Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Edward Sosnick has served the court since being elected to the bench in 1989. During his tenure, he has served two terms as the court’s chief judge; has been voted one of Michigan’s Most Respected Judges in a Michigan Lawyers Weekly poll; presided over the county’s family-focused Juvenile Drug Court for nine years; co-founded the court’s SMILE Program, which serves to educate divorcing parents; and has earned numerous awards for his work with childrens’ programs and mentoring. Prior to being elected to the Circuit Court, Sosnick served four years at the 48th District Court in Bloomfield Hills. Turning 72-years-old in December, Sosnick will be the first judge in Oakland County to retire from the Family Court division.
How did your work on the SMILE Program come about and how would you gauge the success of the program?
ES: I was a judge in the 48th District Court for four years, and I would go to different elementary schools and do a program about the Constitution. At the end of the program, I would ask the kids if they had any questions. They would ask funny questions, like “What do you wear under your robe?” and “How much money do you make?” You know, stuff like that. From time to time, things were happening involving kids that really touched me.
I remember this one little girl rushed up and put her arms around me — it was obvious that she … was neglected or whatever it was. Then I was in another school and a little girl raised her hand and said, “Do I have to go with my father when he comes to pick me up on the weekend?”
It just got to me, so when I was running for Circuit Court, where divorce and child custody takes place, I remembered that and I decided I wanted to do something for kids and families when I got elected.
I have a friend, Richard Victor, who was a family lawyer. We got together. We were sort of going down a parallel path, and out of our collaboration we set up a committee. That’s how SMILE arose. SMILE stands for Start Making It Livable for Everyone.
We started doing the program with the Friend of the Court and had a psychologist or social worker and some others presenting. That was the first divorce education program in Michigan, and it was kind of a simple message: Give your child a gift, the right to love you both because that child is part of both of you. We wanted to focus the parents on their child or children, recognizing that you are no longer marriage partners, but you are always going to be parent partners. Now it’s in every single county in Michigan and several other states.
I’m happy to say that it continues. Literally thousands of people have gone through it. From time to time, someone will come up to me — because I either participated or there is a video I’m in — a man or woman will say, “You know, I bought a house on the same street so our kids would have access to both of us.” When you’re about to say something negative and you say, “Whoa, half the genes of my child are his, or hers.” I think there is a tendency to start thinking about, “What’s good for my child?”
We see often see violent incidents when couples are divorcing, such as the (fatal shooting of a police officer on Sunday, Sept. 9) in West Bloomfield. Is there anything the court can do to recognize or help with those situations?
ES: You also see it in personal protection orders. I’ve been on the Michigan Domestic Violence Treatment Board for years, and I’m a co-founder of the Oakland County Coordinating Council Against Domestic Violence.
There are certain signs and triggers and things that you look for. When you are issuing a personal protection order, you are going to issue it ex parte. When you see behavior in a custody or parenting-time dispute, you look for what we call power and control. It’s usually a male, just because that is more prevalent, but it could be a woman as well. If you see things — and recognizing that the most dangerous time is when someone is leaving because there are some people that would rather kill the person or themselves than let that person get away or move away. You kind of look for the red flags.
When, if possible, (judges) issue a personal protection order. I mean, it’s a piece of paper, but at least if someone is banging on your door or trying to get in, you can call the police and you have an automatic right to get that person arrested. But it’s not foolproof. I’ve had some stuff over the years, and you try to do the things. The law has some built-in things where there is a way that a woman can keep her address secret so the other person doesn’t have to know where she is. The sad part is — it would be nice to lock up the person that is causing the (other) person the problem.
Safety is something you look at all the time. Just like anything else, you do the best that you can do, but it’s going to happen. Given the numbers that you deal with and our society and the problems people have, from time to time it’s going to happen.
I feel so horrible about this West Bloomfield police officer. Just what I heard on the news, he walked in thinking that — from what the news said, that he didn’t think it was a dangerous situation, that (officers thought) it was just someone who was suicidal. You know, it’s just… I don’t know. It’s your worst nightmare, believe me.
What are some of the cases or programs that you’re most proud of?
ES: You know, over the years, I’ve done many, many, many murder cases as a judge. I’ve heard medical malpractice. Just the day-to-day job itself of dealing with cases and the law, the lawyers and the parties, it’s a very interesting job.
My job gives me the opportunity to do extra stuff that, if I didn’t have that title, I wouldn’t be able to do. For example, things involving domestic violence and being able to set up the Oakland County Child Coordinating Council and the work on that and the state-wide level. I’ve done a lot of speaking and training of judges and others on domestic violence.
Most recently, I co-founded an elder abuse task force called SAVE: Serving Adults who are Vulnerable and/or Elderly, because it is and it’s going to be a huge problem. I presided over the Juvenile Drug Court. I’m very proud and very happy to have done that for over nine years. That was one of the most amazing, life-changing programs because the parents had to come to court, too.
That was really terrific. I could probably go on and on because it’s 28 years. It’s kind of sad and bittersweet that because of age I can’t run again. That phase of my life will be ending.
Do you think that (state constitutional provision) should be looked at or changed?
ES: I think it should be looked at. That’s why I’m against term limits, for sure, when it comes to judges because it takes you years to get the experience and knowledge and the way to look at and solve problems and decide things. It’s a shame to lose all that experience. On the other hand, I understand that there comes a time when everyone has to move on and you make room for younger people.
Any plans for (your career after retirement)?
ES: Yes. Yes, I had a boyhood friend named Fred Steinhardt who died from pancreatic cancer about 12 years ago. And Fred has a law firm called Steinhardt Pesick & Cohen, and they do basic condemnation work and tax appeals. And it was Fred’s and my idea that when I left I would go into his office — not part of his firm, but as an out-counsel kind of thing — and do mediation and arbitration. The partners, Jerry Pesick and Adam Cohen, invited me to do that and I’ll be starting with them after the first of the year.
I’m going to play (laughs).
As you’re exiting, where do you see some needs (at the court) for whoever comes in to fill your seat?
ES: I think that you’re seeing some real sadness. This is a time of economic difficulty, and how to understand and how to deal with people whose houses are under water and they don’t have any way of getting out of it. They have debt and no assets, and they have children. Those are the kinds of things that we strive for answers (to). And there are a lot more people coming in representing themselves. Those are the kinds of things that you need to deal with and to understand and communicate, dealing with kids and families and stuff like that.
I wasn’t in the Family Division two years ago, but because I was chief judge (of the Circuit Court) when we created (the Family Division), I wanted to go out sending a message — that family issues are equally as important as criminal matters and civil matters. o