tough, but it's more difficult to be effective. I just didn't think I was being effective by increasing jail bed days with every successive conviction. So our new drug treatment program, which involves long-term, coerced treatment and stiff accountability, is really working. So far, only three percent of those who have gone through the program have had another DUI. Now, this program wouldn't strike you as 'tough.' Fact is, if toughness was the campaign issue, I'd be done.

Rodgers: I would disagree. It's not easy to be hard. I've never found that. I have always said that I shouldn't be replaced with someone who finds sentencing easy. I always think, 'how would I explain this sentence to the person killed instead of explaining to the criminal?' The best advice I was ever given was to be careful who you feel sorry for.

Stowe: We've really chosen to focus on rehab and accountability. I'm seeing kids on a weekly or even in some cases having daily interaction, and that can really make a difference in people's lives. Kids will often come back and actually be mentors to others, and that feels good.

TCBN: I've read that criminals are much more likely to go to prison here than in Detroit. Why?

Rodgers: Because we don't sentence bargain. Listen, it's a harsh reality-Detroit is overwhelmed. They have no jail capacity.

Haley: And rural counties tend to be more conservative….things that appear startling here are not startling in Detroit.

TCBN: I can't help but notice as we sit here that we are all white males. Isn't diversity a problem here?

Rodgers: When I was in law school, it was a majority of men. Today law schools are either 50/50 or even tipping the other way. There are lots of competent female attorneys here in town.

TCBN: You'd agree there are a handful of women who could do your job?

Rodgers: Oh, more than a handful. Absolutely. There are probably 75 to 100 people in town who could do what we do. I never said I was the smartest.

TCBN: What's it like to be a judge in a small town?

Haley: Well, you see everyone everywhere. I was behind a lady in line at a grocery store the other night. She'd been before me and wasn't supposed to be drinking, but there she was buying a six pack. You try to look the other way, but it's hard. I can't go to one restaurant where I don't have someone working there on probation…but I can see that guy because I feel good about what I did to change his life.

TCBN: What do you make of our local attorneys?

Haley: The lawyering around here is pretty darn good. Frankly, the mentality of downstate lawyers is to throw more and more money at a problem. It is just an amazing thing.

Rodgers: Lawyers here practice at a very high level. Our counsel is doing a good job, and you know by watching. Are they bargaining? Are they challenging the right points? Are they narrowing the issues for the client? Our locals do a great job at that. I can't give any reason why people would go out of town for legal representation, particularly in criminal cases.

Stowe: I had a probation case this morning involving six attorneys, many of them local. It was nice to see a global resolution coming.

Haley: I can often see almost no benefit to bringing someone in who doesn't know our community, its values, and its programs.

TCBN: What do you all observe from your unique perspective about all the bickering related to development and growth?

Rodgers: Democracy at work is the silver lining. People are showing up at township meetings, and when things don't go their way they use the courts. I am not at all frustrated that people are making their voices heard.

Stowe: I'm on the Elections Commission, and when people do take these matters to the courts, they are civil and polite to each other. And anyway, what's left to develop?

Haley: That's interesting….it might be getting that way.

Rodgers: I have no authority to talk about what developers can develop and what they can't. That's a political decision. I just have to enforce the rules. But you do observe that many of these proposed developments would bring minimum wage positions, and would tax the school systems and parks and infrastructure.

Haley: I think it's kind of nice to have this to talk about. We are in a place where people want to be. Debating growth is a good thing.

Rodgers: In so many cases you need to look at why these folks are having a problem developing. We have many local examples of great developments- like the Plante & Moran building-that didn't need somebody else's money. If you need public money, don't complain when the public wants to get involved.

Stowe: I just think it's such a privilege to be here, and growth and the debate are inevitable. BN