LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) - Attorneys for 63rd District Judge Steven Servaas and the state'sJudicial TenureCommission battled Wednesday before the Michigan Supreme Courtover whether Servaas "vacated" his post by moving outside theRockford-based district court division he served.
That battle is far from new, but the questions posed by thejustices may point to the issues they will hone in on as theydecide the case.
At the heart of that case lies the vacated post issue. Butthe most pointed exchanges between justices and attorneys centeredon the actions of Paul Fischer, the JTC executive director whobrought the charges against Servaas. Fischer recorded theconversation he had with Servaas in which he said "you're up forelection this year ... this will all be public before March."
Fischer went on to tell Servaas that if the commission "hasyour resignation letter by 9 a.m. this matter will be gone."
During oral arguments Wednesday, Justice Robert Young, Jr.told Fischer, "I want you to understand how troubling it is to havean agent of this court go and essentially threaten horrible thingsto anyone."
Justice Maura Corrigan said she was "very concerned tounderstand, sir, what the commission and you were thinking when youmade that 'swoop-down' visit."
After Fischer told the justices he had notified some courtofficials, including 63rd District Chief Judge Sara Smolenski,Justice Elizabeth Weaver accused Fischer of telling everyone butServaas about the situation and then "dump"ing it on him.
Weaver also questioned Fischer about obtaining a piece of theServaas' stationary in order to draft a letter of resignation forthe judge. Fischer said he had asked for it during the course ofhis investigation and it was provided, though he did not discloseby whom.
Servaas has admitted that in 2005 he moved outside theboundaries of the 63rd District's first division, the division heserves. But the judge stayed within the 63rd District boundaries,moving to second division territory.
His attorney, Jon Muth, contends the law is at best unclearon whether that is legal.
"At worst what we are looking at here is an innocent,good-faith mistake upon his part," Muth argued.
Fischer and the tenure commission contend Servaas movedearlier than he admitted and tried to deceive people, including thetenure commission, about it. Documents show, Fischer argued, thatServaas listed a landline phone number in the second division ashis "on-duty" number as early as 2000.
The JTC executive director claimed the judge's actions haveaffected the administration of justice.
"If you have a non-judge masquerading as a judge, that'sprejudicial," Fischer said.
Servaas' attorney pointed out that voters, knowing all aboutthe charges, re-elected him, a point also noted by Justice Young.Fischer says Servaas' presence on the ballot as a sitting judge wasnot proper based on the commission's contention that Servaasvacated his office.
The judge's attorney questioned whether the tenure commissionhas authority to make that judgment, something he said should havebeen handled by the state attorney general. In apparent agreement,Justice Weaver told Fischer, "I don't think it's your authority todecide that."
The dual role of the JTC as the entity that brings charges andrules on those charges was also raised by Muth as a violation ofServaas' due process rights.
Servaas is also accused of two inappropriate drawings and acomment to a female staffer about chest size. Justice Youngadmonished the behavior, asking Servaas' attorney "when is it everappropriate to comment on the size of a woman's breast?"
Justices asked attorneys for both parties what punishment wouldbe proper were those behavior issues to be the only onesconsidered.
The commission has said it should be public censure, and Fischeradded he believed a suspension would be appropriate in addition.Muth, Servaas' attorney, said a private reprimand would be the mostsevere penalty reasonable.
Leaving the courtroom, Fischer said only "we'll see" whenasked how Wednesday's proceedings went for him. Servaas said he washappy with what occurred during oral arguments and was impressed bythe justices' questions.
"The justices seemed to know what they were doing and they wereinterested," he said. "So I'm sure I'll get a fair shake."
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