Judicial candidates tackle the questions

Two prominent attorneys, both Southgate residents, are vying to be elected judge of 28th District Court in Southgate.

The winner of the race will replace Judge James Kandrevas, who has held the post since 1990.

Southgate City Council President John Graziani, an attorney in private practice, earned a degree in political science from the University of Michigan- Dearborn, and a law degree from the University of Detroit Law School.

Early in his legal career, Graziani worked as an assistant prosecutor, as a judicial assistant for Wayne County Recorders Court and as a law clerk for Wayne County Circuit Court Judges Robert Colombo and Louis Simmons.  He opened his own legal practice in his hometown in 1990, and works there still.

Elisabeth Mullins is a special assistant Wayne County prosecutor and also a prosecutor for the city of Detroit. She was voted Detroit’s prosecutor of the year in 2015 and 2016. Before 2011, Mullins was in private practice with a caseload that included criminal defense, civil cases, bankruptcy matters and municipal issues.

She earned a degree in political science from Boston College, and a law degree from Suffolk University Law School.

We asked both candidates to answer the following questions:

Q: District courts, whether dealing with criminal, civil, small claims, traffic, landlord-tenant cases or neighbor disputes, affect people’s everyday lives. Why do you think you’re the best person to take on that responsibility? What qualifies you to be a district court judge beyond your law degree?

Graziani: I have been a Southgate citizen, neighbor and friend so I know and am connected with people’s everyday lives in my community.  I have 30 years of relevant legal experience. I have been a successful attorney in Michigan for 30 years and have built a practice that is known beyond Southgate. As a general practitioner, I have successfully dealt with all areas of law ranging from highly complex areas of litigation, landlord-tenant cases, criminal defense and even some heavily contested neighborhood disputes.

In addition to having a good temperament, along with a thorough understanding of cases that flow through district courts, I have helped balance 18 budgets in my tenure as a Southgate councilman and council president. As a seasoned businessperson, I have solid managerial skills and will be able to manage the budget of 28th District Court without a learning curve. The downturn created by this brutal pandemic demands a person with my background and proven track record to get the job done. I am well known and trusted in this community.

Mullins: My experience makes me the most qualified candidate to be the next judge of the 28th District Court. I am currently a prosecutor for the city of Detroit, a special assistant prosecutor for Wayne County and I am assigned to the Veterans and Drug Treatment Court in Detroit. 

Because Detroit is one of the busiest courthouses in the country, I have prosecuted a vast number of cases while working in multiple courtrooms with a high-volume caseload. Before the pandemic, I was in the courtroom virtually every day and I understand what it takes to effectively manage a courtroom. 

Prior to that, I was prosecutor in Brownstown and Huron Townships, was also in private practice with a local Southgate law firm and managed a caseload that included criminal defense, landlord/tenant matters, civil cases, bankruptcy matters, collections and municipal issues, which are the types of cases that the next judge will preside over. Additionally, because I have worked as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, I have a unique understanding of the roles, challenges and issues facing each side.

Q: How do you plan to improve the court’s procedures and efficiency?

Graziani: First of all, I will make sure that we are up to date on technology. We need to improve the court’s online presence to make it more accessible to the public. This pandemic has taught us that remote services for trivial hearings and the like will save us time and money. 

I will incorporate some of the efficient practices from Zoom (derived during this pandemic) in an effort to save time for court users and attorneys. Secondly, I will work with other courts to improve buying power by regionalizing purchases. This is currently being done in the city of Southgate where I am council president. 

Mullins: I would update the court’s website to include the following features:

1 Allow the general public to look up and track cases. A person (including defendants, witnesses and victims) could see when the next court date is scheduled and see how a case is progressing. Many other courts already make this public information available on their websites.

2. Implement a system where a person could contest parking or simple traffic tickets through the website. I would continue this once the COVID-19 threat is over so that we could prevent gridlock at the courthouse and individuals would not have to miss work or school.

Q: What’s your position on alternative courts (drug courts, veterans courts, etc.) and what alternative court (if any) might you try to implement or enhance once you’re elected?

