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Posted on Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Fink vs. Kuhnke: Two attorneys compete for open seat on Washtenaw County's 22nd Circuit Court bench

By Ryan J. Stanton


Local attorneys Jim Fink and Carol Kuhnke chat before the start of a Thursday night debate hosted by the League of Women Voters in Ann Arbor.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Voters on Nov. 6 will get the rare opportunity to fill an open seat on Washtenaw County's 22nd Circuit Court bench and it's a choice between two attorneys who are political opposites.

Ann Arbor resident Carol Kuhnke, a pro-choice Democrat, is running against Ypsilanti resident Jim Fink, a pro-life conservative who leans Republican.

Both will appear on the ballot without party affiliation since it's technically a nonpartisan race. But in a presidential election year, talking politics can be hard to avoid.

"When I talk about it being a nonpartisan race, people will frequently say, 'Yeah, I get all that, but are you a Democrat or a Republican?' And I'll tell them I'm a Democrat," Kuhnke said.

Fink believes political leanings shouldn't matter.

"This is a nonpartisan race and it is important that people have faith that the decisions of a judge and the way the judge administers justice has nothing to do with partisan politics," he said. "I have been endorsed by many Republicans, many Democrats, and many who are politically unaffiliated because they trust me to put politics aside and to render decisions based on the law."

Kuhnke agreed it's a judge's job to follow the law, and she insists that's exactly what she would do as an impartial and unbiased judge. But she said there are times when a law is not clear and a judge has to rely on his or her conscience and work to make the right call.


Kuhnke speaks at a forum hosted by the West Washtenaw Business Association on Wednesday. She notes that retiring Judge Melinda Morris is the only female to ever serve on the county's five-member Circuit Court bench and the county risks going back to an all-male bench.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Kuhnke has been an attorney in private practice for nearly 20 years. Fink, a former law enforcement officer, has been in private practice for about 14 years.

Kuhnke argues she's the most experienced for the job. Her basis for saying that is she believes she's had more experience trying cases than her opponent.

"Many lawyers never go to court," Kuhnke said. "There are some who handle transactions, manage corporations and write contracts. I'm not that sort of lawyer. I've spent my entire career working in our circuit courts, handling motions and depositions and trying cases."

While Kuhnke may have more experience trying cases in Circuit Court, Fink argues he's still the most qualified because he believes he has the broadest experience.

"I have participated in virtually everything that might come before the Circuit Court," he said, referencing both his experience as a private attorney and the two decades he spent working for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office. "Trials are one of the minor things that are important. It's not a minor event, but it's not what a circuit judge spends most of his or her time doing."

Kuhnke said she's tried dozens of cases in Circuit Court as a trial attorney and she thinks that kind of experience is absolutely critical.

"While the trials are not 100 percent of the work of the court, 100 percent of the work of the court is preparing cases for trial, because that's where they're all headed if they don't settle," she said.

Fink and Kuhnke emerged as the top vote-getters in a four-way primary race back in August, thus advancing to the November general election.


Fink comes from a family of lawyers and judges. His father, Robert Fink, and brother, Karl Fink, served as Washtenaw County judges.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Fink pulled 41.4 percent of the vote compared to Kuhnke's 29.8 percent, while Erane Washington and Doug McClure, both Democrats, took 17 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively.

Fink and Kuhnke are now facing off for a chance to take over the seat being vacated by Melinda Morris, who is retiring.

Kuhnke noted during a League of Women Voters debate Thursday night that Morris is the only female judge to ever serve on the county's five-member Circuit Court bench.

"And after 20 years on the bench, Judge Morris is retiring and we risk going back to an all-male bench," Kuhnke said.

"I don't ask anybody to vote for me just because I'm a woman," she said. "I ask them to vote for me because I'm the most experienced and most qualified candidate, and also to recognize that it's important that a woman's voice be heard in all of the matters of society, including on the bench."

Despite their differences, the two candidates do have a few things in common. Both have deep ties to Washtenaw County. Kuhnke, 44, grew up in Milan, while Fink, 56, grew up in Ypsilanti.

Both are respected by their peers in the legal community, and both have spent many years giving back through their volunteer work.

Fink sits on the Michigan Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and Treatment Board, the City of Ypsilanti Charter Commission, and the Dawn Farm Board of Trustees. He also has served on the Hope Clinic (Ypsilanti) Capital Campaign Committee, Washtenaw Area Apartment Association Board of Directors and Ypsilanti Human Relations Commission.

Kuhnke is a longtime member and current chairwoman of the Ann Arbor Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on the city's downtown zoning advisory board and the Washtenaw County Board of Election Canvassers. She also is a member of the Ann Arbor NAACP, Women Lawyers Association, League of Women Voters and the Michigan Association for Justice.

