Judge recuses herself in Macomb Co. clerk case

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Mount Clemens — A Macomb County Circuit Court judge Monday recused herself from hearing the case involving embattled county clerk Karen Spranger.

Macomb County Circuit Judge Kathryn Viviano said “she is not biased or prejudiced against either party” and believes she can be fair. She said she handled an earlier case between Spranger and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

“I believe I can be fair,” said Viviano, noting she is involved in helping set up the county’s e-filing system at the court and said she is “persuaded recusal is appropriate.”

She said Monday, “The appearance of impropriety needs to be avoided,” adding that there has to be the confidence that the process is fair.

At issue is whether Spranger was being truthful when she filed an affidavit in April 2016 swearing under oath that she lived in a home on Hudson Avenue in Warren.

Viviano noted the “escalating” arguments between Spranger and Macomb County higher-ups and said she is not involved in the decision to approve a deputy chief for Spranger’s office.

The judge said she struggled with her decision, saying it was a “close call” but believes one that’s fair to the litigants and the public.

Spranger said after Viviano’s action, “I think the judge made a very good decision.”

Spranger refused to answer persistent questions about her qualifications for the job as clerk and register of deeds for Macomb County.

Frank Cusumano, Spranger’s attorney, said “the voters have decided she’s qualified,” as she stood next to him in the court building Monday.

Macomb County corporation counsel John Schapka said Viviano believes the decision “was very cautious.”

“Procedurely (the case) goes back to the chief judge for reassignment,” said Schapka, who added the case should stay in Macomb County. “It’s a Macomb County case. It should be in Macomb County. It’s the proper venue.”

On Friday, Cusumano filed a motion to disqualify the entire Macomb County Circuit Court bench from hearing any proceedings against his client.

Macomb County officials want to remove Spranger on the grounds that she committed perjury.

When asked by a reporter if Spranger actually lives in the house, Cusumano answered “I don’t know,” but added the law doesn’t address that.

“I think that was her primary residence under the election law,” said Cusumano. “As a matter of law, (Spranger) is eligible to hold office.”

Spranger changed her address a few days ago, Cusumano said, adding that he is not sure of the exact address.

“I know that she wants to avoid harassment,” he said. “Reporters and investigators have been going to the Hudson house and peering into the windows, standing on the porch and reportedly going through the mail.”

According to Macomb County filings in the matter, city of Warren records have listed the Hudson Avenue home as “uninhabitable” since 2012 due to lack of utilities, which includes water. The property is deteriorating and the city of Warren has cited the home as a “nuisance.”

Spranger acquired the home through quit claim in 2013 from her mother’s estate. In 2015, a court found Spranger did not qualify for a principal residence exemption since she did not live on the premises. The water at the home, according to the county’s court filing, has been turned off since 2012.

In an affidavit filed Wednesday in Macomb County Circuit Court in preparation for Monday’s hearing, Spranger argued: “The Hudson Address was, to the best of my knowledge and belief, my residence as judicially interpreted and was on any filing deadline for the general election as required by (Michigan law) MCL 168.91.”

Spranger continued in her written legal arguments: “At no time to my knowledge, has the Secretary of State, Macomb County Clerk or the city of Warren challenged the factual accuracy of my registration as a qualified elector using the Hudson Address, my right to register and vote using the Hudson Address, or legal status as a registered and qualified voter using the Hudson address.”

In a filing earlier this month, the county argued, “Plaintiff did not reside at ... Hudson when she filed the affidavit of identity on April 6, 2016 and, therefore, she is not qualified to hold the office of Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds.”

Elected in November, Spranger, a Republican, has faced a barrage of criticism and controversy since taking office and has frequently clashed with other county officials.