Ann Arbor, Interview — October 27, 2014 at 6:49 am

INTERVIEW: Tracy Van den Bergh for Probate Judge – “Too often the voice of the vulnerable isn’t heard in our courts”


The race for Probate Judge in Washtenaw County has been hard fought and gotten a fair amount of attention locally. What many people are unaware of is the intense amount of politics that has played into this race. Having spoken with numerous people who are knowledgeable about the Probate Court, I’ve come to understand that two of the conservative judges on the court have worked very hard to see that their pick for the position, Julia Owdziej, was awarded an appointment to the seat just last spring, giving her the advantage of being labeled the incumbent.

Judge Nancy Wheeler (nee Francis), who held the Probate Court judge position that is being voted on had been out on medical leave several times. She was trying to work through the end of her term because it was very clear to her and many others that Circuit Court Judges Donald Shelton and David Schwartz wanted her out. There were good reasons for that because Judge Wheeler, due to her illness, was struggling to do the job and, according to some, falling asleep during trials, etc. But Judge Wheeler wanted to hold out until her term was up because she didn’t want Governor Snyder to make a political appointment of someone to fill out the short remaining time in her term. If appointed, that person would have had a decided advantage in the upcoming election because “incumbent” would appear next to their name on the ballot. She wasn’t the only one who felt this, it seems. When Judge Wheeler finally did step down, Judge Carol Kuhnke stepped up to take up the slack, working long days in an apparent effort to avoid an appointment.

Judges Shelton and Schwartz, in contrast, appear to have wanted an insider appointment, someone who agreed with their politics. Julia Owdziej had worked for Judge Shelton and shared the two men’s relatively conservative views.

Judge Wheeler retired on May 1st, nine days after the April 22nd deadline for petitions to be submitted to be on the ballot. She apparently believed, mistakenly as it turns out, that, by waiting until after the petition deadline, anyone appointed to fill her position would not be given the “incumbent” designation.

The opening was posted by the State Bar Association Wednesday, April 30th which was actually the day before Judge Wheeler’s retirement was announced. Oddly, the application to be appointed to the newly-opened position needed to be submitted to the Governor’s office on the following Monday, May 5th, just a few days later . Under normal situations, the deadline for submitting applications of this nature – which are around 40 pages long – is several weeks after the job is posted. In this instance it was two business days.

Tracy Van den Bergh put her application in the mail that Monday but later learned that the deadline of May 5th was the day the application need to be RECEIVED, not submitted.

In another odd departure from the norm, the local bar association is generally consulted on the applicants for a position such as this and asked to rate them. That did not happen in this case. I’m also told that both Judge Shelton and Judge Schwartz made multiple contacts to the Governor’s office pushing Owdziej’s appointment. Several people I have spoken with believe that Owdziej knew when the submission deadline was going to be ahead of the announcement of Judge Wheeler’s resignation, giving her extra time to prepare her application.

On June 2nd, Gov. Snyder appointed Julia Owdziej to the Probate Court for the remainder of Judge Wheeler’s term.

UPDATE: This picture to the right there was taken this morning at the office of the Washtenaw Couty Republican Party. If there’s any question as to Julia Owdziej’s political leanings, this should clear it up for you.

One other strange thing about this situation is that the reason given for the drastically shortened application process is that the Washtenaw County Court system is understaffed. Despite this, Owdziej’s position of Juvenile Court referee remains vacant. Owdziej has publicly acknowledged that the position is being held for her should she not win on November 4th.

Tracy Van den Bergh does not fit the mold of the sort of people Gov. Snyder has a history of appointing to judicial positions. Rather than working for a prosecutor’s office or a large law firm, she works for the nonprofit Legal Services of South Central Michigan (LSSCM). In her position, she provides legal services to disadvantaged residents of Washtenaw County. Because of her background, broad experience, and passion for advocating on behalf of vulnerable citizens, she has earned my personal endorsement.

You can learn more about Van den Bergh at her website HERE.

I sat down with Van den Bergh last week to talk about her candidacy.

Tell me about the Probate Court. For people that don’t know anything about the court system, what does the Probate Court do?