Graziani: I am a strong believer in alternative courts and feel that society is better off with them.  If elected Southgate’s next district court judge, I will make it a priority to re-establish problem-solving courts (PSCs), including drug and sobriety courts and mental health courts. I would also like to strengthen the Veterans Treatment Court, as it is capable of doing more. The purpose of PSCs is to provide, when appropriate, treatment instead of punishment in an effort to reduce future contacts with the criminal justice system.

These courts provide a valuable alternative to the traditional punishment/incarceration approach, and have proven to be highly successful.

For example, drug and sobriety court graduates were nearly three times less likely to be convicted of a new offense within three years of admission to a program. In addition, unemployment dropped dramatically among all problem-solving court graduates, and virtually all participants reported an improvement in their mental health status, thereby making their lives more stable and productive. PSCs save you, the taxpayer, hundreds of thousands of dollars by treating rather than merely incarcerating (e.g., veteran treatment courts are paid for largely via federal grants).

Mullins: I support alternative courts in general because I believe they are beneficial to both the individual participant and to the community. Treatment courts reduce recidivism and provide much needed treatment for participants.

I am very passionate about enhancing the Veterans Treatment Court, which addresses mental health issues, addiction and other issues for all our Downriver veterans. My goal for the program is to help our veterans become better husbands, wives, sons and daughters and to help them accomplish goals beyond maintaining their sobriety. 

Specifically, I intend to enhance Southgate’s program by working with local nonprofit organizations and businesses to provide our veterans with opportunities to obtain job skills training and job placement.

As a prosecutor assigned to the Veterans and Drug Treatment Court in Detroit, I have the knowledge and experience to not only continue, but strengthen, the Veterans Treatment Court in Southgate.

I would not implement another alternative court in Southgate because I am aware of the intense demands of running such a program from my firsthand experience in Detroit. The Veterans Treatment Court requires extensive monitoring of each participant. The judge regularly meets with the program’s team, conducts court hearings for the program and ensures compliance with all funding requirements. The Veterans Treatment Court requires a tremendous amount of time and dedication.

I also understand the many duties and responsibilities that a judge has in addition to running an alternative court, such as the judge’s need to research legal issues and preside over cases while on the bench. There are administrative, personnel and budgetary demands that the next judge is also responsible for.

Because of these demands, which are unique to a one-judge courthouse such as the 28th District Court, approval for an additional alternative court is unlikely to be given and is in all probability an unrealistic idea.

I believe it is a more efficient use of resources for the next judge to work with other local sobriety court judges to get individuals the help they need. For example, I would refer individuals with mental health issues to the Wyandotte/Riverview District Court, which is establishing a mental health court and will service all of Downriver, including Southgate. I would also refer individuals with addiction issues who are high risk and in need of extra monitoring to the Lincoln Park and Taylor district courts, which also have sobriety courts that service all of Downriver, including Southgate. In return, these courts would refer their veterans to Southgate.

I have already established excellent working relationships with these other sobriety court judges and they have personally endorsed me as the best candidate to preside over the Veterans Treatment Court at the 28th District Court in Southgate.

Q: Why do you want to be a judge?

Graziani: I believe that becoming a judge is a natural progression of my 30 years of experience as an attorney. Having lived in Southgate for nearly my entire life, I have a solid understanding of what needs to be done to meet the needs of the general population in this community and within this region. My service on the Southgate City Council has provided me with important and critical experience in municipal finance and budgeting.  I am the only candidate with this vital experience.

With current court revenue down substantially due to the pandemic, it is even more important that our next judge understand the financial constraints of our community and has the proven experience to stay within budget.  I have the experience, background and temperament to be a good judge.  Throughout my lengthy career as an attorney, I have come to know the best practices of the various district courts.

Mullins: I have spent the last several years of my career working to improve the communities of Brownstown and Huron Townships and Detroit. I fought hard to clean up Detroit by convicting and jailing a notorious slumlord, closing a corrupt strip club for running an illegal prostitution ring and prosecuting individuals for defacing property in Detroit with graffiti among other things. I now want to focus that same energy on improving the quality of life for residents in my own Southgate community.

Q: How do you stand on so-called creative sentencing? What sort of alternative sentencing might you impose for a non-violent offender? Please offer a hypothetical example.

