Since the incorporation of Dearborn as a city in 1929, three distinct types of justice systems have served local citizens:
Initially, violations in the City of Dearborn were ruled upon by two part-time justices of the peace who were headquartered in the City Hall complex at Michigan and Schaefer.
A tradition of stability in the courts was spawned when Lila A. Neuenfelt and Leo R. Schaefer took their oaths of office in 1929 and served until 1941 and 1942, respectively. Ms. Neuenfelt left Dearborn officialdom to begin a lengthy career as a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge.
New Municipal Court
They were succeeded by George T. Martin and George A. Belding who continued to serve as justices until 1945 when they donned robes as the first judges in Dearborn's new Municipal Court.
The creation of the Municipal Court, with expanded jurisdiction over Dearborn's justice system, coincided with the rapid population growth experienced by the city during World War II when Dearborn became known as the “Arsenal of Democracy."
Martin served as municipal Judge for 21 years before his successful election to the Wayne County Circuit in 1966.
Belding's tenure continued until 1951 when Ralph B. Guy, Sr. succeeded him. Guy left the bench in 1953 when the city adopted a one full-time judge/one part-time associate judge format. John T. McWilliams held the first associate judge position from 1953 to 1962 when he was succeeded by John L. Kadela (1962-71).
New Court Facilities
The new Police-Court building in the fast-developing Dearborn Civic Center at Michigan and Greenfield became home for the Municipal Court in 1960. For the first time, two courtrooms and auxiliary offices were available to accommodate a rapidly expanding docket.
Martin's departure paved the way for Guy to be appointed to a second stint as municipal judge in 1967. Guy remained at the helm while major changes in the Dearborn justice system were being crafted by the Michigan Legislature.
Now A State Court
A new law called for Dearborn to be serviced by the 19th District Court, a state court of record whose jurisdictional boundaries were the same as the Dearborn city limits. The new court was set up to be primarily funded by the city, with revenues to be deposited in the city's general fund.
Guy became Dearborn's first district judge in 1970. He was joined on the bench a year later by Vincent Fordell.
Guy retired in 1975 and was replaced by Joseph J. Burtell. Fordell retired after completing his six-year term in 1976 and was succeeded by Virginia A. Sobotka. Judge Sobotka was elected to a record five straight terms, retiring in 2005.
As the court's annual caseload consistently pushed beyond 50,000, the state Legislature enacted a measure in 1990 which expanded the number of judges for the 19th District Court from two to three. William J. Runco was elected to the third judgeship in 1991 and served until 2003.
William C. Hultgren earned his first six-year term in the 1992 election. His defeat of Burtell marked the first time in court history that an incumbent judge was beaten at the polls Judge Hultgren was re-elected in 1998 and 2004 and is a current sitting judge.
Mark W. Somers, took office on January 1, 2003, after defeating Runco in the November 5, 2002 election. He was re-elected to the bench in 2008. In January 2006, the Michigan Supreme Court appointed Judge Somers to a two year term as chief judge of the 19th District Court. The Supreme Court re-appointed Somers as chief judge in 2008 and again in 2010 to a third consecutive term. Judge Somers is a current sitting judge.
Richard Wygonik was appointed a judge of the 19th District Court in February 2005 to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Virginia Sobotka. Judge Wygonik was elected in 2005 to a full six-year term and is a current sitting judge.
A Dynamic Decade
The 1990's easily was the most dynamic decade in the 19th District court history. For the first time, the annual caseloads topped 70,000 and three part-time magistrate positions were added to help keep justice flowing smoothly.
A Community Work Program was created whereby those convicted of misdemeanor offenses were assigned to public service work crews in lieu of serving time in jail.
And, the court initiated a novel program whereby actual court cases were conducted at local schools each May to give students a first-hand glimpse of Dearborn justice in action. The court has partnered with the Dearborn Rotary Club for over a decade to sponsor a citywide essay contest for fifth through eighth graders as part of annual Law Day observance.
New, Expanded Quarters
Easily the most dramatic highlight of the 90's was the opening of beautiful new and expanded headquarters for the 19th District court in June 1997.
The 35,576 square feet of new space included two courtrooms, judge's chambers, a law library, prosecutor offices, lawyer-client conference rooms and jury assembly areas.
In February 1998, two renovated courtrooms began operation. Each is served by auxiliary offices and jury deliberation rooms.
The $7.2 million improvement project was financed with City of Dearborn Building Authority Bonds which are being retired from court revenue.