The choice is clear
Back in August, I published a piece about Fake Democrats running in Michigan. One of those Fake Democrats is the appropriately-named Jim Fink who not only admits to being a Republican but whose biggest campaign donor is, in fact, the Republican Party. If you go to Republican Party headquarters/offices in Washtenaw County, there you will find Jim Fink signs. He has made many donations to Republican candidates, is anti-Choice and against marriage equality and civil rights for the LGBT community.
Despite this, Jim Fink has vigorously sought the endorsement of the Ann Arbor Democratic Club as well as the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (full disclosure: I am on the Executive Board of the WCDP as co-Vice Chair for Precinct Organizing.) He attended our conventions and forums. He parked his car, covered with his campaign magnets, at the entrance to the parking lot at our events to make it look as if we supported him. He asked us to put his literature and yard signs at our campaign office in Ypsilanti. In short, this confirmed, right wing Republican did everything he could do to get the Democratic Party to use their resources to support him.
We did not.
What we DID do is endorse his opponent, Carol Kuhnke. In contrast to Fink’s dishonesty and questionable character, Kuhnke is a fantastic candidate. Smart, honest, fair-minded and a true Democrat, Carol Kuhnke is the ideal choice for the 22nd District Court in Washtenaw County. While Kuhnke’s endorsements and experience are enough to convince most people that she’s the right candidate for this seat, the more you learn about her, the more the choice becomes clear.
Kuhnke is a native Michigander and was raised in Milan. She has been practicing law for 18 years and has been a fierce advocate for everyday Michiganders. I sat down with Carol to talk about her candidacy. We met at her law office on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor where she has a practice with attorney Peter Davis. It’s situated in an old home that has been renovated and filled with artwork that is simultaneously industrial and organic. It’s a welcoming, warm space that immediately makes you feel comfortable. I commented on that as we sat down.
“Yeah, one of my friends asked me, ‘Why would you want to leave this great office and great practice and go work in an institutional situation?’”
“So, what’s the answer to that question?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve spent almost 20 years working for people and enjoying what I can do to help someone with a problem or trying to make someone’s life better and I know that I can help a whole lot more as a judge. I love law. I love practicing the law. I love applying the law and seeing what it can do and what it’s weaknesses are and I hope to be able to do better.”
“Explain to me how the Circuit Court differs from, say, the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals or any other court,” I said. “I think that people, in general, don’t understand the different levels of the judicial system.”
“A lot of people don’t understand and I find that, as I’m campaigning, I do a lot of civics lessons on people’s doorsteps,” Kuhnke said.
“The Circuit Court is the trial court of general jurisdiction,” she continued. “Most cases that are filed start in the Circuit Court. If they don’t, it’s because they started in one of the specialty courts like the Probate Court or the District Court.
“The District Court handles traffic, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims, misdemeanors, and civil cases where the amount in controversy is under $25,000. The Probate Court handles estates, guardianships, disabled folks, things of that nature. So the specialty courts pull things out of the general pool of cases.
“Everything else goes to the Circuit Court and those cases are divided into three categories which are criminal cases, civil cases where the amount in controversy is more than $25,000, and the family docket which is divorce and custody.”
“So, you do all three of those things?”
“As an attorney, I have done all three of those things. Right now I’m doing mostly civil cases.”
“How did you make the decision to run for the Circuit Court?” I asked.
“I’ve practiced all over the state of Michigan and some in the state of Illinois. I’ve practiced in front of really great judges and really bad judges and I’ve seen the effect that a really bad judge has on the whole process and on the judicial system itself and the faith that people have in trusting their case to a judge. They don’t have a choice but, ideally, someone could walk out having lost and say, ‘I know that the judge was fair. I might disagree and wish the outcome was different, but the judge treated me well, was respectful to me, listened to my arguments and decided the case based on the law’. That doesn’t happen all the time.”
“Tell me a little bit about your background. Are you from Michigan?” I asked.
“I was born in Monroe and spent most of my childhood in Milan. I went to the University of Michigan for my undergrad and, after that, went to Chicago for law school. I graduated from the Kent College of Law in 1993 and started practicing in Chicago, spending three years there as a young attorney. But then I wanted to come back to Michigan.”
“And now you live here and have a couple of adopted kids, I see.”
“Yes, I live in Ann Arbor and my kids are 13 and 12.”
“How do you run a campaign for Circuit Court? I mean, is it just you going door-to-door or do you have a team of people?” I asked. “How does that work?”
“I have an intern and a campaign manager and then a number of people with full-time jobs who are willing to help out and knock doors in a neighborhood,” she replied. “I, personally, am knocking on a lot of doors and going to places where voters are congregating.”
“These are all non-partisan races but, at the Supreme Court level, the major parties make endorsements. The Washtenaw County Dems have endorsed you. How does political affiliation come into play as a judge, in your opinion? You’re coming from a Democratic perspective versus Jim Fink coming from a Republican perspective. How does that change how you are as a judge?”
“I don’t think that it should change how I am as a judge at all. The law is the law and you apply the law. There are a lot of ways to answer that question and I’d like to touch on a few of them. I’ll start by talking about associating myself with the Democratic Party while I’m running in a nonpartisan race. If I were running against another Democrat right now, the race would be different. I would probably not have as much support from the Democratic Party because the Party would be supporting two candidates.
“But, I’m running against someone who, quite early in the process, was courting the Democratic Party. Not just Democrats but the Party itself. During that process, he made the point often that it’s a nonpartisan race and that is true. But, I am a Democrat and he is a Republican. In fact, he’s a very conservative Republican and there came a point the Democratic Party said, ‘It’s been nice getting to know you but we’re not going to work for you’. So, I have sought and was happy to receive the support that the County Democrats were willing to give me. I’m grateful for that.