Kuhnke attended the University of Michigan as an undergrad and then earned her law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1993.

Fink went to Eastern Michigan University and then worked for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office from 1977 through 1998, rising through the ranks from deputy to sergeant to lieutenant to commander. He earned his law degree at the Detroit College of Law in 1987 and got started working in the county attorney's office while still employed with the sheriff's office.

He eventually went off into private practice after retiring from the sheriff's office. He said his work has included civil litigation, misdemeanor criminal defense, municipal law, real estate, commercial transactions, small business representation and landlord-tenant matters.

"In my practice, I'm in court several times a week — almost every week in the Circuit Court and district courts, and occasionally in the probate court and occasionally in family court," he said.

Fink comes from a family of lawyers and judges. His father, Robert Fink, and brother, Karl Fink, served as Washtenaw County judges. He said that alone doesn't qualify him to be a judge, but he can say that he grew up loving the law and he loves public service.

Kuhnke says she has spent her entire career as a courtroom lawyer and is intimately familiar with the life cycle of a lawsuit and how the court works. She said she has represented working people as an attorney, and as a judge she would take pride in making sure everyone got a fair hearing.

"I'm intimately familiar with what goes on in the Circuit Court and how it can work a little bit better and more efficiently," she said.

Kuhnke has endorsements from a number of labor unions and groups like the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, United Auto Workers and Huron Valley Central Labor Council. As a supporter of gay rights, she also is backed by the Michigan Democratic Party's LGBT Caucus and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.

She also has support from a number of prominent Democrats, including U.S. Rep. John Dingell, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, state Sen. Rebekah Warren, state Rep. Jeff Irwin, Michigan Supreme Court Justices Marilyn Kelly and Diane Hathaway, and retired Justice Alton Davis.

Fink said he's proud to be endorsed by not only Republicans, but also a number of big-name Democrats like Sheriff Jerry Clayton, County Prosecutor Brian Mackie and Water Resources Commissioner Janis Bobrin. He also is being supported by groups like the Police Officers Association of Michigan, Michigan Court Officers and Right to Life Michigan.

Fink believes a number of changes can be made to improve customer service in the 22nd Circuit Court and make life easier for people.

"Things like electronic filling, scheduling conferences and other things that don't require presence at the courthouse by phone, trying to consolidate hearings or court appearances to reduce the number of times people have to come to court and to reduce the number of times they have to pay their attorneys to come to court," he said. "Those would all help."

Kuhnke said she's spoken with the court's staff about customer service and there are a lot of creative solutions that could be implemented with some support from higher up. She also believes judges have a role to play in improving outcomes and experiences in the court system.

"Most cases do settle before trial, but too many of them settle the day of trial or the week before when they could have settled nine months earlier," she said.

Kuhnke said the trials she has handled have ranged from simple cases that take one day to much more complex cases that take up to two weeks and sometimes longer. She said most of her clients have never needed to use the court before and never will again after she's helped them.

"I greatly enjoy helping people," she said. "I enjoy helping them work through a difficult legal process and knowing that I've done something to improve their lives."

Fink said his work is a labor of love, too.

"I stayed at the sheriff's department about 11 years after I completed law school because I loved the work so much and I loved the public service," he said. "I'm running for circuit judge because I love the law, I love public service, and I love this community."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Mon, Oct 29, 2012 : 3:16 p.m.

Look at Judge Connor's: Why are you running? Connor's answer: To finish the good work I have started. What good work? Even his answer is lazy! Just because someone has been on the bench for years does not make them the best chose. Let him work for the U of M and voter of a person who whats to be a full time judge.

Ryan J. Stanton

Mon, Oct 15, 2012 : 6:38 p.m.

Note: Kuhnke actually has the endorsement of the local Huron Valley Central Labor Council and not the statewide Michigan AFL-CIO, which I'm told does not endorse in local judge races. The story has been updated accordingly.


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 4:47 p.m.

I am an attorney whop has practiced for 20 years in Washtenaw County and I will be voting for Carol Kuhnke - not because she is a woman but because she is so much more. Carol has shown herself to be an incredibly level-headed, hard-working attorney and mother with remarkable emotional stamina and drive. She has substantial complex litigation experience - much more than her opponent - and has been remarkably successful in representing her clients. She understands the law, understands the rules, and most importantly, understands people of all kinds as well as the complexity of living in a very diverse community, one which will be increasingly diverse in the coming years. She has always seemed to be guided by a sense of fairness that comes from her core. She is, in short, the single most perfect match for Washtenaw County at this point in time and for the next 20 years. I am thrilled that she is running.


