MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – A family court referee and a local attorney facing a misdemeanor domestic violence charge are running in the November election to become a circuit judge in Muskegon County.
The open position on the 14th Circuit Court is due to the retirement of long-time Judge William C. Marietti.
Seeking to replace Marietti are Jenny L. McNeill, an attorney and family court referee for the 14th Circuit, and Jason Kolkema, an attorney who has been charged with allegedly assaulting a woman he was dating in a downtown Muskegon apartment on Aug. 18. Kolkema has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for a trial on Nov. 21-22.
The nonpartisan position is for six years.
McNeill and Kolkema were the top two vote-getters in the Aug. 2 primary, beating out Brandon Davis and Kendrah Robinson for the right to face off in the Nov. 8 general elections.
Related: Muskegon judicial candidate headed to trial for domestic assault
Kolkema is a Muskegon area native and graduated from Fruitport High School, Michigan State University and the law school at University of Detroit-Mercy. He has been an attorney for 25 years, handling circuit court criminal and civil cases.
He previously represented municipalities and community mental health authorities for a Lansing municipal defense law firm. He also previously worked as a due process hearing officer for the Michigan Department of Education.
McNeill has been a Muskegon family court referee for four years and an attorney for 25 years. She began her career as a legal aid attorney.
She’s involved in numerous local organizations and serves as treasurer of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, vice president of the Muskegon Family Care Board of Directors and assistant director of the Michigan Irish Music Festival.
MLive/Muskegon Chronicle partnered with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Michigan to provide candidate information for readers. Each candidate was asked to outline their stances on a variety of public policy issues listed below.
Information on other state, county and local primary races can be found at Vote411.org.
All responses in the voter guide were submitted directly by the candidate and have not been edited by the League of Women Voters, except for necessary cut if a reply exceeded character limitations. Spelling and grammar were not corrected. Publication of candidate statements and opinions is solely in the interest of public service and should NOT be considered as an endorsement. The League never supports or opposes any candidates or political parties.
What are your skills, abilities and qualifications for the position of Circuit or District Court Judge?
I began practicing law in 1996. A Circuit Court Judge handles felony criminal cases, civil cases over $25,000 and family cases. I have extensive experience in every area. I began my career as a Legal Aid Attorney in 1996, representing low-income individuals, seniors and survivors of domestic violence. After many years, I moved to private practice, becoming a partner in Ladas Hoopes McNeill Law, and continuing to represent thousands of people in Muskegon County. In 2018, I became a Family Court Referee for the 14th Circuit Court, where I am seeking to become a Judge. I handle thousands of hearings each year for juveniles who commit crimes, neglect/abuse and custody/parenting time/child support matters. Further, I have spent hundreds of hours in continuing legal education, to ensure that I am making sound legal decisions in my daily hearings. I am also very involved in the Muskegon community, volunteering for many local organizations, including leadership positions, for over 24 years.
With almost 26 years as an attorney, I am the only candidate with substantial experience in civil litigation, as well as criminal cases. This is important because judges often come up through the ranks of the criminal side of the law, as former prosecutors and/or public defenders who lack experience in civil law. However, a substantial part of the circuit court docket pertains to civil cases, including injunctions, quiet title, abatement, breach of contract, personal injury, discrimination claims, FOIA and Open Meetings Act cases, and many other matters that are civil cases. I have experience with all those civil cases. In fact, I am the only candidate who has conducted jury trials in the federal courts and who has argued multiple cases before the Michigan Court of Appeals, as well as the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. I also have prior judicial experience as a special education hearing officer receiving appointments from the Michigan Department of Education.
What systems or processes involving case management in the Circuit or District Court would you retain, and what would you change?
I will retain electronic filing of pleadings, but I would like to make it more user friendly and friendly for the public to see those filings to fulfill our obligation of transparency. Certainly, I would like to see judges at the circuit court level become more involved in settlement conferences. Willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and get to really know what the parties are striving for and trying to get both sides to reach a fair compromise is the goal. I think this takes time, effort, and knowledge. Many judges that lack experience in all facets of the law are intimidated by this process as they are unable to understand the different positions taken by the parties. It is our job to understand what is going on and attempt to get the parties to resolve their differences. If they do not, I am a strong believer in the jury system and I also believe that I can be very objective if asked to decide the matter via motion or in a bench trial.
In my role as a judicial officer, I quickly learned the importance of case management systems. The current system is cumbersome, but the reality is that the Michigan Supreme Court just moved Muskegon County Circuit Court over to a new system, MiCourt. More changes will be likely. I am a member of the Referee Association of Michigan, so that I can be involved with Referee issues on a statewide level. If I were elected Judge, I would participate in the statewide judicial committees, to lobby our Supreme Court to really consider the needs of the local communities and courts in developing new systems. For example, the MiCourt system has case information available online, but only limited information. A system similar to the federal system, where documents can be accessed online, would greatly increase access to court records.
What alternative methods of sentencing, such as drug court, MIP diversion, boot camp, etc. do you feel have been the most successful?
I certainly feel that recovery court is very helpful to those who really wish to become and remain clean. Often these courts are very successful in preventing recidivism. However, I am also mindful that often people who agree to enter these programs do so only to avoid more punitive sentences that are usually involved longer periods of incarceration. If people really want to remain clean, they will abide by the terms of the specialty court. However, if they are just going along to avoid a harsher sentence then they should be dealt with accordingly. Accountability is the key.
Under appropriate circumstances, I am also in favor of the use of diversions and other programs such as Boot Camp, Swift-and-Sure, and the Exit Program which have a proven track record for many offenders as an alternative to incarceration. Finally, I would make full use of Holmes Youthful Trainee Act status for offenders under the age of 26, Section 7411 for controlled substance offenders, and Cobbs agreements.
Specialty or problem-solving courts have been incredibly successful. Whether it is veterans court, drug court, mental health court, or swift and sure, the intense nature of these programs ensure that people receive services that they desperately need and become productive members of society. All these programs require more work on behalf of the court, but the results are worth the time and energy, as courts around the nation, including our own Muskegon Courts, are seeing recidivism levels decrease when these types of problem-solving courts are utilized.
Do you have any other alternative methods of sentencing not currently used in the Circuit or District Court that you would like to put into place?
I envision utilizing more of the treatment court approach. The Swift and Sure program is working well. As for juveniles, I would like to see the juvenile mental health court reestablished, so that those juveniles with mental health issues have their issues addressed, instead of creating a pipeline into the adult criminal system.
I believe that community service is underutilized, but I am also mindful that it must be weighed against taking away paid positions from those in the community who provide such services. But certainly, volunteering at valuable non-profits will have a net positive effect on both the need that the non-profit has and the value that the defendant will get from participating in such programs. In addition, I would strongly encourage the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department administration to reinstate its work-release program, which was suspended during the COVID-19 epidemic.
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