CHARLEVOIX — Friday, Jan. 2, will bring an event that hasn't happened in Charlevoix County for 30 years: The county's circuit court will have a new judge.
At 4 p.m. on Friday, Charlevoix County Circuit Court Judge Richard M. Pajtas will pass the gavel to Roy C. "Joe" Hayes III. Judge Pajtas, 71, who has served as the county's circuit court judge since Jan. 1, 1985, was forced to retire by a state law that prohibits a judge from seeking election after age 70.
Pajtas has never faced a challenger in an election since he was elected to the bench, taking over for Martin B. Breighner II.
Much has changed in the courtroom over the past 30 years, Pajtas noted.
When he was first elected to the bench, the 33rd Circuit Court covered both Charlevoix and Emmet counties. (The same way the 90th District Court and 7th Probate Court still do.) But on Jan. 1, 1995, the state split the counties, creating a new 57th Circuit Court for Emmet County.
"It was a big relief," Pajtas said noting that before the split he had one of the busiest dockets in the state.
He said over the past 30 years he's seen the general civil caseload drop some thanks to reforms in the law, but that criminal and domestic cases have remained about the same.
Some other major changes he noted included the advent of DNA technology as evidence in court cases and other advances in technology.
His was among the first courtrooms in the state to use video recordings of court proceedings in place of a court reporter, now most courtrooms use the video systems. Also, Pajtas noted the way he (and most attorneys) do research now is nearly all electronically — virtually eliminating the need for shelves and shelves of law books.
"We've saved about $40,000 a year in salary and benefits since going to the video system," he said.
During his tenure as circuit court judge, Pajtas has presided over thousands of cases, both criminal and civil, but he said two cases in particular stand out in his memory.
In the criminal realm, he recalls the Raymond Thacker case from 1992 (when his circuit still included Emmet County). Thacker, then 33, of Detroit, had been serving time at the now-closed and demolished Camp Pellston prison camp in rural northern Emmet County on convictions for armed robbery and other charges, when he escaped in a stolen state-owned vehicle from a work site near the camp on Jan. 15. Thacker went on a crime spree that included a double, execution-style murder of two brothers in Levering. Thacker was arrested the following day at a gas station in Mason County. Following a five-day jury trial in July of 1992, Thacker was ultimately convicted on multiple criminal charges, including two counts of first degree murder. He is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Judge Pajtas recalled, not only how brutal Thacker's crimes were and the effect they had on the community, but how difficult he was to handle in the courtroom from a security standpoint. The judge recalled an incident during jury selection when Thacker tipped over the defense table in the courtroom causing a big disturbance requiring the courtroom to be cleared while order was restored.
He also recalled Thacker's sentencing hearing at which Pajtas took the rare step of removing Thacker from the courtroom during the hearing for security reasons. (Thacker had threatened to do "whatever I have to do" to not be in the courtroom during victim impact statements.) Pajtas said he still questions whether he made the right call on that.
"I still wonder to this day whether that was a good decision or not. It avoided a disruption in the courtroom, but I feel kind of bad that (Thacker) didn't have to listen to those statements."
The civil cases that stand out most in Pajtas' mind are all those connected with the July 1997 fireworks disaster in downtown Charlevoix. The incident involved the Venetian Festival fireworks show, which, at the time, was launched from a trailer on land near where the Beaver Island Boat Company docks are today. During the show in question, a 12-inch fireworks shell accidentally exploded inside its metal mortar tube sending shrapnel flying in all directions, killing one person and injuring more than a dozen others, some seriously.
The accident spawned many lawsuits naming dozens of defendants.
"It took about 10 years for all those cases, and appeals to go through," Pajtas said. "Fortunately the victims and their families, they received some money early on."
Judge Pajtas said among the fondest memories he has of his time on the bench are changes he implemented to protect crime victims and children such as written and oral victim impact statements at the time of sentencing, victim restitution funds and steps taken to protect child witnesses in sex abuse cases.
"Many of those things are written into law now," Pajtas said.
He said he's also proud of the case flow management system he implemented — which was especially important given the fact that his was among the busiest circuits in the state at the time he took office.
"I had to learn how to run a court. I went to different circuits and learned how they managed their caseload," he said. "Back then the lawyers controlled the flow of cases through the system. When I took over, we changed that.
Pajtas instituted a system where the judge used a scheduling conference to set a trial date and cutoff dates for evidence, pre-trial motions and pleas.
A hallmark of that change came in a criminal sexual conduct case in which the day before trial (well after the plea agreement cutoff had passed) the attorneys came to the judge wishing to resolve the case with a plea agreement. Pajtas said because the attorney's could offer no good reason for the last-minute plea deal, he required the trial to go forward as planned. When the defendant was ultimately convicted of first degree criminal sexual conduct, he appealed on the grounds that he should have been allowed to take the plea agreement. But both the Michigan Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court upheld Judge Pajtas' ruling.
Now case management similar to Pajtas' is common all over the state.
The judge said one of the most difficult elements of his job was criminal sentencings.
"The sentencing is always tough," Pajtas said. "Sending somebody to prison has impacts beyond the defendant. Deciding child custody cases and parenting time is also tough."
In retirement Judge Pajtas said he's looking forward to spending more time working on his farm south of Charlevoix where he has some cattle and horses and a large garden.
He's also looking forward to spending time with his four grandchildren who live out of state.
On a professional level, Pajtas said he has no plans to return to law practice and will take it easy for the first six months or so. However, later in the year he plans to serve as a visiting judge in Cheboygan County, taking over Judge Scott Pavlich's case load while he handles oil and gas company-related cases that are expected to take six weeks each.
Judge Pajtas said as he's reflected on the past 30 years in recent months, he's been feeling gratitude.
"My feelings over the past several months have been one of gratitude — not only for the community entrusting me with this job for the past 30 years, but also gratitude for the people I've been associated with. Any measure of success I've had has been due in large part to the people I've been associated with."
He added: "I'm really ready for the next chapter and what it may bring, but it's kind of bittersweet ... That first week that I'm not bound by a schedule is going to be different, but I think it's going to be good."
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New portrait, familiar face
In addition to the a new judge, another first is taking place in the Charlevoix County Circuit Courtroom.
While Judge Richard Pajtas may be leaving the bench, his face won't be leaving the courtroom.
A tradition in many courtrooms is to have a portrait of the past judges who have served in the court to hang in the courtroom. Judge Pajtas' portrait hangs in the 57th Circuit Court in Emmet County, because when the circuit covered both counties, its main office was in Emmet County. But no portrait hangs in the Charlevoix County Circuit Court because, until 1995, Charlevoix County had never been the home base for the 33rd Circuit Court. A new portrait of Judge Pajtas now also hangs in the Charlevoix County Circuit Courtroom.