Veronique Liem on the 22nd Circuit Court, family law, and why she wants to be a judge

I had the occasion last night to exchange several emails with judicial candidate Veronique Liem. What follows is our conversation. My hope is that it’s useful to those of you out there, like me, who have only a cursory understanding of the 22nd Circuit Court and how it operates. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but my hope is that it at least helps shed a little light on the subject. (Liem, for those of you who don’t know her, is running for the seat being vacated by Judge Don Shelton, who, at the age of 70, is precluded from running for another term.)

VeroniqueMARK: As I don’t believe I’ve ever written about a judicial race in the past, perhaps we should start with a general overview of the Washtenaw County court system… How many judges to do we currently have hearing cases in the County, and how is the caseload divided between them?

VERONIQUE: The Washtenaw County court system is composed of three district courts (15th District and 14A and 14B Districts), a probate court and a circuit court. The probate and circuit courts are now unified as the Washtenaw County Unified Trial Court. In the unified trial court, judges are assigned dockets independently of their specific title. Several judges, in other words, may be sharing a specific kind of case, though the case assignments are randomly made and one cannot choose a judge. For example, several judges are assigned family law cases as those represent a very large part of the caseload.

The district court judges hear cases involving misdemeanors where the maximum sentence is less than one year, civil cases where damage claims are below $25,000, landlord and tenant and small claim cases. The probate court docket includes trust and estates cases, guardianship and conservatorship cases and mental health commitment cases. The circuit court has jurisdiction over all family law cases, personal protection orders, felony cases, misdemeanors where the maximum sentence is more than one year, civil cases where damage claims are above $25,000, and juvenile cases.There are seven district court judges, two probate judges and five circuit court judges. The circuit and probate judges are part of the unified trial court and have overlapping dockets.

MARK: And do I understand correctly that you’re running for the circuit court seat that would be responsible for the family law docket?

VERONIQUE: Yes. I am running for the circuit court seat that is up for election this year. That seat has been designated to hear family law cases, all personal protection orders and as back-up for juvenile cases. There is also a probate seat that is up for election this year, but that is a different seat that will hear probate and family law cases.

MARK: I’m embarrassed to say so, but, up until last month, during a conversation with our mutual friend Dick Soble, I’d never known that, when I was voting for a particular circuit court judge, I was actually voting for an individual to assume responsibility for a predetermined docket. I just weighed the candidate’s qualifications in a general sense, without giving any thought to the kinds of cases he or she would be presiding over. I guess I must have thought that cases were just divvied-up on a case-by-case basis to whichever available circuit court judge had the most appropriate background.

VERONIQUE: Judges are indeed assigned specific dockets, but these assignments can change over time and within the unified trial court. However, for the two open seats in Washtenaw County, the assigned dockets, as recently designated, are likely to remain unchanged for at least several years.

Because approximately 65% of all civil case filings in our circuit courts are family law cases and many families are impacted by such cases, the upcoming 2014 elections give citizens an opportunity to elect a judge who has a strong background in family law, cares about children and families, and wants to oversee those cases. I have such background and interests.

MARK: So, you’ve been trying family law cases before the local circuit court for some time?

VERONIQUE: Yes, I have represented individuals in family law cases for 25 years. Though I encourage cooperative approaches to resolving cases, for example with mediation or collaborative divorces, that is not always possible. So, I have litigated many family law cases in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court and some of them have required a trial.

MARK: Given your experience, what, if anything, do you feel needs to change with regard to how family court matters are handled in Washtenaw County?

VERONIQUE: Our local courts have a record of leadership, most recently with the peacemaking court being sponsored by Judge Connors and other specialized dockets. More can be done however. Motions can be scheduled to minimize the costly waiting time for litigants. Resources about relevant community services and other relevant information should be given, especially to parties who are not represented by counsel (“pro per litigants”). It is also very important for the family court to consistently support collaborative and mediated methods of resolving cases and to suggest possible solutions to difficult issues that hinder a settlement. Families and children greatly benefit from resolving disputes outside of litigation and a judge can actively encourage and facilitate such efforts. The family court should also be willing to try new ways of resolving certain types of cases, for example with a specialized docket for domestic abuse cases. Decisions of the family law court, where appropriate, must take into account the voice of the children with sufficient but thoughtful interviews. Decisions that promote the growth of parents also benefit their children.

MARK: I assume you know your competitors in this race. Given what you know about them, how would you say that your approach might differ?