The Probate Court is about taking care of vulnerable individuals. So, on average, about 75% of the docket relates to mental health. Things like:

  • Involuntary hospitalizations due to psychiatric illness
  • Alternative treatment orders or assisted outpatient treatment where people are treated in the community
  • Adult guardianships where the courts make decisions about whether you, as an adult, can continue to make decisions for yourself
  • Conservatorships which is a limited guardianship, essentially, but involves taking over somebody’s financial affairs
  • Minor guardianships, placement of minor children when their parents can’t care for them
  • Judicial bypass – the Probate Court is the court where minors who are seeking an abortion without parental consent because they feel they can’t go to their parents, come to get permission.
  • Adoptions

Now, the Washtenaw County Probate Court is part of the Family Division, so they also handle divorce & custody as well as a limited number of personal protective orders (PPOs.)

One caveat that’s interesting is that we have a unified trial docket or a unified trial court. What that means is that a Probate Court judge can sit as a Circuit Court judge. That said, this particular election, the judges really wanted to assign the dockets beforehand and say, “We’re looking for someone with expertise in this area and this is going to be your docket, at least for the foreseeable future, at least for six years and maybe beyond.”

So, they put out a press release in January, and they said that the Probate Court would have the traditional probate docket, which it hasn’t always had, and divorce & custody – basically a family law docket. In Washtenaw County, something like 65% of all of the filings in the Circuit Court or the trial court are family law cases. There are so many family law cases that one judge cannot do them all. There’s probably enough for three or four judges doing family law.

There were several reasons that I was really excited to learn about the family docket. First, I think that, as someone who is a legal aid lawyer and has, going back to my time as a clinical social worker, worked to advocate for people with disabilities and psychiatric illness, basically vulnerable individuals, this was a perfect fit. The entire mission of the Probate Court is protecting vulnerable individuals. But, for me, there’s more to it than protecting them, it’s also making sure they have a voice. Unfortunately, with people with psychiatric illness, too often there voice isn’t heard.

To give you an example, I had a client when I was working dual-diagnosis. One day, I was in my office, eating a sandwich. I was 24 years old at the time, right out of social work school and I was treating him as his clinician, I was doing psychosocial assessments, I was seeing him once a week, I was running groups in the program, all kinds of diagnostic work. Well, he came in and, it wasn’t his hour right then, and he asked, “What are you eating?” And I said, “A tuna fish sandwich.”

He stopped and he looked at me and he was like, “Wow.” I said, “Michael. It’s no big deal. It’s just sandwich.” And he said, “No, it IS a big deal. You answered my question.” As a therapist, I was intrigued and said, “Why wouldn’t I answer your question?” and he said, “Well, you know, I asked my case manager the other day and she said clients shouldn’t ask us personal questions.”

I told him, “You know, I’m really sorry that that happened to you. What I’m sitting here eating right in front of you is not a personal question.”

People who have been in the system, especially people with disabilities, they’re not heard. They’re demonized. There’s a recent study that was talked about in the New York Times that said, if you have a psychiatric diagnosis and you go to your internist for the flu, you are less likely to get treatment. The minute they see that diagnosis, and inherent bias kicks in. You get less treatments. There’s less validation of your symptoms. Doctors tend not to listen to you. And it’s believed to be one of the factors in decreasing life expectancy in people who have a significant psychiatric illness.

That’s horrible.

That is horrible. I will be the kind of judge that understands this and who believes that people who are ill still can make choices for themselves and they need to be heard. They have to be protected but we have to balance that with their civil liberties. My idea with adult guardianships is that, if somebody needs assistance, you limit that order to leave them as much individual autonomy that you can. And you also have to be very, very careful that caseworkers, in their zealousness to help the individual, don’t forget that there are sometimes choices that are bad choices but that doesn’t necessarily mean the person is in danger. It might not have been the way you would have done it and if your friend did you’d, be like, “She’s so stupid, what’d she do that for?” But when you’re mentally ill and you make a bad decision, it’s like, “Oh, do we need a guardianship?” So, it’s a slippery slope.

There are also issues of exploitation.

This is interesting to me because when most people think about judges they think that you’re weighing the facts and you’re making these sort of dispassionate decisions about things. But Probate Court seems to be not quite like that. There seems to be more of the human element to it. Or there should be.

One of the things that people sometimes say about me is that I’m really eager and passionate and that’s not “judicial”. So, I ask them, “Does ‘judicial’ mean cold?” Because people are suffering in your court room. If you can do something to reach out to them, to treat them with dignity, why wouldn’t you? I’m not going to have this stony demeanor to fill some sort of preconceived notion of what a judge on the bench is going to look like.

So, I want to be sure we’re not rubber stamping these cases, that we’re not rubber stamping involuntary hospitalizations or guardianships.

