Weekly Meeting - May 1: The Washtenaw County Peacemaking Court

Speaker: Governor Engler appointed Timothy P. Connors to the Washtenaw County Circuit Court in 1997 following the resignation of Karl Fink. Judge Connors was re-elected in 1998, 2000, 2006, 2012, and 2018. Governor Engler had previously appointed him to Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court in 1991. Prior to assuming the bench, Judge Connors first practiced law with the Ann Arbor firm Conlin, Conlin, McKenney & Philbrick and then joined Logeman, Connors & Bredell. He has been an adjunct professor at Wayne State University Law School since 1993 and at the University of Michigan Law School since 2008. Judge Connors graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1980 and received a B.A. from the university of Michigan on 1977.

Judge Connors presides over the Washtenaw County Peacemaking Court. The Michigan Supreme Court approved its creation in October, 2013. Guided by the Native American principles of respect, the importance of relationships, and responsibility, the Peacemaking Court aims to replace traditional adversarial decision-making with more comprehensive solutions that focus on healing relationships. There are neither winners nor losers under this approach. Instead of Judge Connors hearing a case from the bench and then rendering a decision,  trained peacemakers meet in a circle with participants. All members of the circle have a “collective responsibility” to reach a resolution. A “talking piece” is passed from hand to hand, and when a peacemaker poses a question about the issue in dispute, whichever person holds the talking piece is free to speak without interruption. “All participants have relinquished control to the talking piece,” explains Judge Connors. Most of the peacemakers are trained mediators. However, the Peacemaking Court differs from court-ordered mediation because no facilitator controls the process or the outcome.  Rather, Judge Connors emphasizes, “the circle itself does.”

Cases identified as potentially able to benefit from this peacemaking process are ones where the litigants have ongoing relationships after judicial adjudication is complete. In addition, cases where litigants need a more complete understanding of and closure to the conflict that brought them into court are also suited to it. Typical examples are juvenile matters, divorces, child custody disputes, business disputes, and increasingly allegations focused on elder care and abuse. The Peacemaking Court “is not considering serious [personal] injury, sexual assault, or domestic violence cases,” Judge Connors makes clear. “Ultimately, as people become more comfortable [with peacemaking], there may be [other] applications.”

Potential cases are selected by Judge Connors and transferred to the Peacemaking Court only if all parties agree to participate and to abide by any resulting agreement. He will describe that process for us. In addition, he will compare the durability of solutions forged in Peacemaking Court with the outcomes reached through the traditional legal process.

Read an article by Judge Connors here: Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Why Peacemaking Makes Sense in State Court Justice Systems

Read an article that highlights Judge Connors’ work here: Native justice: How tribal values shape Judge Abby’s court