Four of the candidates for the Tuesday Aug. 5 primary election for the Charlevoix County 33rd Circuit Court race attended a public forum on Monday July 21.
Roy C. Hayes III, Valerie Snyder, Tom Schraw and Ed Engstrom answered a set of 10 questions preselected by several judges at the behest of the Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce and both the Charlevoix County Democratic and Republican parties who co-hosted the event at the Boyne Area Senior Center.
The fifth candidate, Mary Beth Kur, did not attend the forum.
The forum began with each candidate giving an opening statement.
• Engstrom said he has been campaigning door-to-door.
“I’ve been to the doors of thousands and thousands of voters by foot. I’ve been doing it for three months,” he said. “Why I did it is because voters need to be educated. You just don’t vote because you know somebody’s name or you see their sign at the side of the road.”
Engstrom said the voters should think of themselves as employers when choosing a judge. And, he reminded the audience that the race is non-partisan, so political party does not come into play.
“I’ve been an attorney for 25 years. The number is not that significant. It’s what I’ve done,” he said. “I’ve been in general practice for 25 years and I’ve done everything a circuit court judge handles.”
Engstrom said he has also been a criminal public defender for 10 years.
“A third of the court’s docket is criminal cases,” he said. “I know the criminal system.”
Engstrom has also dealt with domestic issues like divorce, contracts, personal injury, personal protection orders and he has been before 100 different judges in his time.
“I’ve taken from what I’ve observed from these judges to be a good judge,” he said. “I’m not going to be a dictator. I’ve seen dictator judges and that’s just wrong. You look at the facts, you apply the law and you come to a fair and equitable decision in every case.”
Engstrom is a certified mediator and worked for 10 years helping protect the elderly who have become incapacitated.
• Hayes said experience was very important for the next circuit judge. He clerked for a Michigan Supreme Court Judge, as well as working for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He also served a one-year clerkship for a Missouri Supreme Court Justice.
“I got to have a say in what cases were heard in the Missouri Supreme Court,” said Hayes, who added that he also helped research and write the judge’s opinions.
In 1994, Hayes came back to practice law in Charlevoix with his father. Hayes represented clients in federal courts in civil and criminal cases from Detroit to Marquette.
“I handled federal felony cases that involved drug charges, firearms/weapons charges, tax evasion charges,” he said… “The last case my dad and I handled together, I was lead trial counsel for the national board of medical examiners on an Americans with Disability Act case that was a week-long trial in Detroit.”
Hayes added, “And, after we won the case, I got to argue in the United States Sixth Court of Appeals, the appeal, in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is one step below the United States Supreme Court.”
Hayes has taken cases in the Michigan Court of Appeals, probate, district, and he was appointed to be the public administrator for Charlevoix County.
“I promise I’ll be fair, I’ll be impartial, I’ll try to do the right thing in every case and the law will be followed if I’m elected,” he said.
• Snyder said she was born and raised in Charlevoix and has been practicing law here for nearly 19 years.
“Much of my practice has been in the circuit court,” she said… “In addition to my practice in the circuit court I also have fairly extensive practice in the court of appeals, and the court of appeals is the court that looks back on what the circuit court does and makes sure that the circuit court got the decision right.”
In addition to Snyder’s legal experience, she has served in numerous governmental capacities including the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners, the City of Charlevoix Planning Commission and City Council, and the Charlevoix Public Schools Board of Education. She has also spent numerous years volunteering for various charitable organizations. She is currently in her seventh year on the board of trustees of the Charlevoix County Community Foundation.
“A judge is a public servant who has legal experience,” said Snyder, adding that her long-time commitment to both the legal profession and volunteerism make her the best candidate for the judgeship.
• Schraw talked about growing up in a large family and having to work for extras as a kid. He said that, at 9 years old, he was the youngest paperboy in his area, carrying his newspapers 6 nights a week so he could save up to buy a fishing pole.
When he was 36, he decided to go to law school while working full-time and raising a family. He said he had an hour-and-forty-minute commute three nights per week, he studied three more nights per week and saved one night for his family.
“Calvin Coolidge said nothing in the world takes the place of persistence and determination,” Schraw said… “That’s what I plan to bring to the bench.”
Some of the questions asked during the forum are below with responses from the candidates.
• The candidates were asked what they believe to be the biggest challenge to the Charlevoix 33rd Circuit Court and how they will address it.
Hayes said the most important thing to do is to do right by the people of Charlevoix County.
Snyder said the challenges are reflective of society: deterioration of the family unit, drugs and budget constraints.
Snyder said problem-solving courts like drug courts and family resolution courts can help reduce recidivism and costs.
“In 2010, we spent $1,500 less, per criminal defendant, to process them through an alternative court than we do through a traditional court system,” she said. “But, we also saved another $7,000 over that person’s life because they weren’t back in court.”
Schraw said there are opportunities to utilize technology in the courts but there also needs to be a way to deal with people who are not technologically savvy.
Engstrom said the hardest challenge in the court is making decisions and knowing someone is likely to be unhappy with that decision.
“Your job is to do the right thing,” he said. “It may not be the favorite thing but it’s the right thing.”
• Candidates were asked to describe their most challenging ethical dilemma and how they handled it.
Schraw said he has had several ethical dilemmas during his career and he always seeks expert advice, such as an attorney ethics hotline, before proceeding.
Engstrom said, out of the thousands of cases, occasionally his client won’t listen to him and they either change their mind and listen to him or he withdraws as their attorney.
Hayes said he was in the middle of a divorce trial and his client, under oath on the witness stand, testified that a fishing boat was in the State of Texas and sold to a third party but Hayes knew he was lying because the boat was on Hayes’ property as it had been put up for collateral for attorney fees.
