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.