STANTON — Three Greenville-area attorneys will face off in the August primary election for a chance to advance to the November general election and take the bench as Montcalm County’s next 64B District Court judge.
Keeley Blanchard, 38, of Eureka Township; Adam Eggleston, 39, of Greenville; and Tom Ginster, 61, of Greenville are all vying for the top seat in District Court which will be vacated later this year by outgoing longtime Judge Donald Hemingsen.
The top two finishers in the primary will advance to the general election in the non-partisan race.
Keeley Blanchard is a managing member and trial attorney at Blanchard Law in Greenville. She is also the program manager of Michigan’s trial skills simulation training program for the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC), where she manages $450,000 in grant funding for that program.
Blanchard believes her multiple leadership roles qualify her for the job of District Court judge — from building a successful law firm in Montcalm County to serving a diverse array of clients to using technology to make her business more efficient.
She helped create an Evidence Boot Camp program for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan and she has been on their faculty team for their Trial College for many years. She is also on the faculty of Trial Lawyers College and developed the curriculum for their first Indigent Representation Seminar.
“During my 15-year legal career, I’ve had trial experience in dozens of serious cases which I have successfully tried to verdict,” she said. “I have tried jury trials not only in Montcalm County but in counties across Michigan and also nationally. My diverse experience gives me a perspective about what is available in other counties that Montcalm is missing out on. My years of trial successes led me to become in-demand to train other lawyers in trial skills.”
Blanchard believes one of the most pressing issues facing the next District Court judge is increased drug use and mental health issues within the Montcalm County community.
“Generally, the first place that a drug user lands when they first begin to have law enforcement contact is the District Court,” she noted. “We need a judge who will make early intervention in drug and alcohol abuse a priority so that we don’t see that drug use continue to translate into more serious criminal activity involving theft and violence.”
“Mental health within our community is another big concern,” she said. “I will make it a priority to bring additional grant funding to our county so that we can increase our participation in mental health and veteran’s courts and look at other ways to divert people struggling with mental health issues into treatment.”
Blanchard also believes District Court budget issues will be a challenge, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, requiring the judge and staff to do more with less.
“This will occur while the judge is also dealing with a backlog of cases as a result of the court closings,” she noted. “My management experience will be a great asset in leading the court out of the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.”
Blanchard said her leadership skills and work ethic set her apart from her two opponents.
“I’ve proposed a number of plans during this campaign that will reduce crime, reduce homelessness and positively impact our local economy and county budget,” she said. “My plans would create a positive impact in our community, and not only have I presented detailed information about implementing those ideas, but I’ve also proposed paying for them through grant funding that I would seek by making applications for funding at the federal and state level, as well as from private organizations so that there will be no additional costs to our taxpayers.
“My opponents, on the other hand, have presented plans with very little detail, all of which go against the recommendations of the bipartisan Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration,” she said. “They’ve also failed to discuss how the county will pay for the significant additional cost of implementing their plans.”
If elected, Blanchard’s goals include the following:
• “I plan to run the District Court more efficiently and in a user-friendly manner. I’ve created a BudgetSmart clerk plan that will consolidate the District Court clerk’s office with the Circuit Court clerk and county clerk offices. We’ll move the county to electronic filing and increase efficiencies in the office, which will allow all of the offices to provide public-facing services during all regular business hours.”
• “I plan to expand the programs available within our courts by taking the time to apply for grant funding that is available at the federal and state levels, as well as from private foundations. This would allow me to implement a first of its kind Job Court designed to give probationers the skills required to get and keep a job following their release from incarceration. It would also allow us to increase our participation in specialty mental health, recovery and veterans courts. I won’t ask the county taxpayers to fund any of the court’s specialty programs and will work hard to bring more money and resources to serve the citizens of our county.”
• “I plan to implement a permanent Eviction Prevention Program. The CARES Act has provided funding for a temporary eviction prevention program to be implemented in each District Court across the state. This program will connect tenants with existing services that will allow them to stay in their homes, and permit landlords to get paid. This will prevent the increase in crime and the economic instability that comes along with homelessness.”
Adam Eggleston is the current magistrate for Montcalm County District Court. He believes his specific judicial experience within that court qualifies him for the bench, along with his experience in three phases of the court system — prosecution, defense and magistrate.
“I have been a defense attorney, prosecutor and assistant city attorney which allows me the unique perspective of seeing all sides of a case,” he said. “I currently serve the court in its most important and essential functions, such as conducting arraignments in all criminal cases, handling search warrants and setting bond conditions to keep our community safe and protect rights. I am familiar with the inter-workings of the court. I know what can and cannot be changed. I serve on three specialty courts and I have established an eviction diversion program in the 64B District Court.”
Eggleston believes the most pressing issue facing the next District Court judge will be dealing with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
“I anticipate there will be little to no money available for independent grant programming and we need to expect finances to be tight across the spectrum,” he said. “There are also many issues with drugs, but all we can do at the court level is to support rehabilitative programs, such as recovery court that I am already involved with. I also believe it is necessary to work with other courts within the circuit to help get people the necessary treatment as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“We’ll also need to ensure the pendulum does not swing too far in the direction of letting people off easy for criminal activity,” he added. “Because of bail/bond reform and COVID-19, outside forces have kept many criminals from going to jail. This makes our community less safe. We need to ensure justice for both the accused and victims of crimes. But we cannot allow our system to drift in a direction that would unfairly prioritize either side of the spectrum. I have worked hand-in-hand with the jail throughout the COVID-19 crisis to try to keep our community as safe as possible during these restrictions.”