The thing is, the judges appoint the lawyers to these cases. One of the things that I’ve always been concerned about is, if you’re bread and butter is an appointment from the judge that you’re appearing in front and you’re representing a client, there’s an inherent conflict of interest there, because…

You want more business later…

Right, you want more business. As a legal aid lawyer, I have a lot of independence. My concern that even the perception by the attorney who’s representing the client that, if I push this judge too much, if I disagree with how the judge seems to be leaning, I might not get more business, that’s a problem that I worry about. We want to try to take away that bias. One of the things that I would like to do is to set up a system where the judge is taken out of the appointment equation. It’s never going to be perfect but come up with a way where there’s a bit of a wall between me and the appointments.

Another thing that I want to do as judge is sit down and have brown bag lunches with the attorneys every month and say, “I want you to fight for your clients. Let’s talk about how the court’s running. Let’s talk about what’s going on. Let’s have transparency. Because, you know, these cases … what’s “imminent risk”? They’re all fact-dependent. There’s the law and the whole mental health code, but it’s still fact-dependent. What does imminent risk mean to me as opposed to someone else.

There’s a new legislation being proposed that expands involuntary hospitalization to substance abuse disorders. As a clinician, I know that, in a lot of cases, substance abuse treatment really doesn’t work when people don’t want the treatment. There has to be a buy-in from the patient. So, we can order people to treatment but how effective is that going to be? We can put them in the hospital but, once you take them out, they go right back to their old behaviors.

It’s different that with mental issues because there are situations where someone who is actively psychotic can be given medication and they will be stabilized to a certain level and then their judgement improves. With substance abuse, the mechanics of addiction are such that it’s a different dynamic.

So, I think that having a legal understanding of the mental health code and all of the issues that come before the court, coupled with a really clinical expertise, understanding the dynamics of substance abuse is very important. Having worked from the other side where I was treating people and seeing how they were treated in the system, I have a unique perspective.

When they receive psychiatric reports, how many judges ask – and I have asked psychiatrists this – “How long did you spend with the patient before you made this decision?” I’ve been told as little as five minutes. Five minutes? Really?!

What in your background would enable you to accomplish the kinds of things that you’re talking about? Tell me about your background a little bit in terms of why you feel you’re uniquely qualified for this position than your opponent.

Twofold. The first is having this dual expertise, my Masters in Social Work where I treated people clinically and worked within those systems. I also have a pretty broad experience. I started out my career out of law school as a litigator for a large law firm. But, the problem for me there was that I didn’t have a passion for helping people who didn’t need the help.

I think I bring a perspective that court of working for people who are poor and understanding the dynamics of poverty which are huge in our court system. So many people who come before the court are low income. So, first you have to have a recognition of what low income people face and what’s realistic for the court to order.

I think a good example is minor guardianships. If the child is, say, with the grandparent and mom or dad get’s on their feet and wants to reunite with the child, a lot of times the court puts a reunification plan in place. And sometimes the things that they order are not only unrealistic, they’re unnecessary. Like having a drivers license, depending on where you live. Like I had a client who said, “We don’t drive, we take the bus.” And the judge said, “No, no, no, you have to have a drivers license.” And I asked, “Why?”

The thing is, if you’re poor, you have to have a drivers license. But if I went in there and I said, “I’m all eco-friendly so I use public transportation,” they’d be all like, “Look at the good liberal.”

You see this sort of thing all the time. So, having a judge on the bench who understands poverty and how it plays out in cases, how it plays out in terms of equal access to justice or people not getting the same treatment in the criminal justice system, is very important. And, you know what? I’ve done a thousand cases since I’ve been at legal services and I’ve tried dozens of cases. So, I’m very familiar with the dynamics. And, just from a technical standpoint, I’m a litigator. I’m in court several times a week. I’ve tried cases in the District Court, the Appellate Court, in federal court, Circuit Court, Probate Court.

Just from a technical standpoint, I have much more expertise than my opponent on some level because, even though she’s been practicing a lot longer than I have, her entire experience has been in criminal court. Probate Court is not a criminal court. The criminal court follows the rules of criminal procedure. The Probate Court follows probate rules and the rules of civil procedure in family court. So, it’s totally different set of rules.

So you’re better-versed in the probate rules?