“Another facet of the answer is that I think most people believe that a judge’s beliefs do come into play on the bench — their beliefs and their experiences and their worldview. And we know that that’s so because we see the fights that go on at the U.S. Supreme Court level and how interested the general public is in how a judge or potential justice feels about Choice and how they feel about a lot of things that affect the day-to-day lives of everyday people.
“The point that my opponent has tried to make throughout this campaign is that it’s non-partisan; all you have to do is follow the law. If he truly believes that then I’m afraid for what he ever learned in law school or as a practicing attorney because there are a lot of places where the law specifically gives discretion to the judge and doesn’t really tell the judge how to apply that discretion or what the guidelines are.
“So, there are grey areas, whether they happen by accident because the Legislature hasn’t covered a particular potential decision or where they know the situation is out there and they are giving discretion to the judge: ‘You just do your best. Here’s the issue, here’s a couple of things you might think about. Now, Judge, you go and do your best.’ What else does a judge have to draw on in that situation but their worldview and their life experiences and their belief system? So, that’s where I can see that it makes sense for the Democratic Party to support me and where I certainly don’t have any problem accepting their help.”
“Can you give me an example of one of those grey areas where personal background and worldview would impact a decision you might make?” I asked.
“Well, a really esoteric one that we encounter all the time when we try cases is that a judge isn’t supposed to allow in any evidence that is more prejudicial than probative. Probative means relative to deciding the issue. That’s one where the judge is going to look at it and say, ‘I could do it this way or I could do it that way’ and the Court of Appeals isn’t going to reverse that judge unless the judge has abused the discretion. So, you might have to look at two things and say, for example, ‘Is it really relevant that this guy had a DUI ten years ago and now he’s being charged with drug possession? Is that more prejudicial than probative? Is that really relevant? Is that going to hurt his case in a way that doesn’t make sense in the context of what he’s charged with right now?’ That’s one example.
“An example that does not come up as often but is far more touchy, I believe, is what’s called the Judicial Bypass case where a young woman, under 18 years old who is pregnant and wants an abortion and can’t get the consent of a parent to have that abortion, that young woman has the option of going to the Court and asking permission. The judge is charged with questioning her on whether she has given careful thought to the decision and has she sought the advice of friends and people that are trusted advisers and, then, has she made a reasoned decision?
“A judge who is adamantly opposed to abortion in all cases is going to decide that case differently than someone like me.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “I wondered about that and I think that’s a question that a lot of people have because we put judges up on pedestals in some respects and then we see that those pedestals aren’t justified sometimes.”
“It’s true. And a lot of people think that a trial court judge, a Circuit Court judge wouldn’t have anything to do with the abortion issue because that’s decided in the U.S. Supreme Court like with Roe vs. Wade. But it has a very practical day-to-day application Michigan because Michigan requires parental consent.”
“That’s not the case in every state then?”
“No, no. It’s not.”
It’s worth noting that Jim Fink IS an anti-Choice Republican. I went on to ask about Fink’s decision to try to ingratiate himself with Democrats and, in fact, misrepresent himself in order to get the County Democrats to give him support and use their resources to help his campaign.
“The fact that Jim [Fink] is misrepresenting himself in a lot of ways with regards to his background and his politics, the fact that he courted the Democratic Party when he’s clearly a Republican, to me speaks to his character and casts doubt on his character in my mind,” I said. “How do you feel about that, is that something you’d be willing to comment on?”
“I’ll tell you when it really stung me, when it really felt like he was being disingenuous, was when I saw the campaign finance reports last Friday, and I saw that his biggest donor was the Republican Party,” Kuhnke replied. “I didn’t receive any money from the Democratic Party. None at all. My money came from individuals and his money has come from a party that he has pretended to have no affiliation with all along. It just really struck me and, again, I’ve not received any money from the Democratic Party. I’ve received money from Democrats.
“And I’ve received donations from Republicans. He talks about the broad bipartisan support that he has. Well, I have bipartisan support, too.”
“Which endorsement are you most proud of?” I asked. “When you talk about your endorsements, which is the one that you mention first?”
“Justice Marilyn Kelly — one of the greatest Supreme Court justices we’ve ever had. I’m very, very proud of that endorsement.”
“One of the things that you mention on your website is that you believe there are ways that we can streamline the judicial process in Washtenaw County. Are there any things that you specifically have in mind that you’d like to accomplish in that regard?” I asked.
“I do, I do,” she answered. “It’s not all that exciting to read about or listen to, but I know as a civil attorney that the civil docket consumes a lot more of the judge’s time than the criminal docket. Over 90% of the cases settle without trial, but we have a LOT of cases that settle right before trial so that doesn’t save the system much time or money. The judicial resources, the court’s resources and the parties’ resources have all been expended by that time. I think that with a more hands-on judicial approach earlier on in cases, we could see a much higher ratio of cases that settle earlier or maybe half-way to the end rather than right at the end.”
“And you as a judge could impact that?”
We finished our conversation by talking about how long judges often serve. The Circuit Court position is a six-year term and once a judge is elected, they are frequently reelected multiple times. In fact, as Kuhnke explained to me, the re-election ratio is so high that we could literally be making a 20 or 30 year decision.
“Are you ready for that? Are you ready to be a judge for 20 or 30 years?”
“Yeah,” she said confidently and with a smile. “Yes, I am.”