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 4:48 p.m.

lol - the typos are attributed to my kid and dog who are wrestling on the floor three feet from me as I write this... : )


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 8:38 p.m.

Absolutely, Carol Kuhnke "is running on her experience and not a family name." For many years, the name Fink has been familiar, but most of the time it wasn't the Mr. Fink whose name will be on the ballot. This is not a monarchy in which the relatives of those who served are entitled for office based on name. Comparing the qualifications of Carol Kuhnke and Jim Fink, I'm voting for Carol Kuhnke.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 7:58 p.m.

Kuhnke said "there are times when a law is not clear and a judge has to rely on his or her conscience and work to make the right call". Well this explains liberal judicial activism. People in this forum think James Fink will become a tyrannical conservative judicial activist for Washtenew county if elected when true judicial activists use Kuhnke's logic by manufacturing law out of thin air, usually because a judge does not personally believe in the established or current law. The activist judges interject their personal beliefs into decisions (does the Ninth Federal Circuit Court ring a bell?) while bypassing local, state, and federal statutes or overturning referendums.


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 5:21 p.m.

Judge Roberts? You mean the conservative judge who voted for Obamamcare? And besides, I do not see Obama returning any of his corporate campaingn contributions.


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 3:49 p.m.

I am so tireed of heaing about liberal judicial activism. The Roberts court has destroyed democracy by holding that corporations are people and have the power to give unlimited amounts to political campains. It has unleashed the Koch brothers to undo the good campaign financing reform had accomplished. And lest we forget, the conservative judicial activists "elected" George W. Bush president.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 7:40 p.m.

It looks like it will be a close race. I guess it is time for the democrats to start passing the anonymous handbills attacking Fink.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 7:26 p.m.

The same landlords that posted Eller signs all over Ypsi also have Fink signs. That tells me all I need to know about who to vote for come November.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 6:56 p.m.

I like Mike!

The Secret Team

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 6:46 p.m.

Also count Judge Chris Easthope as another prominent Democrat endorsing Jim Fink.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 9:07 p.m.

He ran as a Democrat but really a Republican. He suffers from the "black robe disease" and is not a respected judge. Nearly all of the judges supporting Fink are Republicans, some even appointees of John Engler, with the older ones having worked with Fink's father and brother when they were judges. Naturally they are going to support the Republican candidate.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 5:35 p.m.

Fink is "leaning republican?" Fink has never donated to a democratis campaign. On the other hand he has given to every conservative republican in recent years. Fink acknowledged that he would not be seeking support of democrats when he appeared at the Washtenaw dems canidate forum earlier this year had he been running for a partisan office. If he leaned any more he would fall over. Circuit Court judges have a tremendous amount of discretion in how and when they apply the law. They have a tremendous amount of discretion in what evidence is admitted during a trial. They are not computers that act the same every time data input is the same. They eaach bring different qualities to the bench and each will react differently to the same set of facts. They are frequently able to avoid applying a law they do not like by making factual findings that do not suport its application. Now the rub: in the unified trial court we have, they pass on the petitions of young women who seek permission to abort an unwanted pregnancies. In doing so the law gives them a tremendous amount of discretion. The law contains vague standards and each judge brings his or her own life experiences in to the decision making process. A pro life judge who has pledgeed to oppose abortion (as has Fink) will not give the same kind of consideration to such a petition as will a judge who respects women's reproductive freedom. It is not a matter of following the law. It is a matter of deciding whether the faacts support the legal requirements. Fink will invariably find they dont. In doing so he will say he is following the law. The facts simply dont warrant permission. Kuhnke will be far more sensitive to the petitioners and will not approach the facts from the preconceived notion that no woman should be "permitted" to have an abortion.


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 4:10 a.m.

They rule on the petitions discussed in the comment you are responding to many times a week.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 7:37 p.m.

It seems to me, if a judge has strong pro choice or pro life leanings, they would excuse themselves from presiding over any trial involving abortion. With that said, when was the last time a Washtenaw County circuit court judge ruled on a case involving abortion? Please name one.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 5:08 p.m.

FInk's work and financial support for the anti-lgbt campaigns and politicians here in Ypsilanti make him a poor choice to be a judge. It is not at all clear to me that he would treat all people equally in his court room and would not use that seat to continue his activism.

Alan Goldsmith

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 3:58 p.m.

Guess you would have to ask 'democrats' Sheriff Jerry Clayton, County Prosecutor Brian Mackie and Water Resources Commissioner Janis Bobrin why they would feel comfortable with a candidate who loves right wing Tim Walberg so much that he's contributed to his campaign several times. Maybe the three are supporting Walberg this year too?