Much more so, yes. And then there’s family law. She’s never done a divorce. Half of her docket is family law. She knows nothing about the statutes and the statutory framework in family law is very important. People say, “Oh, it’s mushy law.” Well, the reason I think it’s important to understand the statutes and the framework – and I’ve seen negative results when it’s not followed – is, when you have a high-conflict case where the two parties are fighting, any time one side gets ticked off at the other, they put the kid in the middle and say, “Well, Bobby wants to live with me now so the court should look at this now.”

That’s not good for children and it encourages bad behavior. So there is a framework and there’s a threshold issue and you look at that first. And, if they don’t meet that threshold, you say “I’m sorry, I’m not hearing this case.” That particular threshold was put in place in order to stabilize families. And, honestly, it’s interesting, for low income families the threshold issues are critical because they sometimes have instability with their home life. Maybe their lights get turned off or they got a little behind on their rent, and you have to examine the threshold issue and, if it looks like things are going to be okay, usually you don’t have to open up that case. So, it’s actually a good thing for low income clients.

So, I think having expertise in the statutes and the threshold issues is very important.

Another thing is that, as a practitioner, I often use my social work background to kind of navigate the interpersonal dynamics between the parties and to work with my client, whether it be toward resolution or just to support them through the process.

Many of my clients are survivors of domestic violence and that’s another reason that I decided to run for this seat. You still hear things like, “Where’s the police report? You’re saying that this violence occurred but you didn’t call the police?” I mean, really? Are we still saying this? There are tons of studies that show that victims of trauma, whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault, they are the worst witnesses because manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder means that they disassociate, they have flat affect, or they have inappropriate affect. But judges are still not getting it. They’re saying things like, “Oh, she didn’t even cry when she was on the stand.”

After this happened over and over again, I decided it was time to run. I really think having that clinical background and the legal background will really help me make accurate decisions and help a lot of families.

The other thing that I’d like to do and the reason that it’s been so important for me to reach out to the community, to the County Commissioners, to politicians, is because I think we could bring more resources into the court by building bridges between us and the community. There’s a great law on the books, it’s called “Kevin’s Law”. It’s assisted outpatient treatment. Kevin’s Law is named after a kid who was killed by a mentally ill man. He was 24-years old and he was attacked and killed by someone who was psychotic who was out on the street and was homeless. His parents lobbied to get this law passed that the court could order somebody who had been hospitalized a certain number of times in the past few years or who had been in jail for certain crimes and had a significant psychiatric illness to be ordered into treatment in the community, not in the hospital. This is a pretty good thing. It’s a bit of a lower level, it’s a place where you can actually get people outpatient treatment before they need to be hospitalized. We don’t just have to put a band-aid on it when they’re totally in crisis or they’re a threat to themselves or others.

In Michigan last year, something like 20,000 petitions were filed. 69 of those were under Kevin’s Law. That’s it. It’s totally under-funded. There’s no funding. Even when it’s mandated.

So, what does that look like, the community treatment? What are we talking about? Halfway houses, things like that?

Yeah. Group therapy. Supportive housing. Individual therapy.

But that requires resources to do.

It does. Coming from a nonprofit – legal services is a nonprofit – the way we survive is by grant funding and working with other community players to increase services in our organization or to help their organization. Our courts tend to be pretty insular but I think I can bring that perspective of, say, for example, can I write a private grant to provide these services or to get somebody else to write a private grant? I’m on the board of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Can I work with NAMI for them to write a grant to fund Kevin’s Law in Washtenaw County?

So, you think that as a Probate Judge you would have an ability to secure those types of resources?

Sure. It’s a shift. Basically, I see a gap in the court where people get to the court and they just come back over and over again. I find that frustrating. I can still keep fighting the fight as an advocate. I love being an advocate. But, I really think that as a judge I’d have a bigger voice to encourage that sort of improvement and change and to push the envelope. And I think it’s an underutilized resource. Judges, in general, like to stay very isolated but if there were judges who liked to go out into the community and start working with people, I think that that would be welcomed. I’ve heard that over and over again during this campaign, that the judges never talk to us.

I’ve always been able to build bridges to accomplish things. I have people on the other side of the political spectrum who have endorsed my campaign, people who are totally conservative, because they know I’ll do a good job as a judge.

Tell me a little bit about your background. What brought you to where you are today?

I’m originally from New York. I grew up in a middle class family. My mom’s a school teacher and my dad sold insurance. I’ve worked my whole life and worked full-time in high school. My first job was as a cashier in a supermarket, it was actually a union job. I was in a union and got triple time on Sunday. I then went to community college for a few years. Did well there and got a scholarship to NYU. I still was working full-time and worked at NYU.

