Judge Thomas retires after long career, may be next Newaygo sheriff

November 19, 2014
27th Circuit Court Judge Terrence R. Thomas

27th Circuit Court Judge Terrence R. Thomas

By Allison Scarbrough. OCP Editor.

HART — Judge Terrence R. Thomas will step down from the bench of the 27th Circuit Court  when he retires Jan. 1, but he certainly has no plans to slow down.

The judge has asked to be appointed as Newaygo County Sheriff. With the upcoming retirement of Sheriff Mike Mercer, there are two years remaining on the elected term. “It would be a limited term,” he said. “I would not run to be re-elected. For two years, I would take the politics out of it.”

The new sheriff will be appointed by a three-member appointing authority consisting of Newaygo County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Springstead, Probate Judge Graydon Dimkoff and Clerk Laurel Breuker.

Thomas is also considering working as a mediator, or “rent-a-judge” as he calls it, for large law firms in Grand Rapids after his retirement from the bench.

The 74-year-old has presided over the 27th Circuit Court for 36 years, and he is retiring due to age requirements. He was 68 years old when he was re-elected to the six-year term, and he cannot seek re-election when his term expires Jan. 1 because he is over age 70.

The judge said his seat as circuit judge, which also covers Newaygo County, has been eliminated through state restructuring. The other judges’ seats will remain — Chief Circuit Court Judge Anthony A. Monton, Family Court Judge Bradley G. Lambrix and District Court Judge H. Kevin Drake. A total of 30 judges’ seats were eliminated through the state’s restructuring of the court system, Thomas said.

Known for his outspoken demeanor, the judge has made a name himself in the criminal justice world. He was 38 years old when he first became judge, and he has seen many changes in the court system over the years. Caseloads are increasing dramatically, and settlements are being pushed through the system.

Thomas was the Newaygo County Prosecutor for two years prior to being elected judge. Before that, he was in private practice for 10 years.

The judge earned his undergraduate degree from Wayne State University and his law degree from the Detroit College of Law. He became licensed to practice law in 1968.

“It’s become more complicated,” the judge said. “The political process dictates the courts. It was not like that when I took the bench in 1979.”

Tough penalties for car accidents have risen over the years, he said. Years ago, an accident was just considered “an accident,” but now someone has to pay for it. Decades ago, the maximum penalty for an accident causing injury or death was two years incarceration. Now, drivers who kill or injure others are looking at 15 years in prison.

Other crimes associated with driving have risen over the years, such texting while driving and driving under the influence of drugs. Domestic violence cases have grown dramatically as well, he said.

Crime, in general, in the State of Michigan is growing by leaps and bounds. “Michigan is locking up more people than Wisconsin and Ohio combined,” he said.

A big reason crime is on the rise is that most people don’t know their neighbors anymore. “It’s been a breakdown of the community,” he said. Another reason crime rates continue rise is that population rates are increasing, the judge said.

Thomas said he’s thankful he’s had the opportunity to serve smaller, rural communities with fewer heinous crimes than larger cities. “I never would have lasted in Muskegon or Kent counties,” he said. “I have encountered very few real criminals. There have been about 10 psychotic criminals in my career. The others actually had a chance at rehabilitation.”

Whether or not Thomas takes over the reins of sheriff in Newaygo County will depend on who else applies for the position and what the three-member board decides. So far, only one other applicant has tossed his hat in the ring, according to Clerk Breuker, and that candidate is Newaygo City Police Chief Pat Hedlund. “I’m sure others will apply,” she said.

 

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