Current Mason County Probate Judge Mark Raven endorsed candidate Jeff Nellis over candidate Nick Krieger for being the next Probate Court judge.  The reasons are explained in the article by the City of Ludington Daily News (COLDNews) on Wednesday August 15.

A sitting judge, retiring his job, firmly endorses an attorney that appears before him 'every week' over a judicial staff attorney for an appeal's judge who reviews (and has reviewed) the sitting judge's cases.  Even though that may not come as a surprise, is it ethical?

Does everyone who goes before Judge Raven in the next 4 months who is on the opposite party of Jeff Nellis seeking impartial relief from the Probate Court think so?  A judge's conduct is, by law, governed by a strict code of ethics called judicial canons.  They vary slightly from state to state but here are two that apply to such behavior in Michigan (from Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct)

CANON 2: A Judge Should Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in All Activities

C. A judge should not allow family, social, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment.  A judge should not use the prestige of office to advance personal business interests or those of others.

CANON 7: A. Political Conduct in General.

(1) A judge or a candidate for judicial office should not:

(b) make speeches on behalf of a political party or non-judicial candidate or publicly endorse a candidate for non-judicial office.

The first likely condemns such activity, the second does seem to make an exception for judicial candidates.  But there is a thin line here, and it almost has to be weighed on a case by case basis.  Such as this case from Alabama, which has slightly different Canons than Michigan:

Alabama JIC: ISSUE:  May a probate judge who is not running for reelection publicly endorse a candidate for the position in an upcoming election? Answer: Yes. However, a judge should be careful that the substance of the endorsement complies with the provisions in Canons 1 and 2.

Canon 1 is the standard:  "A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing, and should personally observe, high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved."   Which is vague enough to go either way.

Other states I researched similar to Mi in other laws are unequivocal in such behavior by judges:

FLA Judge rules:  The code of ethics for Florida judges forbids them from publicly endorsing candidates and from soliciting political contributions  (Canon 7A(1)(b) states: "[A] judge or a candidate for election or appointment to judicial office shall not publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office.")

TX Judge Rules:  In 1974, the Texas Supreme Court enacted the initial Code of Judicial Conduct, which contained an “endorsement” prohibition:

A judge or candidate for election to judicial office should not:  ․ (b) make political speeches for a political organization or candidate or publicly endorse a candidate for public office.

Tex.Code Jud. Conduct, Canon 7A(1)(b), 37 Tex. B.J. 853 (1974)

NV Judicial Canon:  a judge or a candidate* for election or appointment to judicial office shall not:

(b) publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office."

The Commentary to Canon 5 further states:

"Section 5A(1)(b) does not prohibit a judge or judicial candidate from privately expressing his or her views on judicial candidates or other candidates for public office."

MA JudicCond: (1) A judge shall not:  (b) make speeches for a political organization* or candidate or publicly endorse a candidate for public office;

Etcetera.  A judge at the end of his career should not have to make such a questionable call on ethics as endorsing a candidate he sees each week and can vouch for, over a appeal's court staff attorney who has likely had his hand in reversing some of Judge Raven's rulings. 

I believe Judge Raven erred in his endorsement and should have stayed the heck out of the fray. Feel free to vote for Nellis, but take this endorsement by Judge Raven for what it is, a bad judgment call by him.  But what do you think?  For equal time, here's the other candidate:

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I would equate more experience 'within' Mason County's local system as a negative, myself, unless the experiences shown an ability to work 'without' the local system.  Nellis' connections and endorsements have me skeptical of him, even though I haven't heard anything scandalous about him. 

Krieger's biography intrigues me, and I like the fact that our county will grow a little, and get one of our native sons back into the fold if he is elected. 

In defense of Nellis: a man that has 18 years local experience, has married and raised his family here, paid taxes here, joined and gone to church here, paid grocery, medical, and clothing bills here, has staunchly been a supporter and ally to children and adult families alike here, has a patient and understanding devotion to duty and legalities alike here, I find it incredible anyone else would have a chance to be Probate Judge now, at long last. As for Krieger, he is probably a good man too, but to go trotting off to Detroit for so long, making his big city money down-state, decidedly paying all his monies out to live and raise his family there, I think it's too much to support him over a known local now. He may have more ancestor history here, from long ago, but that's not today, and the present. The only two probate cases I know Nellis helped with, he did fine imho.

Candidate Krieger recently made some statements regarding the possibility of conflicts of interest arising if Jeff Nellis is elected, and the inherent costliness in having to replace the judge.  According to Mason County Press:


Mason County Probate Court Judge Mark Raven recently told the Mason County Press that Krieger’s statement is not true.

“I’ve had a number of constituents ask me that question and they have told me that Mr. Krieger has been making that claim,” Judge Raven said. “It is disheartening to hear this. Either Mr. Krieger is unaware of the facts or he is making statements that serve his political needs and desires. Either way, it is groundless.”

Raven has served as probate judge for 18 years and is retiring the end of this year. Earlier this fall he endorsed Nellis as his replacement.

Raven said if a conflict of interest were to arise, another one of the two Mason County judges – District Court Judge Peter Wadel or Circuit Court Judge Richard Cooper – would sit in place of the probate judge. If another judge were to be called in from another county the only cost to taxpayers would be mileage reimbursement.

“Visiting judges are not compensated. It’s not extra pay,” Raven said.

Raven sees the potential for conflicts of interest to be minimal.

“I have lived in Mason County most of my life,” Raven said. “My dad was the Michigan State county extension officer for 30 years, served as the county board of commissioners chairman and on the West Shore Community College board of trustees. I know just about everybody in this county.

“The issues with a judge isn’t whether you know a person or not, if that was the case then every time I turned around I would have to excuse myself. You need a judge who is active in his community. It’s irrational to think there would be multiple conflicts of interests, that’s why it doesn’t happen that often.”

Judge Raven, your partner in the 51st Circuit Court, Honorable Judge Richard Cooper, did not voluntarily recuse himself from deciding the CARRE lawsuit when his son had come forth to represent Consumer's Power, and guess who he decided for.  He did not voluntarily recuse himself when his son came forth to represent the City of Ludington in my first FOIA lawsuit, and didn't even state the obvious conflict of interest/appearance of impropriety until over four months later. 

As for another judge deciding matters of law outside their specialty, I had Judge Raven serve as a judge without proper authorization decide a bicycle violation in traffic court.   He either hid his knowledge well, or was totally oblivious to the fineries of traffic law.  With an increasing amount of laws every year, getting someone knowledgable in a limited area, say probate, decide issues in circuit and district court is a prescription for injustice.  I agree with Nick (see the MCP article-- this is an issue.


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