Graziani: You have to take a case-by-case approach with regard to persons that you deal with as a judge.  You have to consider all of the relevant factors at hand, including age level and the specific challenge that an individual is facing.  For example, I knew an elderly lady who was a shoplifter most of her adult life. This person surprisingly had only been caught three times. When this person is dealt with, you have to have an in-depth pre-sentence report in order to pass on a sentence.

In the instance of the elderly shoplifter, you utilize an aggressive therapy program which deals with the root of the problem. The punishment to the non-violent elderly shoplifter, or any person, would be to extend the probation, if violated.

Mullins: I support creative sentencing as a first option over jail, which will always be there. Alternative sentencing may include community service, counseling (in-patient and out-patient), rehabilitation services, support groups, alcohol and/or GPS tethers, an ignition interlock device (in-car breathalyzer), drug testing and treatment including medication options and monitoring.

An example would be a person who is stealing because of a drug addiction. Rather than just sentencing the person to jail, I would consider sending the person to in-patient or out-patient treatment, AA or NA, to undergo drug testing and/or perform community service.

My goal is to adopt a treatment-oriented approach to sentencing as opposed to just punishing people. It is important to still hold people accountable, but also to “think outside the box” and address whatever issues may have led an individual to commit a crime.  This approach has been proven to cut down on repeat offenders.

Q: Who is one of your judicial role models and why?

Graziani: At the circuit court level, it is retired Chief Judge Robert J. Colombo Jr. Colombo was one of the most thorough jurists I worked for and later dealt with as an attorney. He would say that he had a responsibility to be as thorough as possible because he is a public servant.

Another judicial role model of mine is the late Donald Neitzel, who served as a municipal and district court judge in Southgate for a number of years.  He was one of the most intelligent judges that I had ever met. He was also a caring and down-to-earth person that truly cared about his community. Neitzel was a judge who had patience and was willing to work with offenders, but could also be tough when necessary.  Simply put, Judge Neitzel was very flexible and could easily adapt under varying circumstances.

Mullins: The recently elected Judge Elizabeth DiSanto of the Wyandotte/Riverview District Court is my judicial role model. I saw how she advocated for a mental health court and is now, as judge, is in the process of establishing one at the 27th District Court. Judge DiSanto made me realize that the courts can be a community partner and a tool to improve the lives of the people the court serves. I learned that the courts do not have to be a place where a person goes only when they are in trouble, has a traffic ticket or reports for jury duty.

Q: How would you resolve a potential conflict of interest and what situations might present a conflict for you during your service as a judge?

Graziani: I would act in conformity with the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct and the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct when resolving a potential conflict of interest.  If there is a situation that may present a potential conflict for one of the litigants, I would divulge that immediately. For instance, if a litigant was a person I had worked on numerous cases with, I would feel compelled to divulge that to the opposing party.  I would do the same if an opposing party had contributed to my campaign.

Mullins: If a conflict of interest were to ever arise while I was on the bench and I felt that I could not fairly and impartially preside over a case, then I would recuse myself and request that the state reassign the case to another local court. I would also recuse myself if there arose the appearance of impropriety, because I would want everyone appearing before me to have the utmost faith in my hearing cases fairly and impartially. I cannot think of any situation offhand that would present a conflict for me in serving as judge, as I firmly believe in fair and just treatment for all.

Q: How do you propose to address the problems the court will face due to COVID?

Graziani: We will have to continue following state and CDC guidelines so that no one’s health is compromised and only in rare instances will attorneys and their clients be allowed in (i.e., for critical proceedings such as preliminary exams).  Masks will be used and social distancing guidelines will be enforced. As somebody who worked with the administration during the height of the pandemic, we made sure that our police and fire departments were safe with personal protection equipment and testing.

I will continue my efforts to address the problems that the court may face due to COVID-19.  I am familiar with SCAO Zoom procedures and, if elected, will continue to ensure citizens remote access to justice throughout the COVID crisis as well as after a return to normal.

Mullins: I believe that our first priority is the health and safety of the public and personnel at the court. I would continue holding hearings via Zoom and where possible, would try to do as much court business by mail.