In deep blue Ann Arbor, the August Democratic primary decides most local offices–even former Republican and independent Jane Lumm is running this year as a Democrat. But elections for judge are different.
Three attorneys are competing for the 22nd Circuit Court seat being vacated by retiring judge David Swartz. The nonpartisan primary will eliminate one; the other two will meet again in the November general election.
All the candidates are hopeful that restorative justice can provide an alternative to prison for some criminals. But they disagree on whether the justice system in Washtenaw County is systemically racist and, if so, what judges should do about it.
Amy Reiser, forty-six, was born in Dearborn, grew up on Grosse Ile, and now lives in Dexter. An assistant Washington County prosecutor, Reiser is endorsed by a Michigan Court of Appeals judge, two local magistrates, a smattering of politicians and businesspeople, and her boss, retiring prosecutor Brian Mackie. “I’ve worked in Mackie’s office since 2002,” she explains. “I have, hands down, the most experience handling trials.”
Reiser recognizes that “Mackie’s gotten a lot of criticism over the last few years. But it’s hard for me to hear people criticize [him] because we’ve done a lot of good work for victims … I think in this climate right now, that’s being overlooked.”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Nick Roumel, sixty-three, says he’s “just young enough to serve two terms if the voters are so willing.” A principal at NachtLaw who lives in Ann Arbor, Roumel has endorsements from dozens of past and present elected officials, including both factions on Ann Arbor City Council, as well as five active and retired judges. He also has Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel.
“Back in the early days when Dana was running, somebody told her to talk to me [because] I’ve got my finger on the pulse of local politics,” he says. Early this year they met for lunch, and she volunteered her support. “She was kind enough to join me in my virtual kickoff.”
Tracy Van den Bergh, fifty, ran in 2014 but lost to Julia Owdziej. Born and raised in Commack, New York, she lives in Ann Arbor and works as a senior litigator for Nessel.
Van den Bergh didn’t get her boss’s endorsement, but she did get the backing of more than a dozen judges, including three of the seven current trial court judges: Carol Kuhnke, Tim Connors, and Pat Conlin.
“I’ve practiced in front of all of them,” the former social worker explains, “but I think what really is the focus is that they have designated the seat a family court seat. It’s so important that you have a passion for that kind of work, [and] I really am very committed to being with families long-term.”
All three candidates agree on the usefulness of restorative justice, which aims to replace punishment with programs to reconcile offenders with their victims and community. “It’s just a waste of tremendous resources to be housing somebody in prison,” Roumel says. “I’d like to give judges a little more discretion [so] that we can deviate from the [state sentencing] guidelines.”
“It is a good idea in certain circumstances,” Reiser says. “A situation where an individual has embezzled from their employer due to a substance abuse issue [might] be a situation where you see the employee get into a substance abuse treatment program, [and] the employer comes together with that employee because they have a long relationship.”
But all agree that restorative justice won’t work for everyone. “There’re a few too-dangerous people out there–serial rapists and serial killers,” says Van den Bergh. “But I think it’s rare that somebody can’t be rehabilitated and reenter society.”
The candidates’ sharpest disagreement is on whether Washtenaw County’s justice system is systemically racist–and, if so, what should be done about it.
“A judge needs to be aware of his or her own inherent biases in setting bail and doing sentencing,” says Roumel. “The first thing that I would do to try to eliminate it [is] apply for a grant or have volunteers do court watching to report outcomes–is it a systemic bias or [are we] limping along with our inherent biases and we need to be educated about doing better?”
“Of course it is [systemically racist].” says Van den Bergh. “And it’s not because I think Judge [Carol] Kuhnke is a racist or I’m a racist. But the bottom line is we all have implicit biases. I’m always going to be aware that I have implicit biases that I need to stay on top of.”
“I don’t believe that the system is systemically racist,” counters Reiser. “As a prosecutor I treat everyone that comes before me the same. The [law enforcement] officers that I’ve worked with are compassionate. I see Sheriff [Jerry] Clayton reaching out to the lower socioeconomic communities.”
Like the contest to replace Mackie (“A Pivotal Race for Prosecuting Attorney,” July), the outcome may depend on whose views on this issue are closest to the voters.
Though judges serve six-year terms, November’s winner will likely be reelected until they turn seventy and are forbidden to run again. The judicial ballot doesn’t include party affiliations, but it does identify incumbents–and voters return them to the bench by overwhelming margins.
This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2020 Ann Arbor Observer. Nick Roumel’s judicial endorsements have been added.