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March 14, 2012

Berkley to merge court with Oak Park branch

Cities uncertain if and when buildings may consolidate, however

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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Berkley to merge court with Oak Park branch
Although the Ferndale 43rd District Court will not be consolidated at this time, the Berkley 45-A District Court, pictured here, is merging with the Oak Park 45-B District Court in July. The state’s new legislation calls for the courts to reduce the number of judgeships between them from three to two, but the future of the court buildings remains unclear.

BERKLEY — While the state’s new legislation will not affect the district court facilities in Ferndale, Hazel Park and Madison Heights, Berkley and Oak Park will be combining their courts at the start of the next fiscal year.

The merger will only result in a name change, however — at least initially. According to the legislation, Public Act 37 of 2012, the Berkley 45-A and Oak Park 45-B district courts will be “abolished” as they unite under a common name. Beginning July 1, they will become two branches of the new 45th District Court.

The new law will also, through attrition, reduce the collective number of judges at the Berkley and Oak Park courts from three to two. But as city officials pointed out, it could be several years down the road before one of the judges retires or opts not to run for re-election. In the meantime, Judge Michelle Friedman Appel will become chief judge of the 45th District Court.

According to Berkley 45-A District Court Judge Jamie Wittenberg, the other issue at stake is that the legislation does not specify if and when the two courts must consolidate into a single facility. That change will likely be up to officials from the five municipalities involved — Berkley, Oak Park, Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township — to decide on their own.

“I’m supportive of the fact that the state wants to reduce the number of judges based on the smaller numbers (of cases) in the last few years,” Wittenberg said. “As long as it doesn’t hurt any of the individual cities, then I’m in favor of it. … There’s no requirement that we have to consolidate our court buildings by any certain date. So if the state wants to cut judges, that’s up to them, but I say let the cities decide what they want to do with their own courts.”

Just as Berkley’s neighbors in Ferndale and Hazel Park have argued, City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa said that it would actually cost Berkley more money to combine court buildings with Oak Park than it would be to continue to maintain separate buildings. She estimated that during the first year alone, such a merger would result in nearly $200,000 in additional expenses for Berkley in order to cover the costs of additional overtime pay for public safety officers, transportation of prisoners to and from the court and unemployment payments for laid-off court employees.

“I do not believe that it’s feasible at this point for either of our courts to consolidate into one building,” Bais-DiSessa said. “Consolidation is not always the answer, and we would have some major concerns about that. I am willing to look at collaboration, however. We’re considering the possibility of sharing our judge between the two different court buildings” once the Oak Park court is reduced from two judges to one.

According to the 2011 Judicial Resources Recommendations that were issued last August by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO), the administrative agency of the Michigan Supreme Court, these two local courts can operate at full capacity with only two judges between them, rather than the three that they currently have.

The SCAO’s statistics indicate that the Berkley 45-A District Court has a judicial excess of 0.6, while the Oak Park 45-B District Court has a judicial excess of 0.5. They also showed that in recent years, the two courts have seen significant drops in both the number of case filings they receive and the population of the communities they serve.

The total case filings between the 45-A and 45-B district courts decreased from 35,716 in 2006 to 29,141 in 2010, a drop of more than 18 percent in just four years. In terms of population, Berkley saw a decrease of 8.4 percent between 1990 and 2000, and 3.6 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. census figures. Meanwhile, the communities served by the 45-B District Court experienced a combined population decline of 1.5 percent between 1990 and 2000, and 7.9 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Wittenberg and Bais-DiSessa said that the five cities of the new 45th District Court have already begun meeting to discuss the future of their court facilities. Still, Bais-DiSessa does not believe that consolidation is a good idea as long as the two courts can operate individually for less money.

“We are running our own court properly and efficiently,” she said. “The court is supporting itself financially, and Judge Wittenberg is doing very well, too. They usually even have a little bit of funds left over each year to help us pay for some of our public safety costs.”

Wittenberg emphasized that beyond the new name of the combined court, there would most likely not be any changes made in the immediate future. And even if there were, the public would not notice any difference in the way that the 45th District Court operates compared with the separate 45-A and 45-B courts.

“This is not like Berkley is swallowing up Oak Park, or Oak Park is swallowing up Berkley,” Wittenberg said. “All of our cities will have to get together to figure out what we want to do next and how we want to configure this new district court facility. But the average resident doesn’t have anything to worry about here.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.