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Two of Hillsdale County’s three judges have endorsed Jonesville attorney Sara Lisznyai in her race for dis­trict judge, citing con­cerns over the record of her opponent Neal Brady, the county’s pros­e­cutor for the last 18 years — alle­ga­tions that Brady and his sup­porters, including County Sheriff Stan Bur­chardt, deny.

Former pros­e­cutor and Circuit Judge Michael Smith said Brady strikes too many plea bar­gains, reducing charges in exchange for guilty pleas.

Since 2001, Brady has pled about three out of every four felonies to mis­de­meanors, according to Smith’s court records.

“You can’t take every case to trial, but Brady has reduced 75 percent of all serious crimes in this county to mis­de­meanors or he out­right dis­misses them,” Smith said. “We have a serious metham­phet­amine problem in this county and we’ve only tried one case in 18 years. Clearly we’re not addressing the problem. I have seen the same people in front of me repeatedly — two, three, four times.”

Probate judge Michelle Bianchi also has endorsed Lisznyai.

But Brady said his approach to plea bar­gaining reflects his phi­losophy as a pros­e­cutor.

“Plea bar­gains force crim­inals to admit to some­thing that they probably haven’t admitted to before,” Brady said. “This starts the change and the healing process for people who are guilty of crimes….If people don’t plead, they never take respon­si­bility for what they’ve done.”

Retiring Dis­trict Judge Don Sanderson said plea bar­gaining can be mis­un­der­stood.

“A case that goes to trial is a case that has failed,” Sanderson said. “Well over 90 percent of those charged with a crime are guilty. If a case gets past primary testing, the review stage with the police, the pros­e­cutor, and then the court and the parties involved still can’t find a res­o­lution, then it goes to trial. That’s a failure of the system. There should be a meeting of the minds. That’s what plea bar­gaining is.”

Sanderson has not pub­licly endorsed either can­didate, but he con­tributed money to Brady’s cam­paign and says he will vote for Brady on Tuesday.

Local attorney Valerie White, who worked for Brady as an assistant pros­e­cutor, joined the debate yes­terday, with a letter pub­lished in the Hillsdale Daily News. “The duty of the pros­e­cutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict,” she wrote. “[Brady] looked at sit­u­a­tions on a case by case basis, and tried to craft an outcome which would see justice served, bal­anced against the limited resources of Hillsdale county as the economy worsened.”

Trial is costlier than plea bar­gaining, Brady said.

“This costs a great deal of money,” he said. “Crim­inals don’t stop appealing until they have run out of courts to appeal to. For these reasons, I don’t have a problem at all with how I have handled these cases, and how I have handled the office. It is the right thing to do, it has always been the right thing to do, and I use my best judgment.”

Smith endorsed Lisznyai in August and has appeared in ads sup­porting her. Smith has served as the county’s circuit court judge for 18 years, after serving as pros­e­cutor and Brady’s boss.

“I’m endorsing her because she’s the most qual­ified and hard­working of the two,” Smith said. “I’ve had them both in my court on a repeated basis. Based on their prepa­ration, knowledge of law, and pre­sen­tation, in my opinion, she’s the best can­didate.”

Bianchi endorsed Lisznyai in August.

“I prac­ticed for many years with Sara,” she said. “We went to head-to-head doing a lot of family law cases. I knew she’d be a worthy opponent and do a good job defending her client. The other thing I think is really important is that dis­trict court does more than criminal matters. It has a big civil docket as well and over the years the civil docket has increased and Brady hasn’t done civil cases. Sara has done pretty much every­thing.”

Lisznyai has served in Hillsdale County for 18 of her 24 years as a prac­ticing attorney. Her cam­paign strategy empha­sizes her work ethic and expe­rience with a diverse docket, qual­i­fi­ca­tions she believes that trump her opponent’s.

“Judges Smith and Bianchi are not endorsing me because I’m not Neal Brady,” she said. “To have all of the people who listen to your per­for­mance and evaluate it — all come down in your favor is truly hum­bling. You don’t get to hear that a lot in your lifetime.”

Brady, who has run uncon­tested as county pros­e­cutor for 18 years, has won endorse­ments from state senator Bruce Caswell, state rep­re­sen­tative Ken Kurtz, and coun­cilperson Patrick Flannery, who is also Hillsdale College’s vice pres­ident of finance.

“I have been sheriff as long as Neal has been pros­e­cutor,” said Hillsdale County Sheriff Stan Bur­chardt. “I look at the criminal part of the dis­trict court, and Neal has the expe­rience with this. He has been pros­e­cutor for 18 years, and assistant pros­e­cutor for a number of years before that. I know Neal has more expe­rience when it comes to the criminal aspect of the court.”

“I’ve been trying to stay neutral in this race because they are both good can­di­dates,” Sanderson said. “Regardless of who wins, I think Hillsdale County wins.”

Stevan Bennett con­tributed to this report.

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