I was a social work major for my bachelor’s degree and I would show up looking really tired at 8:00 classes and they said, “You just look so tired.” And I’d say, well, I just got off at 4:00 in the morning. I’m tending bar to pay my rent here in New York City. You don’t give me that much money, right? And they’re like, “Can you not do that?” And I was like, “Well, if I don’t want to eat I could! But I don’t know how much better I’d be without any food or a roof over my head, but…”

But, you know, that disconnect is actually something that is all throughout society and it’s something that is on the court, too. That’s been a long-term thread throughout my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying. I’m privileged compared to my clients, I really am.

I got my Masters degree in a year, I did an advanced placement program at NYU. I practiced as a social worker for about ten years. As I said, I actually started in an adolescence substance abuse program. I was the mental health director for Daytop Village in Jamaica, Queens. Most of my kids where there as an alternative to incarceration. These kids needed to get out of the neighborhoods. They were in gangs, they were poor, they were in the projects. There was a lot of family instability, they were not doing well in New York City public schools. So I worked with them on positive lifestyle changes and onsite schooling, things like that. And, if they didn’t do well and still couldn’t reach them – these kids were going home every night to some really, really rough neighborhoods – I would send them upstate to our inpatient program which was an Outward Bound type of thing. Then they would come back and step down.

Then the Institute for Community Living opened a dual diagnosis program in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn – which was a really rough neighborhood – I was really excited about the mental health component and specializing in that area with the secondary substance abuse diagnosis…

You’ve mentioned that before. What is that?

They call it “dual diagnosis”. At the time that I was practicing in that area, we called them a “mentally ill chemical abuser”, a MICA population. The idea was that they would usually have a significant schizophrenia-bipolar disorder and they were self-treating with illegal drugs. The thing with that it, from a diagnostic standpoint, you do kind of have to figure out what’s what. Because the treatment is different if the person is a substance abuser or if the primary issue is actually a mental health issue. You have to determine which one is really driving the behavior.

So, I moved to that program and I was still consulting with Daytop for the family group and I ran support groups for them. I also ran a small private practice during that time, too.

We then moved to Michigan in 1999 when our daughter was six weeks old. At that point I felt like I wanted to do something that would be more effective systemically-speaking. I had been treating people individually but I thought, if I went to law school, I could change things on a systemic basis. So, I went to the Detroit College of Law, which is now Michigan State University, on a full scholarship while my daughter was two years old. I graduated suma cum laude in 2006 and I really got a great education there. You really learned how to be a lawyer.

I was really planning on working for a nonprofit but there was nothing. There were so many cuts that everyone was laying people off and, frankly, I needed a job. I was at the top of my class so I decided to run the on-campus recruiting gamut. I courted by some of the big firms and I ended up taking a position at Bodman PLC as a summer associate and then I got hired in their commercial litigation department.

Bodman had won a lot of awards for their pro bono work and it was actually the thing that attracted me to that firm. I thought, “I’ll just do a LOT of pro bono work and it will make my conscience feel better and it will satisfy me.” So, I was picking up every pro bono case. I was like, “Prisoners rights litigation? That’s me! Got that one!” Someone needs a guardian? “I’ll do that, no problem.” Expungement? “Oh, I love those!” Seriously, it’s true story! And used to love bringing my clients into our fancy offices that overlooked Ford Field and get them a soda and treat them in the way they deserved to be treated, not as our “free client”.

But the work that I love is helping people who couldn’t otherwise access the justice system. Helping people who don’t have fancy lawyers. So, in my heart, I knew that’s what I needed to be doing and that I needed to get a public interest job. Then a position opened up at Legal Services of South Central Michigan and I took it.

We’re a nonprofit that helps low income individuals in Washtenaw County. We practice in the area of family law, housing, consumer rights. We do probate. We do wills, trusts, and estates for any senior in Washtenaw County. It’s free for any senior in the county, regardless of income. We act as health care proxies and we do public benefits work. We’re actually part of a larger organization and we run the Michigan Poverty Law Program in conjunction with the University of Michigan. We run the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center and also the Family Law Project which represents survivors of domestic violence, along with divorce and custody cases. We have Farm Worker Legal Services out on the west side where we do farm worker rights litigation.

