By Anne Stanton
The race for 86th District Court has turned out to be a hot one if the
countless and searing letters to the editor at local newspapers are
Soon after the two candidates emerged from the five-way race in
August, supporters of Mike Stepka, 47, began sending letters to local
newspapers bashing Rep. Kevin Elsenheimers court experienc, which
didnt include his years as assistant prosecutor. And Elsenheimer, 45,
recently organized a robo call with statements that Stepka said are
blatantly false and partisan (see below).
As background, the 86th District Court oversees Antrim, Grand Traverse
and Leelanau counties, and is, by far, the busiest of the various
courts. Three judges, each handling about 2,300 criminal cases a year,
oversee misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic violations and preliminary
examinations deciding whether a criminal felony case has enough
merit to be bound over to circuit court. The winner of this race will
replace Judge Foresman, 66, who is retiring as chief judge of the
We e-mailed questions to the candidates. Here are their edited answers.
NE: Tell us about yourself.
ELSENHEIMER: I was blessed to be born, raised, and to build a career
in beautiful northern lower Michigan. My family came to Leelanau
County as lumberjacks in the late 1800s, and moved to Traverse City in
the early 1900s. I graduated from Traverse City Central and
Northwestern Michigan College. After MSU and law school at Wayne, I
was hired as an assistant prosecutor assigned to district court in
Antrim County. I then started a law firm that handles primarily
municipal and real estate issues around the state. I was elected
twice as a school board trustee, and in 2004 I was elected to the
Michigan House of Representatives for which I serve as Minority
Leader. My wife, Ann, has graciously put up with me for 18 years, and
we have three children in the Elk Rapids Schools.
STEPKA: I was raised in Grand Traverse County and graduated from
Traverse City Central High School, Northwestern Michigan College,
Central Michigan University Cum Laude, and the University of Detroit
School of Law in 1990. My wife, Cathy, is a teacher and we have two
children, Michael, 21, and Betsie, 16. I own a law firm in Traverse
City, Stepka and Aprea, and have represented 2,000 civil and criminal
cases in the last 20 yearsthe vast majority are handled by 86th
District Court. I have also practiced in the Michigan Court of
Appeals and the United States District Court in the Western District
of Michigan. On the personal side, Im a huge mountain biker, downhill
skier and a runner. I dont run marathons anymore I dont have the
time to properly train, but Ive run the Cherry Festival 15K since
NE: Why do you want to be district judge?
STEPKA: I want to keep our community a safe and desirable place to
live, and crimes are frankly much more serious and sophisticated in
this area and more frequent. If you look at my record, youll see Ive
felt a calling to public service. I have volunteered for numerous
boards, too many to list, but include the Womens Resource Center and
TART Trails. Im a Grand Traverse County Commissioner, and Ive
provided pro bono legal work to Third Level Crisis Center and the
Womens Resource Center.
ELSENHEIMER: The district court is the front-line, workhorse court.
Professionally, my work as a district court prosecutor was some of the
most gratifying of my career. This judgeship gives you the opportunity
to make a real impact on peoples lives, to protect victims of crime,
to help keep your community safe, and to ensure that the rights of the
accused are respected and protected as well. The opportunity to help
someone turn their life around through the court system is real, and
NE: The 86th drug court gives drug and alcohol lawbreakerspeople who
make up the vast majority of court casesa chance to avoid jail if
they test clean over a long period of time and attend classes on
addiction. Is it really working?
ELSENHEIMER: Restricting alcohol and illegal drug use and requiring
addiction classes while on bond (pre-conviction) or on probation
(post-conviction) have been in use since at least 1994 when I began my
time as an assistant prosecutor. The restriction promotes dual goals
of the court: first to protect the community, and second to
rehabilitate the offender. Someone who has made a one-time mistake
will use this restriction as a time to reflect on lawful alcohol use
and to reform behavior. Someone who has an addiction issue will often
appear through failed testing. The system isnt failsafe, but it is
effective. Sobriety court shows real improvements in repeat offenses.
It is effective. It also sends an important message to offenders:
courts are not only in the business of punishment, but also
STEPKA: The Sobriety Court has been very successful. In fact, Judge
Haleys Sobriety Court won a national award. Its primary goal is to
reduce recidivism by requiring treatment, random drug testing, a
twelve step AA or NA program with positive reinforcement for progress,
yet holding the individual accountable. When a participant is
successful, they become productive and the public is protected. Those
who violate the programs rules are eventually removed and are often
sentenced to jail.
