Three vie for two Berrien County Judge seats

Published 6:23 am Friday, October 29, 2004

By By SPIROS GALLOS / Niles Daily Star
NILES - Residents of Berrien County will choose two of the three candidates for Berrien County Circuit Court Judge to fill two seats being vacated by outgoing judges.
Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Arthur J. Cotter, St. Joseph attorney John M. Donahue, and State Rep. Charlie LaSata all seek to fill one of the two seats being vacated.
The two seats are being vacated by Circuit Court Judges John T. Hammond and Casper O. Grathwohl, who cannot seek new terms because of the state's age limitation.
All three candidates were busy Wednesday campaigning, walking door to door in cities across the county, trying to meet as many voters as possible before the Tuesday election.
M. Donahue
Donahue, 50, spent much of the day walking door to door in Benton Harbor, meeting citizens who were concerned with court fairness, he said.
The most important traits a judge should have is a strong knowledge of the law and the ability to apply it, as well as having a fair and even temperment, Donahue said.
Donahue has been an attorney with Straub, Seaman &Allen, P.C. in St. Joseph for 15 years. Prior to that, he held a judicial clerkship with the judges of the Berrien County Second Judicial Circuit Court for about three years.
He earned his law degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1985, and his undergraduate degree in social science from Michigan State University in 1982, where graduated in the top 10 percent of his class.
His family has been active in the Berrien County legal community for several generations. His grandfather was an attroney in Niles and his father, the late Edwin J. Donahue Jr., served as Municipal Court Judge in Niles from 1961 through 1969.
Donahue said he has a well-rounded legal background, which is a prerequisite for a successful career as a judge. He has extensive experience with complex litigation involving a broad spectrum of legal issues, he said.
Donahue said he has successfully represented clients in federal and state courts in counties throughout Michigan, including: Allegan, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Clinton, Grand Traverse, Ingham, Ionia, Kalamazoo, Kent, Mackinac, Muskegon, Oceana, Van Buren and Wayne.
His appellate experience includes arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, the Michigan Supreme Court, and before the Michigan Court of Appeals on several occasions.
However, Donahue's experience is not limited to the courtroom. His judicial clerkship gave him the opportunity to observe and participate in behind-the-scenes judicial activities. In addition, he has served as a court-appointed mediator on more than 75 cases. He also has considerable experience in municipal law: serving as outside legal counsel for the GRSD Sewer Authority, Oronoko Charter Township, the Paw Paw Lake Waste Water Treatment Plant and the Village of Shoreham.
He also currently serves as Secretary of the Berrien County Bar Association.
If elected, Donahue said he would address the issue of continual overcrowding in county jails. By working closely with the sherrif's department and the county commisioner, Donahue said he would find a solution to overcrowding.
At the age of 50, Donahue is the oldest of the three candidates, a factor which affords him a different perspective than his opponents.
Donahue, a life-long resident of Berrien County, was born and raised in Niles, and graduated from Niles Senior High School in 1972. He and his wife, Lisa, have three children, and currently reside in Royalton Township.
Arthur J Cotter
Cotter, 44, began campaigning early Wednesday morning when he visited local businesses in Eau Claire, be heading to St. Joseph Township, where he campaingned door to door.
Cotter has served in the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office for 18 years, currently working as the Chief Assistant Prosecutor. During his time in the office, Cotter has tried over 100 jury trials.
Cotter's educational background includes a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1982 and law degree from the University of Detroit Law School in 1985.
Cotter wants to address the concerns of the community that some segments of the community are being mistreated in the court system.
Cotter said one way for judges to overcome that common perception is to become more active in their communities and to have a positive presence within the communities they serve in.
As a prosecutor in the county, his community and civic memberships include: the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club, Fraternal Order of Police, Berrien County Bar Association, the St. Joseph Elks, and the Council for World Class Communities.
Like his two opponents, Cotter believes overcrowding in the jails is a concern which must be addressed. If elected, Cotter said he would examine alternatives which could lessen the burden on county jails.
Those alternatives include expanding the tether program, which is in place in Berrien County, and remodeling jails to facilitate more inmates.
Cotter said too much time is spent by judges deciding which criminals should be let out of jail.
Charles LaSata
LaSata, 41, also campaigned in St. Joseph Township for much of the day Wednesday.
He has practiced law in Berrien County for 16 years. He said he hopes to fulfill a lifelong goal of serving as a judge in Berrien County.
If elected, LaSata said he would be the first individual in southwest Michigan to have argued the law as a lawyer, made the law as a state legislator, and interpreted the law as a judge.
In addition to serving as Vice Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and House Criminal Law Committee, LaSata serves as Chair of the Legislative Lawyer's Caucus and Co-Chair of the House Bipartisan Urban Caucus.
LaSata's educational background includes a bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College in 1985, and law degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. in 1988.
He is a member of the Berrien County Bar Association, State Bar of Michigan, State Bar of Indiana, and Insurance law committee of the State Bar of Michigan.
His numerous community and civic organization memberships include: past charter board member of Berrien County Guardianship Services, advisor on Berrien County 4H Foundation Board, past member Michigan Mayors Association, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, past president of the St. Joseph Jaycees, St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club, and Ducks Unlimited.
LaSata began his public service in 1991 when he was the youngest person elected to the post of city commissioner, which he held for four years. Then, in 1995 he was again the youngest person elected, this time to the post of mayor of St. Joseph.
During his tenure as state representative, he was the Michigan Sheriff's Association Legislator of the Year in 2000, Michigan Association of Independent Colleges and Universities Legislator of the Year in 2001, honored as 4-H Centennial Alumnus and member of the inaugural class of the Emerald Clover Society in 2002, and Michigan delegate to the Civil Justice Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council representing all 50 states in 2003 and 2004.
LaSata said he would work hard with the sheriff's department to find solutions, such as conditional bond programs and similar measures, to the problem of overcrowding of county jails.
LaSata also said he was concerned about state budget cuts which are forcing some court staff to lose their jobs. He believes previous his experience in dealing with budget issues will aid him in working to find a solution to the decreased funding to courts all over the state.
LaSata and his wife, Kim, have four children and are lifelong residents of Berrien County.
Their children are the fifth generation of both their families to reside in Berrien County.