Interview: 22nd Circuit Court Challenger Michael Woodyard Pledges To Dispense Justice “Fairly.”
by P.D. Lesko
Michael Woodyard is either Gandalf or Saruman, it just depends on whom you ask. He is challenging Judge Timothy Connors for his seat on the 22nd Circuit Court, a seat Connors has either warmed, or filled admirably, depending on whom you ask. In Washtenaw County, local lawyers simply don’t run against judicial incumbents. Lawyers will explain that it’s because a lawyer who challenges an incumbent and loses could then end up appearing before the incumbent. The obvious fear is that the incumbent judges would hold grudges against their opponents and then make them suffer for it. Considering the fact that judges are supposed to be the adults in the room while lawyers and litigants squabble and scrabble, the prospect that judges would behave vindictively because they had to run for elective office rather than get a free ride every few years should get a little more press than it does.
In Oakland County five incumbent circuit county judges are fending off challengers this election season. It is suspected that a single litigant may be secretly targeting one or more incumbent judges, as the challengers have been the beneficiaries of a million-dollar ad blitz funded by an unknown donor or donors using out-of-state corporations to conceal their identity and motives.
Michael Woodyard (right) lives in Washtenaw County, but works for the Wayne County Prosecutor. Thus, he stands to suffer little professional fall-out as a result of his run against Judge Connors—at least in Wayne County. Here in Washtenaw County, an anonymous letter allegedly mailed to Woodyard urging him to withdraw from the race suggests that his name will be mud should Woodyard “force” local members of the Bar to pony up money to fund Connors’s campaign. Of course, the letter writer implies the local Bar Association and its members are forced to pony up to cover the campaign costs of the sitting judge. Perhaps members of the local Bar prefer to think of it as extortion, rather than blackmail.
A2Buzz.org was created in 2005, and the domain name doesn’t expire until 2014. In a nutshell, the site claims to have been “instrumental in exposing the behavior of Timothy Connors – Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge.” The site is outdated, and many of the links broken. Rob Packard, the reporter who allegedly had this to say about Connors in a quote from A2Buzz.org, works at WNWO in Toledo, Ohio:
“As an award winning television journalist, I am frequently required to attend court hearings. I have a great deal of respect for judges and their position. In the hearings I attended in this matter, I observed Judge Connors to be rude, constantly interrupting, inattentive, rolling his eyes, sighing, yelling, avoiding eye contact, staring out the window. I was shocked. There was a clear sense of bias in Judge Connors demeanor. I have covered federal, civil and criminal court cases for more than a decade. I have never witnessed such a mean and biased behavior in any Judge before.”
Several comments posted anonymously to AnnArbor.com in response to Woodyard’s announcement that he intended to run for the Circuit Court were similarly pointed about Connors’s demeanor in his courtroom. In both 2000 and 2006, Judge Melinda Morris pulled down thousands more votes than her colleague Judge Timothy Connors when they both ran for re-election unopposed. In 2006, when he last ran for re-election, Connors got a little over 65,000 votes out of the 135,126 ballots cast.
To be sure, Michael Woodyard will be outspent, and he will have to make do with just a fraction of the endorsers and endorsements the incumbent will have. However, over the past three years, voters in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County hasve delivered some rude surprises at the polls both to entrenched political candidates, as well as to supporters of ballot proposals that seemed sure to pass, then didn’t. Could Woodyard win? In a 1999 issue of Court Review, a piece about public confidence in our court system argues that, “For most of our nation’s history, perceptions of, and public trust and confidence in, the U.S. Supreme Court have served as the bellwether of the public’s attitudes toward the judiciary. Indeed, people’s opinions about the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to dictate the general attitude toward the judiciary.” If this is true, it’s bad news for Connors. According to a July 2012 piece in the New York Times, the U.S. Supreme Court has an approval rating of just 40 percent. The Pew Research Center’s measure of favorability concerning the U.S. Supreme Court for 2012 is the lowest in 25 years.