One thing Id like to do is expand the other specialty courts,
including the mental health court, the domestic violence court, and a
new court for veterans who have gotten into trouble and are suffering
the effects of war. The Sobriety Court is more successful than
incarceration, which is mostly ineffective for people with mental
health and addiction problems. It also saves the taxpayers money
(jail costs $54 a day).
NE: What are your views on how the 86th District court is dealing with
lawbreakers who are mentally ill?
STEPKA: I serve on Judge Foresmans Mental Health Court Treatment Team
and also as Grand Traverse Countys liaison to the Mental Health
Court. The treatment team often meets to review an individuals
progress and make suggestions. We are seeing success! We recently had
our first two graduates who have gone on to healthy and productive
ELSENHEIMER: Judge Foresmans mental health court is innovative, and
I think it should be continued. The next administration in Lansing
needs to partner with the courts to find better ways to deal with
people with mental health issues in the courts, and it appears that
both candidates for governor agree.
NE: There was recently a media report on Michigan returning to a kind
of debtors prisonsending poor people off to jail if they are unable
to pay their court fines and fees. Thoughts?
ELSENHEIMER: The ACLUs report included drivers responsibility fees,
which is an everyday occurrence. The good news is that the Michigan
House passed a bill a few weeks ago to end this fee. The Senate may
take the issue up in December. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court should
consider the ACLUs suggestion of allowing indigence reviews at the
time of sentencing instead of conducting reviews only when someone
fails to pay, and reconsider allowing public service credit against
STEPKA: A judge must be sure criminal defendants are held accountable
for their actions, including court fines and fees, which provide an
incentive not to break the law in the future. Though we are in tough
economic times, criminal defendants should not be completely released
from paying their court costs and fees. Flexibility can be given to
individuals who are indigent and truly unable to work. If it appears
unlikely the individual will ever be able to pay, fees can be waived
or exchanged for community service work.
NE: What are your views on medical marijuana use?
STEPKA: The use of marijuana for certain medical purposes is allowed
under Michigan law. As a judge, I would be sworn to uphold, follow,
and apply the law. During my 20 years of practice, I have seen the
devastation that illegal substances and alcohol cause individuals,
their families, and our community. Under the Canon of Judicial
Ethics, I do not feel it would be appropriate to comment on the
political and social aspects.
ELSENHEIMER: As a legislator, I opposed the medical marijuana
initiative, but the law of this state must be respected. After
reading the Northern Express, my office helped to stop an eviction by
federal authorities of a woman living in public housing who was
lawfully using medical marijuana. While judges and judicial
candidates are restricted somewhat from getting publicly involved in
non-judicial policy debates, people can probably deduce my views on
this subject based on earlier public positions. The important issue
is that a judge does not legislate from the bench.
NE: Kevin, there are people who allege that your vote to stop 10 years
worth of free health benefits for ex-representatives was disingenuous
because it takes effect only after you leave office. How would you
ELSENHEIMER: Personally, I think this vote was a sham. Nothing was
ultimately done on this. The bill got larded up with other issues in
order to avoid sending it to the governor for approval. In this case,
the House leadership sent the Senate a bill it could not accept, and
the Senate returned it in a manner the House could not accept, so now
we have a stand off. Rather than resolve the issue, the majorities
can say they did something, knowing that nothing really will get done.
My team proposed solutions, but these bills were not brought to a
vote. What we were able to do is increase what current legislators
pay for their health care.
STEPKA: As a Grand Traverse County Commissioner, I have never taken
the health benefits, the family health benefits, the retirement
benefit, or any cash payment in lieu of either. I voted to completely
end county paid commissioner health benefits.
NE: Please provide statistics of the cases youve represented in
court. What are your thoughts on this issue?
STEPKA: I have handled almost 2,000 cases in the District Court
consistently for the last 20 years, almost on a weekly basis. I
havent asked for the number of cases Ive tried, but the reality of
the specialty courts is that they require a guilty plea. You cant
take these cases to trial. Many of the other cases involve driving on
a suspended license, drunk driving first offense, use of marijuana,
retail fraud, and nonsufficient fund check cases. Once you investigate
the facts, and speak to the client, you often find theres no viable
defense. Generally, the prosecuting attorney offers a very attractive,
reduced plea offer, which carries a much lesser sentence, and its in
the clients best interest to accept. And all of my clients make a
decision on what they want to do.
On the other hand, I have represented a wide range of trials in
courtdivorces, life-offense felony trials where I obtained
acquittals, numerous child custody trials. I obtained a nice recovery
for a 5-year-old girl who was bit by a dog. My experience is well
rounded, and Ive been very successful.
ELSENHEIMER: I can understand why people are confused about this.