“There was no time to call the hotline,” Hayes said. “We were in the middle of a trial with Judge Pajtas (Richard, the judge who is retiring this year and creating the vacancy for the judgeship in question) on the bench trying to decide this divorce case.”
Hayes said he took a break, took his client into a conference room and told him he was going to go on the record and testify truthfully.
“Disaster was averted but it was somewhat disturbing,” he said.
Snyder said one of her greatest challenges was after she had been practicing law for 10 years.
She was working on a judicial waiver to get the court to allow a girl who was underage to get an abortion without telling her parents about it—as is the case when telling parents may put a girl’s life in danger. Snyder emphasized that it was not Charlevoix nor Emmet’s courts involved in this case.
“I was being called far too often by one particular court and being asked to represent girls that, honestly, I didn’t think met the standard, and the judge was granting those judicial waivers,” she said… “In that case I had to back out. I had to decline to take those cases any more because I did not think the law was being applied properly.”
• Candidates were asked what a judge should do if attorneys are being disrespectful of one another or other people in the courtroom.
Engstrom said he would talk with the attorneys in his chambers off the record.
“I understand attorneys have a very very tough job and I respect what my opponents do,” he said. “But you’ve got to bring them back in chambers and talk to ‘em. And if they continue you may have to report them, file a grievance against them depending on what the conduct is.”
Hayes said the judge should intervene with the appropriate action if attorneys are acting inappropriately.
Snyder also said the judge has a responsibility to control the order of the courtroom.
“It’s completely situational,” she said.
Schraw said attorneys must be truthful, respectful and vigorous advocates of their client.
• Candidates were asked what they would do if faced with an unfamiliar subject.
Hayes said he would do what he does every day: research the issue.
“Any day I could be posed any sort of legal question and you have to be able to go to the law and look up the statutes, you have to look up the case law,” he said.
Snyder said she has a multitude of online resources she uses daily to research numerous questions about various aspects of the law—and she would do the same as judge.
“Until you go to law school, I don’t think you can appreciate how big this entity is called ‘the law’,” Schraw said… “It’s very rare that we come across a brand new question that hasn’t been answered somewhere in some jurisdiction in the United States.”
He added, “Generally the question has already been answered … and that gives us some guidance.”
Engstrom said he educates himself throughout the year by attending seminars. In this particular instance, he said he would have both attorneys on the case brief him, and he would also perform his own research and make a decision.
• The candidates were asked who their judicial role models are, their favorite SCOTUS judge and their favorite SCOTUS ruling.
Snyder said Judge Pajtas has had more impact on her than reading the opinion of some other judge. Her favorite U.S. Supreme Court Justice is Sandra Day O’Connor. Her favorite decisions were ones that helped “the little guy” like Brown vs. Board of Education.
Schraw said Harvey Barnum of Boyne City had an impact on him. His favorite SCOTUS judge was Thurgood Marshall. Schraw also cited Brown vs. Board of Education.
Engstrom said he doesn’t have a favorite judge, and that they are all unique in their own way. Neither did he have a favorite opinion, but said that any opinion which upholds people’s constitutional rights is his favorite.
Hayes said a judge in Marquette had a good impact on him. His favorite SCOTUS justice is Antonin Scalia. His favorite opinion would be anything written by Justice Whizzer White.
• A question from the audience was posed to the candidates on how they would handle a case where corruption charges were filed against an officer of the court.
Hayes said a judge must recuse himself if there is any relationship between he and someone who has been charged and would appear in his courtroom.
Snyder agreed, adding that judges must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
Schraw said in a small town it can be a challenge because you know and interact with so many people in a small area. But, he said, if the judge has any contact with the individual you step down.
Engstrom also said he would recuse himself.
• Another audience question asked the candidates whether they would rely more on listening to the arguments of the attorneys in the case or their own research.
“I would certainly read the motions and briefs that were submitted ahead of time,” Snyder said…. “With that in mind, I wouldn’t prejudge a case.”
Schraw said he knows some judges do prejudge their cases but that he would use a combination of his own research and listening to oral arguments of the attorneys to come to his decision.
Engstrom said judges rely upon attorneys to submit the facts of the case and they read up on the case ahead of time so they are prepared.
Hayes said a lot of circuit court practice is based on the written submissions from the attorneys but that, in an evidentiary situation, no good judge would make up his mind without hearing the evidence provided.
• Candidates were then asked if they ever had to work on cases that were antithetical to their personal moral beliefs.
Schraw said it happens all the time but that it is his job to provide his clients with the best possible defense.
Engstrom said he often takes issue with the way people behave when going through a divorce, and he has made a point of telling them when he feels they are behaving in a way that can be detrimental to their children.
“When I start seeing a client who is doing those things I don’t know whether to continue to be their attorney or withdraw,” he said… “If I can’t pull them back in and say stop communicating to your children about how bad dad is I will withdraw.”
Hayes said representing people in disputes where you take a position contrary to your moral beliefs happens almost daily.
“It’s pretty common for attorneys representing criminal cases to have moral issues with the conduct of their client,” he said. “But, it’s imperative for our criminal justice system that the lawyers play the role of providing a vigorous defense for the individual who made the mistake.”
Snyder agreed that it happens frequently but that you must zealously advocate for your client.
“These issues do come up but when you’re the judge you don’t have the luxury to say you don’t agree with this, I don’t agree with the law, I don’t agree with your position on this,” she said. “With the judge you really just have to take whatever case comes before you. And, if you don’t agree with the law, it doesn’t matter. You still have to apply the law as it’s written.”