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 5:40 p.m.

Clayton and Mackie are attracted to Fink because of their common law enforcement experiences. Neither should run as democrats again since they will have a difficult time getting party support. Bobrin is a personal friend. She wont be running for office again.

Tom Wieder

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

Excellent article, except for the statement that Fink "leans" Republican. He is about as Republican as it gets. He has donated thousands of dollars to right-wing GOP candidates like Congressman Tim ("I was a Tea Partier before there was a Tea Party") Walberg and former GOP Michigan Supreme Court Justice Cliff ("The Sleeping Judge") Taylor. He is endorsed by Right to Life, an endorsement a candidate can only get if he opposes all abortions, including those resulting from rape or incest, with the sole exception to protect the life of the woman. He has opposed gay marriage and civil unions. Does this matter? Of course! When a judge renders a decision, she or he brings all of her or his perspectives and values with them. If making decisions were some sort of objective, mechanical "application of the law," decisions wouldn't be called "opinions," we wouldn't need appeals courts, we wouldn't worry about who would be the President appointing Supreme Court Justices, and we wouldn't get so many key 5-4 and 4-3 decisions from the U.S. and Michigan Supreme Courts with the GOP-affiliated judges voting one way and the Democrats the other. Fink knows that this is a liberal, Democratic county, so he tries to hoodwink voters by saying that they shouldn't look at his obviously right-wing associations and values. That is not a sign of the integrity we need in a judge.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 2:49 p.m.

Fink is just another shill for the Paul Weyrich Right Tea Party....That kind of extremism has no place in politics on the local OR national level. No thanks!!!


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 3:17 p.m.

Seriously? Fink is the only candidate in this race with any bipartisan support. Kuhnke is openly running a partisan campaign. While Fink has both Democrats and Republicans endorsing him, Kuhnke touts the support of State Sen. Warren and State Rep. Irwin, two of the least moderate and most partisan members of their respective chambers.

Dog Guy

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 2:19 p.m.

One never knows how an impartial judge will rule, let's elect the progressive ideologue.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 4:11 p.m.

Okay, sounds good.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 1:54 p.m.

Ok everyone needs to pay attention to the important issue here, judge morris is retiring woohoo jump for joy. So after finally getting rid of the worst, most liberal, soft on crime, joke of a judge in the history of this county do we really want to put another person on the bench who has a political agenda like Carol Kuhnke who will pander to her liberal base and hand out joke sentences under the belief that these criminals just need a little helping hand and some love. Fink is the clear choice to keep our neighborhoods and kids safe, we are getting rid of judge morris let's not replace her with a liberal clone. Fink has seen first hand how damaging repeat offenders are to a community, his experience in the criminal justice system wil bring a real world sensibility to the bench. Ms Kuhnke thanks but we need someone who will error on the side of public safety and not on her misplaced ideals.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 3:35 p.m.

You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 1:27 p.m.

In case anybody is wondering, I will have a story taking a close look at our other Circuit Court race between incumbent Judge Tim Connors and challenger Michael Woodyard. In the meantime, feel free to learn more about the candidates on our Voter Guide.


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 4:36 p.m.

Be sure to address the fact that Mr. Woodyard had NO IDEA what summary disposition is and how it works when asked to address it at a forum hosted by WCC. Summary disposition disposes of an overwhelming number of cases on the civil docket. Mr. Woodyard is a prosecuting attorney who may know about criminal law. Unfortunately, the position for which he is vying deals largely with civil conflicts more than criminal cases. The fact that he did not even know what summary disposition is should absolutely disqualify him for the job. This would be akin to interviewing a surgeon for a job and learning he has never heard of a scalpel or anethesia!

Snarf Oscar Boondoggle

Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 4:19 a.m.

where can i get a woodyard support sticker/poster? imnsho, connors has proven himself to be unqualified -twice-. now i can support quality opposition. thank you.

The Secret Team

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 6:43 p.m.

Ryan: Check out the "My Opponent's Record" subsection of the website, under the "In The News"section . This addresses Judge Connors rulings and miscellaneous conduct over the years. It covers his history of reversals and scathing criticisms issued by various Michigan Court of Appeals panels over the years. It also addresses a Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission citation against Connors that most voters likely are unaware of involving campaign committee activity.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 1:16 p.m.

This is what is called legislating from the bench: "she said there are times when a law is not clear and a judge has to rely on his or her conscience and work to make the right call." The reason why Fink "Leans" Republican is because sometimes the Republicans are too "Progressive" on issues for us conservatives! Unlike Democrats who believe everything the party tells them!


