Across Greater Lansing, voters have begun to cast ballots for the 2020 general election – absentee ballots are being sent out, with in-person voting to follow on Tuesday, November 3.
LSJ asked area candidates running for office to share their backgrounds and answer a few questions on major topics to aid voters in their decisions. Read excerpts from their answers, in their own words, below.
I grew up in Gladwin, Michigan, lived a good portion of my adult life in Midland, Michigan and now live in East Lansing, Michigan. I am member on the East Lansing Zoning Board of Appeals, the family law sections for the Ingham County and State Bar Associations. I am a member of the National Association for Career Women, Women Lawyers Association, and League of Women Voters. I have volunteered with Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. In addition, with my passion being in family law, for the last 4 years I have volunteered for a local group called Second Saturday which provides emotional, financial and legal education to women who are contemplating divorce or in the midst of divorce. I am a practicing family law attorney.
Morgan Elizabeth Cole
Alongside my husband Michael, I am raising our three children: Mary Elizabeth, Margaret Grace and Michael James Jr. in Meridian Township.
I am a member of the following: State Bar of Michigan, District of Columbia Bar, Ingham County Bar Association, Women’s Lawyers Association of Mid-Michigan, Michigan Probate Juvenile Registers Association, advisor to Michigan State University’s Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, Junior League-Lansing, a former member of the Parent Advisory Board for Sparrow Childtime Learning Center, and St. Martha Catholic Church.
Like many working parents, the balance of career and raising three young children brings me daily challenges and rewards, and these experiences provide me a valuable perspective to take into this role.
- Civil and Regulatory Litigation in Private Practice in Washington D.C.
- Former Law Clerk for Honorable Rosemarie E. Aquilina
- Former Friend of the Court Conciliator/Investigator for the 30th Circuit Court
- Former Chief Deputy Circuit Court Clerk of the 30th Circuit Court
- Current Ingham County Probate Register/Court Administrator
I served as a precinct delegate. Additionally, I worked as a volunteer on the campaigns for many elected officials, including Ingham County Judges and the Ingham County Clerk.
I have been a practicing attorney for over 25 years, general practice, criminal defense and family law.
I have experience in the trial courts, Court of Appeals, MI Supreme Court and the MI Eastern and Western Federal District Courts. I am also admitted in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Early in my career, I was appointed by Honorable Judge James R. Giddings and worked closely with him for over 10 years as the Special Master/Monitor on a very large class action lawsuit. I have drafted legislation and policy solutions for complex issues and participated in writing jury instructions for the International Criminal Court.
I have served the people of Ingham County as an Ingham County Commissioner for over 10 years and I have been re-elected 5 times. I have also served as a precinct delegate. I work across party lines to solve problems and have many colleagues – Democrats and Republicans – who support me. Imagine that, leadership that’s about creating solutions instead of partisan conflict.
My wife Tanya and I have eight children and one grandchild between us. I have lived in East Lansing and Lansing for 27 years. We have five children still at home. I am the President of the Ingham County Employees Association, ICEA Local 13 and a member or the East Lansing Sex Ed Advisory Board. I also coach youth basketball and flag football in the East Lansing and Lansing City Rec Leagues. I am a member of St. Thomas Catholic Church. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with my wife, children and three dogs and doing house projects.
I am an assistant prosecutor in Ingham County specializing in crimes against children and adult sexual assault. I have several years experience working abuse and neglect and juvenile justice cases. I am an expert in the field of child abuse prosecution and have worked in this capacity in several speciality courts. I teach police, prosecutors, DHHS workers, and child interviewers across the state, how to interview children. I have tried dozens of child and family related jury trials and handled thousands of child-related hearings.
I worked as a law clerk in the family division in the 7th Circuit, in Flint and was a founding member of the Chance at Childhood Law and Social Work Clinic at MSU Law School. I was a supervising student mentor in the MSU Diversion Project which is a program we still utilize in our juvenile justice program today.
I am from Detroit and grew up in Rochester, MI. I now live in Lansing with my wife and two young girls. I am a dedicated Spartan for life, where I met my wife, my parents met, and my in-laws met. Go Green! Early in my career I entered public service as a district attorney. There I served as a criminal prosecutor where I was responsible for hundreds of cases, and tried 35-40 trials from drunk driving to assaults, to cases involving death.
In 2016, I moved back to Michigan where I served the community as an Assistant City Attorney of Lansing. Here I was the legal advisor to Lansing Police Department, District Court manager, and advised and participated in training for Lansing City Council. Along with my fellow assistants and the City Attorney, I regularly advised the city council on a variety of legal issues throughout the City of Lansing.