A2Politico: Tell us a little about yourself, your connections to Washtenaw County.
Michael Woodyard: My family moved to Southeastern Michigan in 1976, when I was 10. I lived in Ypsilanti while I attended Eastern Michigan University, graduating in 1997. In 2002 I bought a home in Ann Arbor. I’ve lived here since, and my kids, now 10 and 8, are enrolled in the city’s public schools.
I find the question of community ties for judicial candidates fascinating. Voters who are choosing a candidate for a policy-making elective office like city council or state representative probably would want someone in office who is just like them. Having someone who has lived their whole life in town might be a good way to tell if someone is like you. But a judge doesn’t make laws or policy. A judge interprets the law as it is written, and the law is the same in Ann Arbor as it is in Ishpeming and in Detroit.
We are very fortunate that Washtenaw County, with the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University and various auto suppliers and tech companies, is a destination for people from all over the world. So it’s quite possible that you will find tremendously qualified people who haven’t lived here their whole lives. Basing one’s decision on who to support whether the candidate’s parents went to Huron High School sort of ignores the well-qualified folks who came here later in life.
The law requires that a judge live in the circuit in which he or she serves. So in that respect, my connection to Washtenaw County is important. This is my home, this is where my child was born, were my kids go to school. But insofar as a connection to the community makes it more or less likely that I’ll be a “good” judge, I don’t think that’s an apt data point.
I think a more appropriate question is: how much experience do I have in court, what sort of experience do I have in advocating for justice, will I hold everyone equally accountable before the law, no matter if they’re rich or poor, black or white. And on those points, I am proud of my record, and confident I will serve with distinction.
A2Politico: Generally, sitting judges get free rides during elections because lawyers who work in the same county are afraid to challenge them for office. You live in Washtenaw County, but work in Wayne County. That explains why you don’t have to fear professional retaliation in Washtenaw County for challenging an incumbent judge, but what makes you think you’ll do a better job than a jurist whose been there since 1997?
Michael Woodyard: The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over felony criminal cases, certain civil cases, divorce, adoption, child protection, child custody, juvenile delinquency, and other matters. All of these are important areas of law, but the heart of the court lies in its administration of criminal justice. And as a 10-year veteran of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, I have an expertise and depth of experience in law and the administration of justice that is not matched by any other candidate.
According to the Michigan Code of Professional Responsibility, a prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. So as a “minister of justice,” I have fought for 10 years on behalf of children and families. I’ve represented the People of the State of Michigan in 20 different district courts and in front of 27 different circuit court judges. I’ve tried more than 100 cases to verdict before juries and judges. I’ve handled more than 800 arrest warrants. I have an intimate and deep familiarity with the workings of the system of justice.
My opponent has been assigned a civil docket for the past 15 years. These cases are important, with real people trying to resolve important questions. But my opponent simply doesn’t have the depth of experience that I have in criminal law, in advocating for justice under difficult, adversarial circumstances. It is that rich experience that makes me uniquely qualified to serve as judge.
A2Politico: Who’s on Team Woodyard, helping you with your campaign?
Michael Woodyard: My campaign is a completely grass-roots effort. The everyday staff consists of me and my girlfriend, Veena Kulkarni, a magnificent concert pianist, teacher, and gracious thinker. Ebru Uras, a friend and former United States Foreign Service officer, is contributing her expertise. Several attorneys I work with are involved. We’ve got a number of strong supporters at our church, and of course, my kids are a big help, too.
A2Politico: Both you and Judge Connors are on Facebook, and you’re on Twitter. Is social media playing a significant role in your campaign?
Michael Woodyard: Social media is a great way to keep supporters up to date on what’s going on, to invite folks to events, and to share information about the campaign.
In fact, we recently updated my website (woodyard4judge.com) to provide direct links to court opinions and government documents containing information about my record and my opponent’s record, so voters can see the facts, without any spin or campaign gloss. This is a terrific way to fold important campaign information and digital technology into a seamless presentation.
