Legislation awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder's signature would merge the district courts in Berkley and Royal Oak beginning in 2015 as part of a money-saving plan to reduce the number of judges statewide.
Senate bill 1351, sponsored by Sens. John Pappageorge, R–Troy, and Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield, undoes the consolidation of 45A District Court in Berkley and 45B District Court in Oak Park into a single 45th District Court that was approved in February. The combined court still is operating in two buildings.
“The workload in Berkley’s court is for 0.3 judges. It doesn’t take a full judge to handle the Berkley court,” Pappageorge told The Daily Tribune. “Royal Oak is around 1.7 or 1.8 and Oak Park is at 1.8 or 1.9. It just makes sense to move the 0.3 court to Royal Oak.
“The (original) bill was drawn up by somebody on the other side of the state that isn’t so familiar with this area,” he said.
The State Court Administrative Office recommended the current consolidation based on caseload statistics, according to a report on candgnews.com.
Under Senate bill 1351 (see attached PDF), the new merger time line would be as follows.
- Now until 2015: Upon Gov. Snyder's signature, 45th District Court would revert to 45A District Court in Berkley serving Berkley and 45B District Court in Oak Park serving Oak Park, Huntington Woods, Royal Oak Township and Pleasant Ridge. Judge Jamie Wittenberg would continue to adjudicate Berkley cases at 45A District Court in Berkley.
- 2015-2020: The Royal Oak 44th District, whose new building has space for two judges – positions currently filled by Derek Meinecke and Terrence Brennan – would absorb Berkley. Until Judge Brennan's expected retirement in 2020, Wittenberg would continue to work in the Berkley courthouse and it would be up to the combined court to decide how cases would be delegated. "I assume it would be the status quo," Wittenberg said.
- 2020: Wittenberg would move to Royal Oak's courthouse, which would become one court serving Berkley and Royal Oak with two judges sharing the caseload.
"This (merger) that was done in February was done too fast," Wittenberg said. "I think it always should have been done in 2015 to give us time to prepare."
Pros and cons
Wittenberg said neither Berkley nor Oak Park's aging courthouses have enough room to accommodate the merger of those two courts and therefore a new building would be required.
"Who's going to pay for it?" Wittenberg said. "The new legislation is very good for Berkley because they're merging with a city that already has a building."
While Berkley won't be saddled with infrastructure costs in the new merger scenario, the city still will lose revenue. Home courts get two-thirds of all revenue from tickets and the remaining third goes back to the city where the ticket originated, Wittenberg said.
"District courts are revenue streams for the state and cities," he said.
For example, during the 2010-2011 fiscal year, 45A District Court generated $575,218 in revenue for Berkley, according to the city's 2012-2013 adopted budget.
Wittenberg said Senate bill 1351 would benefit Royal Oak by keeping two judges in that court after 2020, instead of letting all the workload fall onto Meinecke after Brennan retires.
"They need to keep Royal Oak a two-judge court on paper," Wittenberg said, urging a further clarification of the merger. "Hopefully they'll look at that over the next couple years of caseload reports. I think the number of cases are going to start going up because (Royal Oak is) hiring more officers (following the approval of a public safety millage increase in November)."
If the legislation is signed and Wittenberg is re-elected in 2014, he said the plan also would benefit the 44th District by keeping two young judges in the court.
'I want to do what's best for Berkley'
Wittenberg said he has a good relationship with Meinecke, 37, whom he endorsed in the November 2012 election.
"We're only about a year apart age-wise," said Wittenberg, 38. "He has three kids; I have four. We have a lot in common. I look forward to working with him. I endorsed him very early on. I think he'll be a very good judge."
But, Wittenberg was quick to say that he also gets along well with 45B District Court Judges Michelle Friedman Appel and David Gubow and is willing to do whatever is best for the people.
"My first preference would be to leave it the way it is," Wittenberg said. "But, I understand they want to cut judges and that Berkley's caseload is not as high as some others."
After 2014, Wittenberg would have to run in Berkley and Royal Oak, which means a majority of voters would be Royal Oak residents who are not as familiar with him.
"I haven't complained because I was elected by the citizens of Berkley and I want to do what's best for Berkley. I can't be selfish," Wittenberg said. "I'd like to keep my job as long as possible. I love what I do. But, I've got to do what's best for everyone."