Silent Justice: Special Investigation Into A Controversial State - WLNS TV 6 Lansing - Jackson | Your Local News Leader

Silent Justice: Special Investigation Into A Controversial State Law

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(WLNS) - Making sausage is not the prettiest sight.

"This is a whole pork shoulder. We're not using trim, we're not using body parts. We're using fresh clean meat," says Brandon Decker as he prepares meat for sausage.

Decker, a manager at Mert's Meats in Okemos says often sausage gets bad wrap. People think it's dirty. Decker says that may have been true in the past, but today most sausage is made from very clean meat.

"We inspect it thoroughly, the pork that we put into the sausage is good enough to eat like any other piece of pork," said Decker.

What does sausage have to do with this story? We'll get there. For now we'll transition from the kitchen to the courtroom.

"Anytime someone sues the state it goes before the court of claims," explains Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

From tax cases to the governor's nerd-fund, the court of claims handles a variety of suits against the state.

Since the 70s these cases were brought exclusively before Ingham County Circuit Court Judges like Rosemarie Aquilina.

"Most of the state agencies are in Lansing, it's their headquarters. If there's an action against them and you need people to respond they're right there," said Bruce Timmons.

Timmons worked on the legislation that brought the court to Lansing in the 70's.

He says the move was practical, and you could make a strong argument that nobody knows Michigan judicial policy better than he, in fact he wrote a lot of it.

"I retired after 45 years with the legislature. I started as an intern back in 67', 68', and I've dealt with court issues almost the entire time.

Fast-forward thirty-five years to this past November, our current legislature decided to undo Timmons' work.

"When someone sues the state of Michigan, why do the judges only come from Ingham County, this doesn't make any sense to me?"

Senator Rick Jones says only three percent of the state elects Ingham County judges, they shouldn't make rulings that affect the entire state.

He introduced a bill to change that.

"So I came up with allowing the Supreme Court to select appeals court judges. Four would be selected, and one at a time they would serve as the court of claims," said Jones.

But Judge Aqualina cried foul.

She and the four other judges who handle these cases are elected in a democratic district.

She, along with some democratic state lawmakers say Jones' bill was an attempt to take certain cases away from her court, and hand-deliver them to the supreme court, which is controlled by republicans.

"They want to rig the courts, they want to stack the courts, they don't like what's coming out. It is sending a message to judges that if the legislature doesn't like what we do, they're going to take away our ability to rule," said Aquilina.

I asked Jones if he was just trying favorable rulings for Republicans he gave a resounding…

"No. in fact I've never been critical of the court of claims judges," said Jones.

But even Bruce Timmons, a lifelong Republican himself, says he's not buying it.

"I opened it up and read it and I said what is going on here," Timmons said.

Timmons testified against the bill before a house and senate committee.

"This strikes me as not right. I don't know of any instance in the time I've covered this issue, which is forty-five years, where there has been action by the legislature to take a case away from a judge and give it to another judge. That's in effect what these are doing," Timmons said.

Despite the objections, the bill passed both chambers and the governor signed it within a matter of two weeks. It took affect right after it passed.

"I think it's an appropriate thing to do because it was really about getting better representation across the entire state," said Governor Snyder.

Timmons says he doesn't know exactly how it all came together, and he isn't sure he wants to.

"There are two things you don't want to see being made, sausage and laws. In this case it's an indignity to the sausage," said Timmons.

Which brings us back to Brandon Decker at Mert's Meats.

"We use fresh clean meats," said Decker.

"Absolutely," responded Decker when asked if sausage processors have "cleaned up" their act.

If you ask Timmons, sausage makers are looking better every day.

 

PART 2:

In November, it took our state legislature just two weeks to change an entire court system in place for 35 years.

"They want to rig the courts, they want to stack the courts, they don't like what's coming out because we follow the law," said Rosemarie Aqualina, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge.

Aquilina was one of a five Ingham County judges who handled lawsuits brought against the state's government.

That is until the new court of claims bill passed, which allowed the state supreme court to take certain cases in her court, midway through, and hand them to a different judge in the appeals court.

She doesn't hide her objections.

"This is the beginning of the dismantling of the justice system in Michigan," said Aqualina.

"This is judge-shopping in its worst form," said Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic Leader of the Michigan Senate.

Many democrats, including Senator Whitmer, believe the real motivation behind the Republican sponsored bill was to cherry-pick certain cases and put them into the hands of the state Supreme Court, which as they point out has a Republican majority.

"Is it to take the nerd fund questions out of the Ingham court so they can hand pick who determines them? Yeah, I think that's exactly what's happening here," said Whitmer.

"It's been more than thirty years, why now?" asked Six News Reporter Joe Khalil.

"Because some of the most important cases are coming down. We have the bankruptcy case, we have the open meetings act violations, we have teacher pensions. We have all sorts of cases in front of all five of us," Aqualina said.

But if this law was such a miscarriage of justice, why weren't more judges outraged like Aquilina?

The answer was unsettling. Six News obtained emails sent among dozens of circuit court judges,

Showing many thought if they stayed quiet about the court of claims bill, lawmakers would reward them with higher salaries.

"We currently are hoping for our first pay increase in over ten years. Adjusting the compensation is more important to the administration of justice than senate bill 652." says circuit court judge Charles Johnson in an e-mail.

Former president of the judges association Lita Popke says in another e-mail

"We do have legislative issues, most notably is our current strategy to restructure how judges are compensated. We cannot afford to jump into a legislative train where we may negatively impact an issue of concern to our membership."

And this from Oakland County Judge James Alexander, in an e-mial first reported by the Detroit Free Press, "If yall want to engage in a suicide mission that will impact our ability to get compensation so be it. Count the votes. You may not like it but its big boy politics."

 I spoke with Judge Alexander who told me lawmakers didn't promise he'd get a raise in exchange for keeping quiet, he says he just assumed if he spoke out, he wouldn't get one.

"Count the votes. People were opposing something that was very obviously going to go through the legislature. You pick your fights, you pick the ones that could be helpful or that you can win. This one we couldn't win. That's what I meant," said Alexander via phone.

All of the judges denied getting a "sweet deal" from lawmakers, but just two days after the court of claims bill passed, Housebill 5153 was introduced, to raise the salaries of those very same judges.

"I understand why it creates some degree of suspicion," said State Rep. John Walsh who sponsored the bill.
Walsh acknowledges the timing of his bill seems like a big coincidence, but denies ever making any back-door deals with judges.

"No one in this legislature including me as the bill sponsor could've promised anyone action for neutrality or support on the Ingham County matter or any other matter."

To Walsh's credit, we searched but found no evidence of any direct link between the legislature and these judges.

But the fact remains, these people whom you elected to administer justice, evidenced by these e-mails decided to put their legal ideals aside in exchange for the possibility of a few more bucks in their pocket.   

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