Eggleston said his experience and ability to work with all aspects of the court system sets him apart from his two opponents. He noted his campaign is being supported by all Montcalm County prosecutors, retiring Judge Hemingsen, local police unions, most local defense attorneys, State Rep. Jim Lower, former State Sen. Judy Emmons and numerous other local officials.
“They’re supporting me because of my vision and experience,” he said. “I know firsthand that pie-in-the-sky talking points about combining our courts or getting ‘free grant money’ sound nice on paper, but won’t work in our courtroom. All judges that would be affected are opposed to combining our courts for a variety of good reasons. But perhaps most importantly, the District Court and Circuit Court are legally separated.”
Eggleston also cited his work ethic during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as efforts he made to implement technology to streamline court hearings in response to the pandemic, including remote access to District Court and hosting court hearings via Zoom.
“I have worked with community partners from EightCAP, DHHS and legal aid to establish an eviction diversion program,” he said. “I have met with local leaders to help start a veteran’s court before being shut down by COVID-19. I have worked with community partners such as pretrial services and Michigan Works to help enhance our existing probation and pretrial release services. I worked around the clock to make sure the legal functions of the court never quit or slowed down during the shutdown. While I don’t have control over the court staff or our hours, I did take it upon myself to greatly increase my workload and hours to make sure our community and citizens’ rights were protected during that time. I was the point of contact and picked up where everyone else had to leave off.”
If elected, Eggleston’s goals include continuing to bring the court fully into the 21st century “in a way that will actually work.”
“I have led the charge,” he said. “I have the firsthand experience to know what we can improve and what is controlled by the State Court Administrative Office.”
Eggleston’s goals include entering all of District Court’s information entered into the LEIN tracking system.
“This will allow police to be able to do their job more effectively and keep our community safer,” he said.
Eggleston would also like to end all pre-set bonds.
“I want every arrest reviewed by an independent judicial figure to ensure that the rights of the accused are preserved and protected, but also to make sure the relative threat of each individual offender is considered,” he said. “We’ll put proper safeguards in place to ensure violent criminals are not released through a revolving door back into the community.”
Tom Ginster is an attorney with Peterson Ginster in Greenville. He has 25 years of experience as a civil litigator, assistant prosecuting attorney and special assistant to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. He has administrative experience as the former acting director of Michigan’s Office of Drug Control Policy, where he led a staff of 26 people while evaluating and distributing more than $45 million in federal grants to multi-jurisdictional drug teams, law enforcement agencies, community groups and schools.
For eight years, Ginster was former Michigan Gov. John Engler’s criminal justice policy adviser, in which he worked with police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and victim rights advocates statewide. Ginster has served on the training faculty of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, as well as on the Michigan Sentencing Commission and Governor’s Traffic Safety Commission.
“Decisions made by our District Court judge impact countless lives,” he noted. “Our District Court is the first line of defense to sort out guys that make a one-time mistake from those who eventually kill or seriously injure someone if they’re not stopped.”
Ginster believes reducing alcohol- and drug-related deaths is one of the most pressing issues facing the next District Court judge.
“The Michigan State Police annual drunk driving audit reveals that in the past two reporting periods, covering 24 months, 37 people lost their lives on Montcalm County roads,” he said. “Dozens of others were seriously injured. In comparison, Ionia County had 15 fatalities over this same period.”
Protecting women from domestic abusers is also a priority for Ginster, who previously served as staff for a former lieutenant governor’s domestic violence and homicide prevention task force, in which he delivered upon the testimony of domestic violence survivors from throughout Michigan. He also participated in drafting domestic violence legislation, which he says was comprehensive and became a model for the nation.
“I propose a ‘rocket docket’ for alleged domestic abusers,” he said. “The longer these cases remain on the docket, the greater danger to the victims and more opportunity for the abusers to pressure the victim to drop charges.”
Ginster believes his experience sets him apart from his two opponents.
“I’ve been a prosecutor in a big county and a small one,” he said. “I have been an attorney in private practice, learning first-hand the burdens and priorities of Montcalm County families, farms and small businesses. I was the acting Drug Czar for the State of Michigan, I wrote the criminal laws for Gov. John Engler’s administration for eight years and I’ve tried well over 100 trials in front of juries, both in State and federal court.
“As a former career prosecutor, I believe in law and order and the rule of law. I believe judges should narrowly interpret and apply the law and Constitution, not make the law. I believe every single life is precious, that every person is created in the image of God and have dignity — which is why as a judge, you have a responsibility to rule impartially, with wisdom and to treat every person fairly.”
If elected, Ginster wants District Court to pay for itself and generate a surplus for taxpayers; protect women from domestic violence at all stages of the court process; and significantly reduce alcohol and other drug-related crashes, injuries and death by implementing a day-report and monitoring program.”
“People in Montcalm County work hard and they expect their judges to work hard as well,” he said. “I will uphold the tradition of a strong work ethic by our judges. I believe we can make the District Court even more efficient, and I give you my word: as your judge, I’m going to try more cases than any judge in the region. More cases being heard mean fewer plea bargains and swifter justice.”