When letters-to-the-editor started pouring in about experience, we
discovered that the numbers Mikes campaign was using did not include
the work I did as an assistant prosecutor in Antrim County. When
those numbers were added in, I handled about 900 district court
matters, 141 motion hearings, and 35 jury and non-jury trials.
NE: Heres a multi-part question. A) For Kevin: How much special
interest and corporate PAC money that was left over from your campaign
for state representative is available to spend in your run for judge?
B) Have either of you accepted money from a Republican or Democratic
affiliated group? C) What have trial lawyers contributed?
ELSENHEIMER: A) Not a single cent. As the Record Eagle reported,
while it is lawful to do so, I chose not to use money I had raised for
partisan purposes. B) I have not accepted money from Republican or
Democrat groups, although some house colleagues and party leaders have
donated. C) Individual lawyers can donate, and Ive received just
over $2,000 in donations from them.
STEPKA: I havent accepted any money or endorsement from either the
Republican or Democratic Party and what bothers me is that my opponent
organized a robo call to area residents, which was blatantly false. He
said I was endorsed by the Democratic Party and that I believe the
Constitution is a living and breathing document. He made that up. Ive
never made that statement about the Constitution, and I was never
endorsed by any Democratic party. He is injecting partisan politics
into a nonpartisan race, which is completely counter to the honor and
integrity of how a judicial race should be run. If you look at his
endorsements on his campaign literatureHouse Republican Minority
Leader, Most Effective Republicanthats bringing partisanship into
the race, and thats not right. I have not accepted money from any
group or PAC, but have received $4,000 in contributions from
individual attorneys, who can donate no more than $100.
NE: If elected, will you be allowed to judge the case of an individual
or group that donated to your campaign?
STEPKA: As a judge, we need to be trusted with the integrity and
honesty to make a decision as to whether to recuse ourselves in a
specific case. Because the individual contributions have been so
small, I have the ability to make impartial decisions. I also have the
honesty to abide by the Canons of Ethics and would recuse myself in
the appropriate circumstances.
ELSENHEIMER: Judges are required to avoid even the appearance of
impropriety, but there is always debate over what that term means.
Currently, the law seems pretty clear that major donors - donors who
fund a large percentage of a campaign - would have the appearance of
an impropriety. Our state Supreme Court has said smaller donors do
NE: Because of a perception of potential impropriety (above question),
would you prefer judgeships to be appointed, not elected?
ELSENHEIMER: Since this involves operation of the court, this is an
area where judges can take open policy positions. I would favor a
system where appellate judges are appointed by the Governor with the
consent of the Senate. Our statewide judicial elections have become
discussions of anything but the judiciary. I do believe that
elections for local judges are important. It invests communities in
their court. I also favor Justice Weavers proposed regionalization
of the Michigan Supreme Court positions so that northern Michigan
always has a member on that court.
STEPKA: I believe it would be better to have judges appointed by a
peer group of attorneys, citizens-at-large who do not personally know
the attorney but who have studied the attorneys experience and
attorneys from out of the area who know nothing of the candidate other
than studying the candidates resume and experience. Their
suggestions would have to be approved by the governor.
NE: Michigan is on the national radar as one of the worst states for
adequately defending poor people.** As a judge, how would you work to
improve this? Mike, I am aware that you have had a county contract for
representing indigent people since 1999. How many of these cases did
you actually bring to trial?
STEPKA: I dont actually know the answer to that. I asked the courts
for the total number of cases Ive handled and frankly most of these
dont go to trial. But Ive had a varied and consistent court practice
with good results. The other part of the question is difficult; I
think the problem exists more in the big metropolitan areas. To my
knowledge, the court-appointed attorneys in our three counties provide
an excellent service. I would like to see the courts provide
additional funds more often for the defense to hire private
ELSENHEIMER: The 86th District Court contracts with various attorneys
in private practice who are paid by the taxpayers to provide this
defense. In fact, attorneys are currently bidding for this defense
contract. In reviewing the numbers Im concerned about the number of
cases actually going to trial; it seems that some attorneys bring many
cases to trial while others rarely or never do. I believe the court,
the prosecutors throughout the 86th and the local bar association
needs to review whether the indigent defense contract is the best way
to protect the Constitutional rights of the accused.
*Under current law, the state pays 90% of the health insurance of
ex-legislators who worked at least six years when they turn 55 years
old. At the age of 65, Medicare kicks in, but the state still helps
out with uncovered medical bills.
**This is a Constitutional issue, with the Sixth Amendment specifying
that the criminally accused have a right to counsel.