Long-time Oceana judge passes away.

March 22, 2019

Judge Terrence R. Thomas presiding over 27th Circuit Court in 2014.

Long-time Oceana judge passes away.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — Long-time Oceana County Judge Terrence R. Thomas passed away Friday morning, March 22, at the age of 78.

Thomas retired Jan. 1, 2015 after presiding over the 27th Circuit Court in Oceana and Newaygo counties for 36 years.

Known for his outspoken demeanor, the judge made a name for himself in the criminal justice world presiding over some high-profile cases. He served as judge during the 2013 murder trial of former Hart City Councilman Timothy Shannon who was sentenced to 13 1/2 to 75 years in prison for the bathtub drowning death of his wife, Lee-Ann.

Thomas also presided over the cold-case murder trial of Mark Anthony Coulier, which in a controversial move, he dismissed in 2013. Coulier was accused of murdering his wife, Joyce Douglas-Coulier in 2000. The prosecution of that case was handled by the Michigan State Attorney General’s Office, and Thomas cited a lack of evidence for his decision to dismiss the murder charge.

“Judge Thomas was a towering and colorful figure in the local legal community,” said Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon. “Everyone who practiced law in front of him has a good memory of him. He was larger than life with his personality and character. Although I am saddened by his death, I am comforted that he is not in pain any more.”

Thomas died after battling cancer for the last few years. A celebration of life will take place in approximately a month, said 27th Circuit Court Judge Robert Springstead. It will most likely be held at Camp Newaygo, which is near his home, he said.

“It was still sudden,” Springstead said of his mentor’s death. “I just visited him about a week ago, and we were talking about the good ol’ days.”

Thomas is survived by his wife Joyce, daughter Tracy Anderson and granddaughter Alliey Christiansen, Springstead said.

“Although he loved being a judge, he did not let being a judge go to his head,” said Springstead. A former campaign opponent once referred to him as the “hillbilly from Bitely.” Growing up in Bitely, Thomas’ parents owned a tavern there where he worked. Thomas always joked about being labeled the “hillbilly from Bitely,” agreeing that he was “born in a bar.”

“He had a real appreciation for people’s circumstances,” Springstead said. The judge understood that people “were down on their luck and may not have the advantages that others do.

“When imposing a sentence, he knew that he was imposing it on a family – not just an individual,” said Springstead.

In civil litigation matters, the judge kept people’s financial limitations in mind, Springstead said. “He issued judicial control over the docket” to expedite matters so that litigants weren’t spending tens of thousands of dollars on a divorce or other legal battle. “He didn’t tolerate out-of-town attorneys filing paper after paper.”

Thomas served as a mentor for many young attorneys. “He looked out for young attorneys,” he said. “Although you didn’t know it at the time,” he recalled. “He wouldn’t let older ones take unfair advantage.”

Attorneys from out of town referred to Thomas a “breath of fresh of air,” Springstead said. “He always treated people well.”

If he was angry, his quivering jaw was a telltale sign, Springstead said. “You knew you better do something different.

“Both Judge Thomas and Judge (Anthony) Monton have a special spot in my heart,” Springstead said. Judge Monton retired as 27th Circuit Court judge in 2017 after 28 years on the bench.

“What I always revered about him was his unique ability to engage with anyone,” said Oceana County Probate Judge Bradley Lambrix. Thomas could engage with defendants on up to supreme court justices with his approachable manner. “It was uncanny,” Lambrix said. “And it carried over to his intellect on the bench. He was quite remarkable to be able to engage with everyone. His judicial experience will certainly be missed.”

“At the end of the day, his interest was in trying to get the young person in the right direction,” said Judge Monton of his former colleague’s handling of criminal cases. “The man had a presence about him, and it definitely got attention. He was very colorful and very quick.”

Monton and Thomas served as 27th circuit court judges together for over two and a half decades. “The courts were lacking resources, and he was a strong advocate for improvement. He accomplished a lot.”

Prior to law school, Thomas worked as an English teacher and coach, Monton said, and his ability to teach and mentor younger colleagues was inspirational.

“He was very well-known and well-respected in the West Michigan legal community.”

Thomas’ recent bout with cancer was the third time he had it, Monton said. “He was a tough guy. He never complained and always had a positive attitude.”

Thomas enjoyed spending his free time outdoors with his animals on his Newaygo County farm, Springstead said. “He had show horses, and he was very into those.”

Thomas was 38 years old when he first became judge. He 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,” Judge Thomas said during an interview with OCP in 2014 prior to his retirement. “The political process dictates the courts. It was not like that when I took the bench in 1979.”

Crime, in general, in the State of Michigan has been growing by leaps and bounds, he said in the interview. “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.

Thomas said he was thankful he 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.”

“He was funny, charming and blunt. You always knew where you stood with him,” Bizon said.

“‘What we do is about people,” Springstead said Thomas told him. “It’s not about cases. It’s about people’s lives – don’t forget that.”

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.


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