After my time with the City of Lansing, I was blessed with the opportunity to serve this community as an Assistant Attorney General. I handled civil rights case filed in federal court of behalf of the State of Michigan. I tried cases in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Marquette.
What is the single biggest issue facing the county’s Circuit Court system and how would you address it?
Cheltenham: I am not a Circuit Court administrator or employee that truly knows the inside of all of the issues within the Circuit Court. I certainly could not tell you what the single biggest issue facing this county’s Circuit Court’s system is. As a Judge I would have more insight on what the issues are could better answer this question. I think one area that every court system needs to continue to educate themselves on and work to eradicate is systemic discrimination. This discrimination comes in the form of race, sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender, and many other forms of discrimination.
As a family law judge I will ensure that each person that comes into my courtroom is treated fairly, with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual identity, race, creed or religion. The job of a judge is to ensure that the laws are followed and applied the same to each person who is similarly situated. This is what I am committed to doing as your next Ingham County Circuit Court judge.
As far as correcting the problem, I believe that educating people on discriminatory actions along with the implications of that discrimination is the first step. This would be immediately followed by identification of what specific types of discrimination are happening and the effects of that discrimination, then working with individuals to train them to help change behaviors and responses to other individuals.
Cole: The single biggest issue is public access and backlog due to the pandemic. Justice delayed is justice denied. I know as the current Court Administrator that making sure every person can access the Court is paramount. This includes ensuring every person and family is able to receive a fair and timely response from the Court. The Court is not just a place, it is a service. In seeking to resolve this, I will consistently review the backlog and docket for efficiency. We can also continue to be creative with Zoom hearings, electronic filings, and holding Court hearings or trials at large capacity off-site locations.
Koenig: We need to ensure the promise of “equal justice for all” is fulfilled, and that every person has access to justice. I have been working for justice, as an attorney, advocate, and ten-year County Commissioner. We have worked to reform the criminal justice system, creating specialized courts for veterans, sobriety, and mental health. As Board chairperson, I added a new assistant prosecutor dedicated to sexual assault prosecution. As chair of the CMH board, I saw how jails and prisons become treatment centers of last resort. I’ve worked for positive and creative changes, to fulfill the promise of equal justice.
Kwasnik: Equal Access. Resources can directly affect a person’s ability to be heard. COVID-19 has both exacerbated and provided innovations to assist with equal access. Remote hearings are now standard, but present challenges for those without adequate technology. DHHS should provide access for persons in their offices when technology is an issue and/or transportation to hearings. Hearing schedules should be flexible to accommodate work and transportation issues.
Court orders should be tailored to individuals. Service providers, private attorneys, and prosecutors need to be held accountable and be ready to answer probing questions on why and how they arrived at their positions. Understanding the system is essential to knowing the areas where it can be improved.
Lain: No response.
Waddell: The quality of justice one receives is too often determined by how much money they have. According to American Progress, 60% people in American jails today have not been convicted of a crime. Cash bail criminalizes poverty for people who are unable to afford bail, as they are detained — even as they are presumed innocent — awaiting trial for weeks or months. This causes individuals whom are presumed innocent to lose jobs, housing or child visitation rights. I support a presumption of release and will place the burden on prosecutors to prove the need for detention.
Do you believe there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system and if so what role should judges play in addressing that?
Cheltenham: The court for which I am running is not a criminal court; it is a family division court which oversees cases relate to domestic relations and child abuse and neglect cases. That being said, please see my response above. I think part of the judge’s specific duty is to ensure that racism does not happen in his or her courtroom. In doing so I think it is the judge’s responsibility to ensure that each person working in that courtroom is educated on issues of racism that happen within the legal system and how they can best avoid and eliminate either implicit or explicit biases which might promote racism.
Cole: Yes, sadly it does happen. To ignore this issue is to be part of perpetuating it. I will work hard to counteract it with engagement and guidance from our community. It is an ongoing issue which requires constant communication and recurrent training for implicit biases. I will treat every person in my Court with civility, dignity, and provide justice to all those that come in front of me.
Koenig: From my work as the President of the Lansing ACLU, I know first-hand the work that needs to be done. Yes. Awareness of bias is where we start. Harvard reviewed over 1 million cases looking for the reason that Black Americans were incarcerated at higher rates. Black people were arrested more, had higher bail and harsher sentences…because they were Black. That was the only reason. Researchers could not isolate for bias/racism/prejudice because there was so much of it. Read up, become aware, be part of the solution. All judges should read the Harvard study and be aware of bias.
