County board approves two new judgeships for circuit court

By: Thomas Franz | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published October 28, 2015

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MOUNT CLEMENS — Based on the approval of a resolution by the Macomb County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 22, the Macomb County Circuit Court will be adding two new judges in the next four years.

The first judge will begin in January 2017 after the 2016 election, and the second judge will start in January 2019 following the 2018 election. A judge position that was temporarily eliminated in 2009 due to the economic downturn will also return in 2017.

Chief Judge James Biernat said that the State Court Administrative Office initially recommended that the county circuit court add five judgeships because Macomb County is the most underjudged court in the state.

“The Supreme Court Administrator Office has advocated that we get more than the two positions. They’ve recommended 1.25 extra judges that we would have to go to the Legislature for, which we have not,” Biernat said following the passing of the resolution.

Compared to neighboring counties, the resolution states that the 6th Judicial Circuit Court that covers Oakland County has 19 judges, and Wayne County’s 3rd Judicial Circuit Court has 56 judges, compared to Macomb’s 12 current positions.

“We have more of a need than was passed today, but we’re very happy with the resolution that was passed,” Biernat said.

In a memo prepared by Biernat for an Oct. 7 Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting, Biernat advocated for the new judgeships by providing several statistics that prove the positions are needed.

In 2014, the memo states, Macomb’s circuit court received 4,681 felony criminal filings, compared to 4,239 in Oakland and 3,168 in Kent County (which includes Grand Rapids). The state recommends that those filings be disposed of between 91 and 301 days, and Macomb disposes of 72 percent of its filings within 91 days, and 98 percent within 301 days.

By creating more judgeships, the county will save money that is spent on housing felony defendants in jail during pretrial. Biernat wrote that Jail Administrator Michelle Sanborn determined the average cost of housing a defendant in the jail to be $84.75 per day, and 50 percent are typically held pretrial. 

Biernat’s memo continues to state that in 2014 civil matters, Macomb resolved 59 percent of its cases within 364 days. The state recommends that 70 percent of cases be resolved in that time, and the state average is 68 percent.

In 2014 divorce cases, Macomb resolved 99 percent of filings within the state’s recommended time of 364 days. That success, Biernat wrote in the memo, was due in part to the assignment of a probate judge to the family division of the circuit court, an assignment that will be discontinued in 2017.

The resolution states that the county will pay $191,148 per year per judge for benefits, a secretary and operating costs. The state will pay $158,792 per year for each new judgeship, which reflects the judge’s salary.

The county’s 2016 budget, which was passed in September, reflects the increased funding that will be necessary for these positions.

The new judges will be operating in new courtrooms that are part of an ongoing court renovation.

“There’s a building renovation, the new court building renovation, that’s a $60 million bond project. The new courtrooms for the judgeships were already built into that, so it’s already budgeted in,” Biernat said.