The four candidates for two seats on the Twenty-Second Circuit Court are strikingly different in appearance.

In one race, there’s incumbent judge Tim Connors with his bolo tie and scuffed cowboy boots versus Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney Mike Woodyard in his sharp suit and polished wing tips. In the other race, it’s Jim Fink in his buttoned-down shirt and striped tie versus Carol Kuhnke in her pants suit and pale blouse.

At stake are what are likely to be career-long jobs paying $138,000 a year. Yet the most unusual thing about this picture is that it exists at all: circuit court judges stand for election every six years but almost never face opposition. Incumbents are identified on the ballot, giving them a built-in edge–and local attorneys aren’t about to challenge the people who decide their cases. Even when they retire, judges usually step down before their term ends, allowing the governor to appoint their replacements–who then run as incumbents.

This year, though, those patterns are being broken. Retiring judge Melinda Morris won her seat in an open election twenty-four years ago, and she’s chosen to create another by serving out her full term. Attorneys Fink and Kuhnke topped a four-way primary to advance to this month’s final.

Woodyard’s challenge to Connors, a judge for twenty-one years, is a much longer shot, but he risks little by taking it: in his ten years as a prosecutor, he says, he’s appeared before “twenty-seven different circuit court judges”–but all of them in Wayne County.

Like the primary, the general election is nonpartisan, and judicial ethics prohibit the candidates saying how they’d rule in particular cases. But the election gives voters a rare chance to hear those who would be judges speak–and to judge their judges.

Born in Ypsilanti in 1955, Jim Fink lives there still. He spent twenty years in the sheriff’s department before going into private practice as an attorney in 1998; among others, he’s provided legal advice to local municipalities.

Asked why voters should pick him, Fink replies, “I have broad-based, bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans and from community leaders, plus my background is diverse and broad and balanced. I’ve done criminal, civil, and some family law. I’ve been an administrator, and I know how to work within the system. I’ve got experience working with social services agencies. I’ve sued and defended municipalities. I’ve represented plaintiffs and defendants. I understand both sides of the issues.

“I’m running because I love the law, I love public service, and I love the community. I think the county would benefit from me being a judge.”

Carol Kuhnke says the same about herself. “I’m the better candidate,” she says. “My experience is deeper, and all of it is in the circuit court. I’ve tried many, many circuit cases, and my trials last longer than most. It’s not uncommon for them to last up to two weeks.”

Born in Monroe in 1968, Kuhnke moved to Ann Arbor in 1998. She’s practiced in circuit court ever since, specializing in civil litigation. “I love what I do,” she says. “My days are spent helping people with legal problems that deeply affect their lives, and as a judge I’ll be able to do all of that and more.”

Like all the judicial candidates, Kuhnke says she’s running hard, with campaign appearances, candidate forums, lawn signs, and literature, plus going door-to-door. “It’s great connecting with the voters, and it’s exciting to see a lot of people engaging in the process who haven’t been aware of judges’ elections before.”

Tim Connors was born in 1954 in Providence, Rhode Island, but grew up in Ann Arbor and has been here ever since. He became a judge in 1991, first with the Fifteenth District Court, then the Twenty-Second Circuit Court, and he relishes the role. “I know of no greater calling,” he says. “This is the peak of my aspirations.” Connors describes his job as “first, listen; second, hear; then be decisive. You try to make it clear to everyone in court that you heard what they said and that you understood them and why you’re making the decision you’re making.”

Born in Memphis in 1966, Mike Woodyard moved to southeast Michigan when he was ten and has lived in Ann Arbor for the last ten years. Compared to Connors, Woodyard says, “I have the depth of experience that he doesn’t because I’ve been standing in the trenches fighting for justice.”

Woodyard says he’s running because “I’m called to public service. If one wants to fully participate, one has to give of oneself.”