MiPolitical columnist Alec Ramsay-Smith interviews Tracy Van den Bergh who is running for Washtenaw County Probate Judge. She what she has to say about her candidacy and the race.
A: Why did you decide to run for judge?
T: I want to bring my unique perspective to the bench to ensure all citizens of the county are fairly represented in the probate court. When families and individuals are brought before the court, they are often dealing with the toughest issues of their lives. The court needs someone who understands what those involved are going through and can make sure their voices are heard. Not everyone can afford quality legal representation, and not everyone is emotionally or mentally equipped to navigate the complexities of our legal system. I am confident that my combined twenty years’ experience in law and clinical social work will allow me to take all of that into account and reach the most just legal decisions possible.
A: What do you hope to accomplish if elected?
T: I hope to foster a more understanding, compassionate atmosphere in the court that focuses on helping those most in need. In today’s courts, it is too easy to forget that our mission is to best serve the community, and if the probate court is not accessible, open, and sympathetic, our constituents will suffer because of it. I will be an advocate on the bench for those people, regardless of race, sex, ZIP code, disability, sexual orientation and identity, or socio-economic status.
A: What makes you different from the other candidates?
T: To me, my mental health background is what most separates me from the other candidates in the race. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from NYU, I started my career as a social worker, working primarily with people combatting mental health issues, poverty, and substance abuse. After working for many years in the mental health field, I am intimately familiar with how mental illness affects a person’s life and family, and I know when and how best the court can intervene.
A: How has your legal background prepared you for the judiciary?
T: I have worked as an attorney at Legal Services of South Central Michigan for the last six years, handling more than 1,000 high-conflict, highly emotional cases, specializing in family law. At Legal Services, I learned how to provide excellent legal assistance on a tiny, efficient budget. This experience is similar to handling the large caseload expected of a judge. I will bring all these skills with me to the bench. Prior to joining Legal Services, I was part of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice group at Bodman LLC where I handled both corporate and individual clients. At Bodman, I had a tendency to take on many pro bono cases, which is part of what motivated me to transition to Legal Services of S. Central Michigan.
A: What kind of Judge do you want to be?
T: Like I said earlier, I want to be the kind of judge who uses the bench to protect the county’s most vulnerable residents. The theme of my campaign is “Compassionate Justice,” meaning I want to do my part to assist families and individuals through their darkest times while still remaining objective and within the letter of the law. I don’t want to be viewed as the opponent or enemy, but instead as a community resource with whom all parties can work with to find the best possible solution. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pushover. After my time working in Legal Services, I know how to get tough when I need to, but I will always keep the needs of the people who come before the court close to my heart.
A: Do you think judges should be elected?
T: This is always a difficult question. While it may not be a perfect system, by electing judges, it makes them accountable to the people they represent. Every judge brings certain biases with them to the bench. Some have opinions on issues like abortion, domestic violence, or mental illness that wildly differ from their community’s views or would interfere with objective legal decisions. In an election, judges are forced to answer the tough questions about their background to convince the public that they will reach the fairest verdicts possible. An appointed judge would only be answerable to the politicians that gave them the position. Even more, this election has given me the chance to reach out and meet people from all over the county. There is a real human impact to every decision made by the court, and the only way to truly appreciate that impact is to put a face on the people most affected. It’s been a humbling experience, and I hope to take the concerns and wishes of those people with me to probate court.
A: What have you learned about yourself during the campaign? How do you balance work, campaigning, and family life?
T: While I knew this campaign was going to take up a huge part of my life, there is really nothing that can prepare you for an undertaking like this. Campaign is grueling, draining work, and at any moment seemingly everything can go wrong. However, I think it’s a good thing that it’s not easy. Running for public office is not for the faint of heart, and if you’re not willing to put in the time, you can’t win. It’s a way for me to prove how dedicated I am to serving the people of Washtenaw County. And I’ll tell you, it has been a struggle to balance all of this, but thanks to the people around me, I have managed to make it this far. I would not be where I am today without the unconditional love and support of my husband and daughter, Larry and Isabelle. On the nights that I’ve come home late or had to interrupt a family dinner for a campaign crisis, they’ve gone above and beyond to lend a hand and make my life easier. I also truly appreciate my campaign staff, a dedicated group of advocates and students who give their days, nights and weekends to support my campaign. It is touching to see them throw themselves into a probate court race. Together, we have knocked more than 12,000 doors, placed hundreds of signs, and put together a really spectacular campaign. I cannot express how much I appreciate everyone’s support.