Kwasnik: Yes. Courts are a reflection of society and all of the issues and reasons for inequality that exist in society create racial inequity in the courts. The first step is acknowledging this fact. Biases are normal and every person has them. Only through this basic understanding are judges able to probe and question the sources of the information presented to them, and reflect on their own bias’ influence before making a fair decision. Without that level of openness and accountability of lawyers, case workers, county employees and the judges themselves; ignorance will continue to create unjust outcomes.
Lain: No response.
Waddell: Judges and lawyers take an oath to promote equal justice under the law, but as I noted in question number one, our judicial system perpetuates racism by criminalizing poverty. Additionally, there is a lack of accountability where systematic racism has come into play in our system. Training is necessary for judges and prosecutors to recognize biases and to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges that minorities face in our system. Ultimately, all individuals need to be treated fairly to ensure that justice is done for all, and not some.
What makes you the best candidate for this judgeship?
Cheltenham: I come from the humble background of working my way up the legal ladder. I began my career as a legal secretary, then later became a lawyer. I did the majority of this as a single mother of two children. My personal and professional background have prepared me for this exact job. I come from an abusive household and a divided family and have gone through the foster care system. I have been that child in the courtroom who is being taken away from her parents, I have been the little girl in the foster care system not understanding why she is separated from her family, and I have been the single parent trying to keep it all together. These experiences instilled in me my passion for family law and the compassion for families. I know the laws that will need analysis and application and I know that these families need not only someone who will protect the children but someone who will understand that their lives are being turned upside down and as parents they need help. I will ensure that decisions made are focused on the best interest of the minor child and rehabilitation of the individuals within a family unit is encouraged so they can better work together to raise up the children impacted by their actions and decisions.
Every attorney running can apply the law. We were trained in law school to do that on day one. That is not the hard part of this job. The hard part is relating to the people that will come through this court and not lose focus of the right decisions for each family. It is because of my personal and professional background that I will be the judge who brings passion for family law and compassion for the people that will come before me. I am the judge that brings focused discipline and real-world experience to our Ingham county families.
Cole: I have nearly 12 years of judicial experience with the Ingham County Court. I understand the role, responsibilities and administration of the court, and familiar with and have practiced the following areas of law: domestic; juvenile delinquency; child abuse and neglect; probate; civil; criminal; appellate and matters exclusive to the Court of Claims. As the current Ingham County Probate Register/Court Administrator, I put children and families first by taking the Ingham County bench to hear Probate matters. My judicial experience tells me:
- Outcomes are better for children when families are preserved;
- Treatments/interventions for youth, averts the school-to-prison pipeline;
- Children are hurt in protracted divorce and custody cases
Koenig: As County Commissioner, I’ve worked to create a new jail (breaks ground next spring) reflecting a new approach to criminal justice. We’re housing fewer inmates but providing improved programming – job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment. I’ve worked with Mayor Schor, Rep. Brixie, Prosecutor Siemon and many others supporting this campaign, Democrats and Republicans. I am the only candidate to get a “very positive” rating by Lansing Area Human Rights-PAC, the only one endorsed by the Michigan Association for Justice. Our country, our county and our courts need thoughtful experienced leadership, I’m ready to provide that if elected.
Kwasnik: Experience and dedication to equality. For the last 15 years, I have worked directly with persons in crisis. Victims of domestic violence, children and adults who have been sexually and physically abused, juveniles who have committed offenses and parents who have their rights on the line. Every one of these persons, have experienced a trauma and are afraid of what comes next. I have shepherded these individuals through an often unfamiliar system with compassion and understanding regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. I am dedicated to diversity of all kinds and this is reflected in my own racially diverse family, where we celebrate our differences as one family everyday.
Lain: No response.
Waddell:I have the most diverse legal knowledge and courtroom experiences of all the candidates. I have served as a prosecutor, an Assistant City Attorney of Lansing and an Assistant Attorney General of Michigan. I have handled, researched, plead, and tried both criminal and civil jury trials in state and federal courts of both Michigan and Texas.
This open seat is currently in the Family Court. However, there is no guarantee that it will remain a family court in the future. My diversity of experience and specifically trial experience, makes me prepared for any type of court, whether it be family, civil, or criminal.
Do you support life without parole sentences? Please explain your position.
