By Gari Voss
The addition of a new Allegan County Circuit Court Judge, the retirement of 48th Circuit Court Judge Robert Kengis midway through his term, and Family Court Judge Michael Buck completing his tenure offers those wishing to move onto a judge’s bench alternative paths of reaching their goal. With already packed caseloads, conversations touch on how court cases will be addressed effectively with these vacancies in the Allegan County court system.
The anticipated path to filling a vacancy in a judgeship would be through an election. The person must be younger than 70 and licensed to practice law in Michigan for at least 5 years, after graduating from a U.S. law school and passing the Michigan bar exam. The person is not required to have courtroom experience. Those who meet the basic requirements must run an election campaign in the area that will elect them.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bipartisan bill on Dec. 29, 2022 that created a new judge seat in Allegan County and another in Kalamazoo County. The new bench seats would be filled on Jan. 1, 2025 after the candidates run for election in Nov. 2024, which is about 20 months away.
Any current lawyer interested in filling an open position will need to file the proper election information. This can be time consuming campaigning so voters can meet the candidate and understand how the lawyer’s knowledge and skills match the open judgeship.
In the case of retiring Judge Kengis, there will be a Governor appointment that must follow an alternative path through the Appointment Division to complete his current term. Those seeking consideration to fill the position must file a 33-page electronic application. The applicant will share numerous aspects of their experience while seeking letters of support from colleagues and the those who are familiar with their work as a lawyer.
Once the application and supplemental documents are filed, all interested candidates will be vetted. This includes an interview and rating by the State Bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee. In addition, a background check will be conducted to determine the applicant’s “fitness” to serve as a judge.
Names of those making the shortlist will be presented to the Governor’s Office for additional consideration before the Governor makes an appointment. In the case of Judge Kengis, that appointment is anticipated to be announced by June 30, 2023. If that is not possible due to time constraints, the Governor can assign a Visiting Judge to manage the docket until a judge can be selected.
The person selected by Governor Whitmer to fill Judge Kengis’ seat will complete the current term then participate in the election process leading to the November 2024 election in order to remain as judge in the 48th Circuit Court.
Finally, Probate Family Court Judge Buck is age-limiting out of his position. Because he plans to remain until the end of his term, this position will follow the straight election path for the November 2024 election.
As is evident, the Allegan County court system will seat several new judges. Voters can keep their ears and eyes open for candidates wishing to take a place on the judge’s bench, become educated in the job description for each judge, then learn more about the candidates and their qualifications.
In the interim, the Governor can assist in filling mid-term vacancies in order to manage the case docket in an efficient and effective manner.
It is important to remember that these requirements apply only to Michigan state judges. Federal judges are appointed by the President for life (or impeachment) so they have a different process in becoming a judge.