So, it’s a big organization. We actually serve 13 counties. And that’s where I am today, working in the Washtenaw field office. I specialize in the area of family law and minor guardianship litigation. I’m going on my seventh year there and have represented over 1,000 individuals in the county and tried dozens and dozens of cases.

But, you know, we don’t have a single trial court judge who comes from a legal services background in our county. Not one. People say, “Well, I’ve worked with poor people…” but have you advocated for them? Have you gone to their homes? You know, I go to my clients homes. For example, if they have a habitability issue – because I do landlord tenant work and housing work, as well – I go to their homes. I went to a place out in Ypsi and the woman said, “The bugs are so bad…” and she pushed the wall and thousands of cockroaches came pouring out. And it was heartbreaking because it was just her and her two kids. Her kids were asthmatic. They were getting charged rent and the landlord was getting away with it.

But, I always sit down with them because I don’t want them to feel like I disrespect their home. The child in that particular case was getting shocked ever time they tried to turn on the oven because it wasn’t grounded properly. So they couldn’t use it. The tiles were falling off of the walls. This is how some people in our county are living. And then you have judges that say, “Oh, are the repair issues that bad?” And I can say, “Yeah, they are. I actually went their myself.”

But we don’t have anybody on the bench with that background, who understands how some of the people in our county are living. And when they make orders for, say, a reunifcation plan with a minor child… You know, many people lose their children because of poverty. My opponent and I have gotten into an argument about this. She said, “Ms. Van den Bergh is incorrect. People don’t lose their children because they’re poor.” And I said, “Are you kidding? Do you, really believe that?” It may not say “poor” on the order, it says “neglect”. But what is that neglect? Housing instability, sometimes. Food instability, in some cases. That’s poverty.

So, my idea in those cases – obviously children need to be fed – one of the things I want to do is have social work students in the court who do their internships there. When a client comes in and they have a reunification plan that’s ordered by the court, you say, “We have a social work student right here who is going to help you be successful. She’s going to work with you and help you to access whatever resources are available.”

I’ll tell you right now, when my clients call for help, they tell me they called ten times and never got any help. But, I can get on the phone and talk to the right people and they make things happen. These people need an advocate. If they have a minute-phone, by the way? That’s another thing judges don’t understand. They say, “Just call and get that assistance…” But sometimes you call and you’re on the phone for a half an hour waiting for them to pick up your call. If you have a minute-phone and you can’t afford to put more minutes on it, you’re burning up those minutes and you can’t call back! As a legal services lawyer, what do I do? I put the phone on speaker and, when somebody picks up, I answer it. We could have social work interns doing that sort of work. There are all kinds of things we could be doing differently to help low income residents of Washtenaw County.

What you’re talking about is the courts becoming more than a place where you have a trial or a hearing. They would become a place to solve people’s problems.

Exactly. And this isn’t something I’m going all rogue about. It just takes a different way of thinking. The State Bar of Michigan has studied our courts and this is the model they are advocating for, a more problem-solving model. They’re saying judges can’t be insular anymore. Yes, you’re going to be independent. But that’s not an excuse to be insular. There’s a difference between independent and insular.

The Washtenaw County Bar Association recently had a candidates forum and they asked some really good questions about this. The budget for the court is a lump sum. The court gets the money and nobody can tell them how to spend it. It’s been a constant source of irritation for the County Commissioners because they can’t do anything about it. The judges haven’t shared how they are spending the money so there’s been this kind of tension.

On one level, there are good reasons to give the judiciary a lump sum of money and not have it be beholden to the County Commissioners. There is an argument that they maintain independence in that way. But, the question at the forum was, “Would you be willing to reveal your budget?” And I said, “Sure! I’d reveal the budget and tell them how we’re spending the money. Why wouldn’t you in the interest of transparency?” Julia said, “Well, then they could tell us how to spend it…” But they can’t.

Here’s the thing: if we’re talking about this systemic approach where we’re working together and want to get more communities in the courts and work as teams and build bridges, isn’t this a first step? To say, “Hey, here’s how we’re spending our money and this is where we have shortfalls”?

I’m somebody who works in the community. My whole career has been in the community whether it’s as a social worker or a lawyer. So, I think it’s a really valuable background for the court and it’s really in line with what the State Bar is recommending. They’re saying our courts have to be less insular. We have to go to the community. We have to start offering people more so they don’t just start cycling them through where they come in and then you see them again three months later. And, really, it’s more efficient. It saves money and improves people’s lives.

All photos except Owdziej campaign sign by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog