Governor to Appoint Local Judge

by Aaron Pall

Washtenaw County’s current judicial climate has been rocked by the news that 14A District Judge Richard Conlin decided to resign before his term would end next year, due to his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. The 2020 race for his seat has now been thrown into limbo as the gubernatorial appointment will likely bolster the 2020 hopes for whoever is selected. Even though the circumstances are extremely unfortunate, this appointment poses an important opportunity for our county and for Michigan, in the interest of progress and representation. 

Currently, Judge Cedric Simpson is the only person of color serving as an elected judge in Washtenaw County. This is a visible problem for a county that often prides itself on its progressive values. As a former intern at the Washtenaw County Public Defender’s Office, I have seen how this lack of representation sometimes plays out. Washtenaw has a 70% recidivism rate, which I feel is endemic to a profound issue of bias. Almost every case I witnessed seemed to involve an individual with an unresolved mental health issue who misunderstood what they had initially done wrong. Others simply made a mistake that they were often remorseful for. Even after they were sentenced, the conflict that led to this person’s indictment was never resolved for the defendant nor the community. I believe that there is an issue that can only be solved by increasing the diversity of the court. However, a nuance in perspective could also be necessary for our new judge. 

It’s possible a candidate who embraces the pedagogy of restorative justice and prioritizes redemption over condemnation could be enough. The philosophy by its very nature involves a defendant acknowledging the wrong they have committed, and seeks to ensure this individual can learn and grow as a community member. The move would signal a long overdue departure from our county’s overuse of punitive practices. Not all problems can be solved by a hammer, sometimes it’s best to use a scalpel, and restorative justice offers just that. 

Diversion programs could serve as an alternative avenue to restitution, where a defendant takes part in a community organization dedicated to public service and conflict resolution. Nonetheless, the appointment of a judge that already practices this approach could do wonders for the community. The whole idea behind restorative justice is not exclusively focused on the individual who commits a specific crime. The philosophy includes taking a holistic look at our society, and how certain factors within our community may have influenced a person to commit a crime. Appointing a judge dedicated to this outlook could serve as a vehicle toward discovering the root of certain crimes, and why they are carried out.  This move would promise a deeper conversation on crime as a communal problem. It’s not just an individualistic issue; such thoughts restrict us to the surface level of the problem. Excessive incarceration can perpetuate feelings of distrust that can escalate to harm. A judge that understands this approach could do wonders for our community. 

Furthermore, a judge of color from this school of thought, could inspire and reinvest faith in our county’s criminal justice system, and most importantly our communities of color. Additionally, it would ensure a more prosperous Washtenaw County that embodies the progressive values it promises. The window to apply for the seat closed on October 17th. The community should express support for the applicant we believe will represent us best, because the Governor could make a decision some time soon. As a native of this community, I urge you to take action: make your voice heard on this important and urgent matter we face. Otherwise, the change we need could be delayed for another decade. Time that our community’s most vulnerable may not have.