The last time there was an open election for judge of the 22nd Circuit Court was way back in 1988, when Melinda Morris won a four-way race. The next once-in-a-generation opportunity comes August 7, when four attorneys are running to succeed Morris, who will retire in January after twenty-four years on the bench.

The field will be cut in half in the nonpartisan August primary. The two candidates with the highest vote totals will face off in the November general election.

Whoever wins will likely have the job for life: no sitting local circuit court judge has lost an election since at least 1944. Though attorney Michael Woodyard is testing that precedent by challenging incumbent Timothy Connors this year, the primary won’t affect the outcome–since there are only two candidates, both will advance to the general election. (Connors himself isn’t taking sides in the primary–he’s endorsed all four candidates.)

Jim Fink was born in Ypsilanti in 1955 and still lives there. He spent twenty years with the Washtenaw County sheriff’s department, first as a deputy, later as a commander with a law degree, and left for private practice in 1998. He represents several local municipalities including Pittsfield Township, and says he handles “all sorts of businesses, lots of real estate, and a small but steady number of criminal” cases.

The son and brother of judges, Fink has the support of more than twenty current and retired judges, including Archie Brown and David Swartz on the 22nd Circuit Court. Other officeholders in his camp include township clerks Mandy Grewal (Pittsfield), Spaulding Clark (Scio), and Pat Kelly (Dexter), retiring water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin, and state representative Mark Ouimet. He says he’s running because “I have the ability, the experience, and the desire to serve.”

Carol Kuhnke was born in Monroe in 1968, moved to Washtenaw County when she was nine, graduated from Milan High School and the U-M, went to Chicago for law school, came back to Milan in 1996, and then moved to Ann Arbor in 1998. She specializes in civil litigation, and says, “I’m proud I don’t have to advertise. I get my business from referrals.

“I’ve done 100 percent litigation, 100 percent of it in circuit courts,” she says. “I’m the most experienced, and I believe that makes me the most qualified candidate.”

Kuhnke’s endorsed by two Michigan Supreme Court justices, three Michigan Court of Appeals judges, and six other trial court judges. Her list of political supporters includes city council members Sabra Briere and Margie Teall and council candidates Jack Eaton and Sally Hart Petersen. She’s also got backing from the business community, including real estate investor Dennis Dahlmann and Downtown Home & Garden owner Mark Hodesh.

Doug McClure was born in Chicago in 1962 and came to Washtenaw County in 1991 when he took a job with Conlin, McKenney & Philbrick. McClure says he’s handled mostly environmental cases “but I’ve also done work for the public defender’s office in Judge [Cedric] Simpson’s court, and had criminal cases.”

McClure is backed by Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board chair Jesse Bernstein, Ecology Center executive director Mike Garfield, and the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau–“I live in the western part of the county and have gotten to know the farmers,” he explains.

He believes the temperament he developed as an attorney will serve him well as a judge. “I’m not a bulldog lawyer. I see [going to court] as a way of reaching a common goal. It’s all about civility, and I’m not a jerk. I’m very empathetic and compassionate–and always collaborative.”

Erane Washington was born in Memphis in 1967 and moved to Ann Arbor with her family in 1979. A Huron High grad, she got her undergrad degree from MSU, and returned to earn her law degree from the U-M. She’s been in practice since 1993 representing individuals and businesses in real estate, business, securities, and criminal defense, as well as doing mediation and arbitration.

Washington’s endorsed by county board members Barbara Bergman and Conan Smith, and county sheriff Jerry Clayton (who has also endorsed Fink). She’s also got the support of 22nd Circuit Court judge Don Shelton (for whom she once worked), as well as Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber and Ypsilanti Township attorney Doug Winters.

Washington says it isn’t just her legal experience that makes her the best candidate but her “life experience. I’m first-generation college and law school, and I’ve had a very diverse legal background with over one hundred trials including thirty jury trials. I want to be a judge because I have the wisdom as well as the insight to make a difference.”

This article has been edited since it appeared in the August 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The length of Melinda Morris’s tenure has been corrected.