Sat, Oct 13, 2012 : 3:39 a.m.

Well, XMO, there you go again! Ringing up lots of negative votes, I see. I wonder why. Did you ever think that if legislation is all-inclusive and totally comprehensive then judges would not be needed to interpret law? No, of course not. So you believe that the Democrats march to a party drum beat while Republicans do not, eh? Well, tell me then about the relationship Republicans have with Grover Norquist. Also tell me what the T-party has promised to do with Republican legislators who do not "toe-the-line," voting in unison on every issue.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 2:04 p.m.

Oh, sorry! I was going to write a comment, but the phone started ringing and I saw that it was The Party calling. So I have to take that call and find out what to believe!

Elijah Shalis

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 12:58 p.m.

no offense but if your pro-life you don't lean Republican, YOU ARE REPUBLICAN

Alan Goldsmith

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 12:33 p.m.

"...Ypsilanti resident Jim Fink, a pro-life conservative who leans Republican." LEANS? Lol, well if you call leaning so far you fall on the floor, then I guess Fink 'leans'. Perhaps reviewing the Federal Election Commission contribution website would make the reporter rethink that choice of language. Fink is a major supporter to Congressman Tim Walberg, who is a cartoon laughing stock right wing fanatic as well as many other Republican candidate. "Leaning" indeed.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 12:18 p.m.

Kuhnke said, "I don't ask anybody to vote for me just because I'm a woman," she said. "I ask them to vote for me because's important that a woman's voice be heard in all of the matters of society, including on the bench." What? She just reversed herself.....{don't voter for me because I'm a woman- but vote for me because I AM a woman}. So she thinks we should vote for her because she is woman! That is not always the best choice!!


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 4:09 p.m.

Well, I'll vote for her because she's the most experienced, but I also think having women on the panel (and in all branches of govt) is important. In this case, it's great, because those two objectives line up.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 2:50 p.m.

Way to take it outta context mama....where has that happened didn't build that!


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 2:12 p.m.

ditto. my thoughts exactly when I read those sentences. flip flop flip flop

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 12:34 p.m.

In fairness to everyone, the full quote, which you've edited, reads: "I don't ask anybody to vote for me just because I'm a woman. I ask them to vote for me because I'm the most experienced and most qualified candidate, and also to recognize that it's important that a woman's voice be heard in all of the matters of society, including on the bench."


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 12:20 p.m.

oops! Sorry about the typo "voter", should be "vote"


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : noon

Can I just say how nice it is to read about a political race that seems collegial and intelligent, and includes two candidates who seem quite qualified and respect the job and responsibility they are running for? Almost brings tears to my eyes, actually. Wish I could vote for both of them.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 11:21 a.m.

Just look at the lists of boards they both sit on and the list of those who endorse them. Finks list is full of non partisan groups and dems who are right there in the system. Kuhnke's list includes many groups with clear agendas that are very partisan. I don't or either and I am sure that are both nice people but when it comes to who's handing down the divisions that judges make I would rather have a judge who's complete work and life experience help him/her sift through all the factors that lead to that decision. Thanks for a very unbiased well written article.

A2 Born n Raised

Thu, Oct 18, 2012 : 1:32 p.m.

I appreciate your thoughts. However, many of Fink's endorsements come from the "Good Ol' Boy Network", which include previous relationships by the entire Fink family. I have spoken to a good number of attorneys in this area and they unanimously have endorsed Kuhnke. They describe her as extremely competent, tough, and fair. I am voting for her because I like that she is tough on criminals, yet is progressive around social issues.


Fri, Oct 12, 2012 : 10:58 a.m.

Carol Kuhnke has the support of John Dingell, The Michigan Democratic Party, The Washtenaw County Democratic Party, The National Organization of Women, The UAW, AFL-CIO, Pipefitters, Electrical Workers, and Building Trades Union, The Washtenaw County Nurses Association and many prominent judges including Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Emeritus Alton T. Davis. Numerous court of appeals judges and circuit judges also have endorsed her as well as many lawyers from both the plaintiff side and the defense side. Anyone who has met her knows that will make a terrific judge. She has tried many jury cases over her nearly 20 years as a lawyer while Fink as not tried a single case in his 14 years. As he says, he did police work for 22 years and is now doing mostly district court work (the lower court) handling evictions for landlords and like matters. The fact that his father and brother were judges does not make him the right choice. He is endorsed by Michigan Right to Life and when he served on the Ypsilanti Housing Commission voted against a measure prohibiting discrimination against gays by landlords. Carol is running on her experience, and not a family name.