VERONIQUE: My approach, if elected, will be guided by the above principles but also by my personal and professional experience. I have a very strong background in family law and have an in-depth knowledge of the applicable laws. This is why I was admitted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a national professional organization that has very selective criteria for admission. Only five attorneys in Washtenaw County are fellows of this organization and they do not include my “competitors.” If elected, I will rely on that base of experience and knowledge to decide cases. Moreover, in addition to having experience with complex family law cases, I have litigated other circuit cases such as commercial, business and employment cases. That experience is important to understanding a wide range of issues. I have an MBA and prior work experience in management and finance which gives me a foundation for running an efficient and effective court and for understanding and deciding the more complex cases.

MARK: Can you give me an example of a case you argued before the circuit court and how, if you would have been the judge presiding over that case, it might have played out differently?

VERONIQUE: That is difficult to do due to privacy concerns for my clients. However, I can say in general terms that I support awards of spousal support in cases, for example, where one spouse compromised his or her career to raise children and support the other spouse’s career. I also respect and value individuals’ efforts at developing themselves and learning and would seriously consider those in my decisions about spousal support awards.

MARK: It’s something of an aside, but I’m curious to know your thoughts on the recent conviction of Pennsylvania Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, who were found guilty of taking kickbacks in exchange for handing down lengthy sentences at private detention centers for juvenile offenders. I know it’s hundreds of miles away, but I’d like to know, in your opinion, how events like these might make the job of being a judge more difficult… I mean, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people don’t exactly trust in the system these days, right? And, as this case illustrates, sometimes that’s justified.

VERONIQUE: In my view, those judges deserved the longer sentences eventually handed-out. There should be strong consequences and sentences for such horrific conduct that has such a harmful impact on the life of young people and diminishes the trust that people have in the judicial system. This being said, I do think that this type of corruption is not the norm in the judicial system, that a majority of people do trust the judiciary, and that many judges strive to meet their duty with integrity. I will do so if elected.

MARK: You mentioned earlier that 65% of all civil case filings in our circuit courts are family law cases, and I’m curious as to how that compares with other communities around Michigan, and the rest of the country. And, if it’s higher than average, what, in your opinion, accounts for that?

VERONIQUE: My understanding is that the Washtenaw County data are consistent with the average in our State.

MARK: I’m curious as to the breakdown of the family law cases that we’re currently seeing in Washtenaw County. Would you happen to know, for instance, what percentage are custody cases, as opposed to other kinds of cases?

VERONIQUE: About half of the family law cases are divorce and post-divorce cases. Other family law cases are paternity cases, child support cases, personal protection orders, adoption and juvenile cases.

MARK: As you noted earlier, The Michigan Supreme Court recently approved the establishment of a “peacemaking court” to be built around Native American tribal court principles. I know very little about it, except that it’s the first of its kind in the country, and Judge Connors is heading it up locally. I understand that it may be a bit early for you to have formed an opinion, but I thought that I’d ask if you have an initial impression that you’d like to share.

VERONIQUE: I am very interested in the peacemaking court and support Judge Connors’ efforts toward promoting one more avenue to resolve cases that come before the court. As you mention, the peacemaking court is inspired by American Indian tribal courts. It seeks to resolve cases by looking at relationships that have been impaired and need to heal, and by involving the relevant community, if possible. It is a form of restorative justice. The focus is no longer just on the individual involved but his or her community and important relationships. I believe this approach has a lot of potential for resolving some family law cases as well as juvenile offender cases. I do however need to learn more about it and how it exactly works.

MARK: Lastly, are there, in your opinion, things that we could be doing outside of the family courts that could help reduce the caseload that we’re currently seeing?

VERONIQUE: It would be helpful to provide greater support to families in difficulty, better access to mental health treatment in some cases, more community and extended family support, and fairer wages in some instances. Young people could benefit from some perspective about marriage before they decide to marry. People who choose to divorce can resolve their divorce issues including custody before a case is filed, through mediation or a collaborative resolution process. This makes the caseload much more manageable but, more importantly, promotes positive post-divorce co-parenting.

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5 Comments

  1. Pat maynard
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Very nice interview!!!

  2. Posted March 6, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Interesting.

  3. anonymous
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Keeping more people out of court is a good thing. I don’t know how much power a judge has to see that accomplished, as much of it, as she says, depends on the availability of social services and the funding of public education, but she’s right.

  4. Edward
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    How does one participate in the Peacemaking Court? Is it the kind of thing where all parties would have to opt-in?

  5. Kim
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    You know who else had an MBA and a Law degree? Rick Snyder.

    Just kidding. Best of luck, Veronique.

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