A2Politico: Judge Connors was appointed by a Republican governor (Engler). While judgeships are technically non-partisan, politicos-in-the-know understand that Michigan’s bench has become politically polarized. Where do you fall on the political spectrum?
Michael Woodyard: I’m a life-long Democrat, and my perspective on the law is formed with a background in prosecution. I believe that we all have a responsibility to work to improve society, and I also believe that people must be accountable for their conduct. I think that interpretation of statutes should be careful, and precedent must be followed. The law is the law, and my conviction is to apply it fairly and with integrity, regardless of who the lawyer is standing in front of me, regardless of the social status of the litigants.
A2Politico: A2Politico has been getting emails from local lawyers about the fact that Judge Connors works for the University of Michigan as a Lecturer (with a .9 appointment and a pro-rata salary of $609,145.78 as of 2011) and yet he refuses to recuse himself when cases involving the University of Michigan come before him. Should a Circuit Court Judge recuse himself from hearing and ruling on cases that involve his employer, or is this a tempest in a judicial teapot?
Michael Woodyard: Michigan Court Rule 2.003 lists a variety of situations in which a judge might disqualify himself, or in which a party may seek a judge’s disqualification. One circumstance is when the judge has “more than a de minimis economic interest in the subject matter in controversy that could be substantially impacted by the proceeding.”
I suppose one would have to argue that my opponent could get fired from his $54,000 a year teaching job at U of M if he doesn’t rule in favor of the university, and he therefore has a direct interest in the outcome of the cases. But that is nothing more than speculation, and probably not true, anyway.
What isn’t speculative, however, is that his substantial paycheck from the university – and his wife’s new appointment as a family law professor at the university’s law school – raises fair questions about the appearance of impropriety. And that is the subject of a few provisions of the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct.
“Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions on conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly.” M.C.J. Canon 2 (2)(A)
In particular, while a judge is encouraged to teach and take part in activities that promote understanding of the law, the “judge should refrain from financial and business dealings that tend to reflect adversely on the judge’s impartiality or judicial office, interfere with the proper performance of judicial duties, exploit the judicial position, or involve the judge in frequent transactions with lawyers or persons likely to come before the court on which the judge serves.” M.C.J. Canon 5 (C)(1).
If a judge takes in about $54,000 from a teaching job at the U of M, and his wife also is employed by the University as a law school professor, at the same time that the judge regularly rules on controversies involving the University, those facts alone do not appear to violate any specific canons or rules of ethics. The situation may, however, raise a legitimate question about the appearance of impropriety. And that is a question that each judge will have to answer for himself.
A2Politico: In May, you allegedly received an anonymous letter (which you posted to your Facebook page) urging you to drop out of the race. It wasn’t a threat, per se, but nonetheless it wasn’t very sporting to suggest anonymously that you have no business running for office because you don’t practice in Washtenaw County, and will cost members of the local bar money when they are be forced to contribute to Judge Connors’s re-election campaign. The letter does make a fair point that few in the political/legal communities in the county know you, professionally. Someone recently suggested to A2P that you’re either very brave or extremely foolish. Which is it? A little of both, maybe?
Michael Woodyard: Judges are required to act on behalf of litigants and the community, not on behalf of their friends or local attorneys or the political classes. So the question is really whether the voters think my decade of experience fighting for the rights of children and families who have been victimized by crime in one of the largest and busiest and most violent jurisdictions in the United States qualifies me to fairly and justly determine controversies as judge.
I also think it’s fair to point out that “professional,” for a lawyer, has to do with written and oral advocacy, and the lawyer’s demonstrated abilities to be just. That is a different question from whether one talks to a lawyer at bar association functions, or if one thinks the lawyer is a nice guy.