Cheltenham: This particular courtroom is assigned as a family division court. While this court could possibly be transitioned into a criminal court at some point and time in the future, this court has been a family court for nearly 17 years, and reassignment is not being discussed as far as I know. It is highly unlikely that a life without parole sentence would come before me if elected.
My response to the question is this: as a judge it is not my job to determine whether I support a particular law or not. My job as a judge is to apply the law as written to the specific facts of the case before me and I will do just that.
Cole: Yes. As a Judge, I will follow the law, look at the facts, and craft a sentence which takes into proportionality and accounts for: The likelihood or potential that the offender could be reformed; the need to protect society; the penalty or consequence appropriate to the offender’s conduct; and the goal of deterring others from similar conduct.
Koenig: There are better solutions. As the Special Master on the largest prison class action in Michigan’s history, I learned a few things. We should probably impose a term of years with a max of life. Ask, do life sentences make us any safer? We know they don’t. Our homicide rate is no better than other states where “life” means “life OR until paroled” where most inmates are eligible for parole after about 15-25 years. Most “lifers” in Michigan are housed in Level 2-low security. No one else expends resources like we do on prison old folk’s homes for “lifers.”
Kwasnik: Yes. In law school I sat as the jury foreperson on the David Draiheim murder of Janette Kirby. As a new prosecutor I wrote the search warrants when serial killer Matthew Macon was identified and walked the scenes of his crimes. I attended an autopsy of a 9 year old boy, beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, after being nearly starved. I have seen first hand that some people are capable of true evil. I believe that people can change and should be given those opportunities. However, there are times that the future threat a person may pose outweighs even their potential to change. In these rare occasions life without parole is appropriate.
Lain: No response.
Waddell: In my legal positions, I’ve had to make the tough calls. I’ve had to weigh the potential for rehabilitation vs the public interest and public safety. This is not a theoretical question for me. All cases are different, and it is unwise to make a blanket statement that I will never sentence someone to life without parole, or that I would always do so for specific crimes. I will judge each case on its own merits. Sentencing will be based on the circumstances surrounding the crime, its victim(s), the accused and their history, and the potential for rehabilitation, if any.
Do you support Michigan’s current mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines? Please explain your position.
Cheltenham: Same response as above.
Cole: This question draws upon two interpretations of the question being asked.
First, I do not support Michigan’s current mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines because under current law, Michigan’s sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. The Court must still continue to consult the applicable statutory sentencing guideline range. However, as a Judge, I am allowed to deviate from the guidelines based upon facts and common sense application of the law. It remains the role of the sentencing judge to weigh facts deemed relevant and reasonable to a sentencing decision, such as: severity of the crime, likelihood of rehabilitation, protection of our citizens, consequence in relation to the offender’s conduct and deterrence of others.
Second, yes I do support Michigan’s current mandatory minimum sentences, as there are some offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences such as: First Degree – Criminal Sexual Conduct of a Child; Habitual fourth offenders who commit violent felonies; consecutive sentences for offenses committed while on parole; and offenses for Felony Firearm not assigned the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (“HYTA”) status. It is our legislature that has deemed these offenses necessary to carry mandatory minimum sentences without permitting the Court to have discretion.
As a judge, I will follow the law.
Koenig: In 2015 the Michigan Supreme Court in People v. Lockridge, essentially struck down mandatory minimums in Michigan reducing them to “advisory” rather than binding, following US Supreme Court precedent. “Consistently with the remedy imposed by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Booker we hold that a guidelines minimum sentence range calculated in violation of Apprendi and Alleyne is advisory only and…are to be reviewed by appellate courts for reasonableness.” Felony Firearm still imposes 2 years in prison for crimes committed with a gun, but there is little evidence that it has an actual impact on deterring crime.
Kwasnik: The Michigan Sentencing Guidelines are not mandatory for all but a few crimes. Criminal Sexual Conduct involving penetration of a child under 13 by and someone older than 17 has a mandatory minimum of 25 years for instance. The overwhelming majority of other crimes however, allow for the judge to deviate from the guidelines either lower or higher, based on the individual facts of the case. I support the recent case law interpretations that allow for judges to have this added discretion.
Lain: No response.
Waddell: No. Mandatory sentencing removes a judge’s ability to order a punishment that fits the crime because they are required to sentence individuals to statutory minimums. Statutory minimums can also remove the ability for judges to sentence individuals to alternatives to incarceration, including diversion programs, mental health and drug rehabilitation among others.
The above information was compiled from questionnaires emailed to each candidate. If you have questions about our process, email [email protected]. To support work like this, consider subscribing. For more information, visit LSJ.com/subscribe.