That said, I’m neither brave nor foolish. I am dedicated to public service, and committed to the ideas of accountability, safety and community. Since at least 1954, Michigan law has provided for contested, non-partisan election of circuit court judges. Local media has reported that this race is the first time that an incumbent Washtenaw Circuit judge has been challenged. I think that’s a shame. I think that a judge, like any elected public servant, should be proud of their record and should place that record before the electorate every chance he gets. And if the electorate thinks another person has the qualifications needed to fulfill those specific duties, than someone else should be elected.
A2Politico: How’s the fundraising going? Care to share how much money you’ve raised thus far for your campaign? Have you self-funded at all?
Michael Woodyard: Our campaign is a grass-roots labor of love. I haven’t raised tons of money, I haven’t gotten donations from PACs or Super PACs. I am supported by friends, family, members of my church, and the many, many people that I meet and talk with about my record.
I predict that when financials are reported by the state Bureau of Elections later this month, you will see that my opponent has crushed me in terms of raising money from local attorneys, PACS and members of the political and social establishment.
A2Politico: You endorsed a candidate in the August primary. A2P got a tip that this is against the Judicial Code of Ethics for Michigan Judges. You’re not a judge, of course, so it’s a moot point, and we told our tipster to take two aspirin and call us in the morning. However, one would expect a candidate for judge to know the rules about endorsing in political contests. Then again, Michigan Supreme Court candidate Bridget McCormack, just endorsed Judge Connors and he graciously accepted it via his blog. Care to comment?
Michael Woodyard: It’s not a moot point. The particular canon prohibits the endorsement of candidates for non-judicial elected office, and applies to judges and candidates for judicial office as well. Frankly, I was very surprised when you asked me this question, because I haven’t endorsed any candidate for non-judicial office. (In fact, I had to ask you whom I had endorsed!)
It turned out that I attended a fund raiser in May, 2012, for Chuck Warpehoski (my girlfriend serves on the board of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, an organization of which Chuck is the director), and the names written down on the sign-in sheet ended up on Chuck’s website under the heading “endorsements.” When you brought this to my attention I immediately asked Chuck to take my name off the list, and he did.
A2Politico: You write on your website: “As judge, Mike will bring his passion for service to every decision he makes. He will respect the law, not bend it to favor rich or poor. He’ll respect the office, recognizing that a judge, like everyone else, has to earn your trust every day. And Mike will respect the people who appear before him, treating everyone fairly, ensuring that justice is served.” Certainly, several comments in response to the AA.com article in which your candidacy was announced, suggest Judge Connors should be voted out of office. Are you intimating that Judge Connors bends the law to favor certain groups, or treats petitioners and attorneys unfairly?
Michael Woodyard: I am simply sharing what I value, how I will comport myself as judge. I will respect the law, the litigants and the system of public justice. I will devote myself to improving the community through fair, evenhanded and predictable application of the law. I’ve seen the comments and talked with lots of people in the community, but I have not appeared in front of Judge Connors. I would let attorneys and others who have appeared in front of Judge Connors discuss his judicial temperament.
A2Politico: Campaigns for judgeships are the condiciones sine quibus non for a game of insider political baseball. Can you finish up by explaining (without using Latin) why the race for this circuit court judgeship should matter a lot to the average citizen? How does a circuit judge touch the life of an average voter?
Michael Woodyard: Circuit judges are involved in the most important issues affecting a person’s life: child custody, divorce, felony criminal cases, civil disputes, and family matters of various types. A circuit court judge has a far more direct and immediate effect on the individual appearing before the court than do all of the larger structures of government. And by assuming such a direct role with the individual, the court, by extension, plays an essential part in the community.
These are the things I’ve learned over the past decade, representing the People of the State of Michigan in court every day of the week. The circuit court can be a partner in the community, working to foster a sense of accountability, to improve and maintain safety and to strengthen the community by dispensing justice in a fair, evenhanded and predictable manner. As judge, that is what I will do.
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