Judge Hunt creates a court just for veterans
As a former Marine himself, Judge L. Eugene Hunt of the 19th District Court in Dearborn has always had a soft spot for veterans.
When Hunt was an attorney and saw a veteran in the courthouse, he would always approach him or her, offering pro bono legal assistance if needed.
“I wouldn’t charge them for it. I love vets,” said Hunt, who served in the United States Marine Corps for two years. During the interview, he was wearing a USMC tie.
Now in his second year as a judge, Hunt has recently established a Veterans Court in Dearborn, a specialty court of the 19th District Court. The Veterans Court is designed to keep veterans with mental health or substance abuse problems out of the traditional criminal justice system by offering them treatment and other rehabilitation options as conditions of their probation. Hunt’s plan is to have the Veterans Court fully functional by the end of 2018.
“The 19th District Court handles all kinds of cases. We’re talking about the criminal side of things,” explained Hunt. “The court handles all the misdemeanors that occur in the city of Dearborn. It handles the preliminary court dates for all felonies that happen in Dearborn. The normal path for someone in the court system is they can plead guilty, or they can take the case to trial. If they plead guilty, they are exposing themselves to fines, probation, jail, community service requirements, things like that. We’d like to improve the system for veterans in specific circumstances.”
A probation model that works for veterans
According to Hunt, there are some circumstances under which people can keep criminal charges off their record. If a veteran committed a crime, he or she can sometimes be moved out of the traditional criminal justice system, plead guilty, and receive probation. From there, the Veterans Court administration helps veterans find the services they need so they can successfully complete their probation.
The Veterans Court is connected to Michigan Medicine and various community substance abuse programs in the region. The Veterans Court also has a partnership with the University of Michigan-Dearborn to provide education for veterans.
The Veterans Court extends beyond traditional court services. I have a couple of different union partnerships where I can get training and a job for a veteran,” said Hunt. “Whether they need mental health services, substance abuse services, or healthcare benefits through the VA, our veterans can get access to what they need. If they complete their probation successfully – and it’s a very strict and tight probation – their case is dismissed without a criminal conviction on their record.”
Hunt conceived the idea for Veterans Court when he was running for judge in 2016. He looked at the Veterans Court at the 17th District Court in Redford as a model.
“I was very impressed by Judge Karen Khalil’s handling of that court. I was surprised at all the services that were available to veterans to help them get back on track,” said Hunt.
The Veterans Court isn’t forced on anyone, however.
“I’ve had veterans come through here and offered them services through the Veterans Court, but some weren’t interested. It is very important to me to meet the needs of people who are willing to do their part. If they’re not interested, I don’t force them into it. I only want to bring people in here who are ready for help. They have to be at a point in their lives where they want to change.”
Born in Carthage, TN, Hunt moved with his family to Detroit when he was 3 months old. Later, his family settled in Dearborn, where he attended Fordson High School. After graduating from high school in 1973, he enlisted in the USMC.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” said Hunt, whose final rank was lance corporal. “Both of my brothers were in the Corps.”
Upon being honorably discharged from the USMC, Hunt attended HFC and completed coursework in general studies. He transferred to UM-Dearborn and earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1982. He earned his juris doctor from Wayne State University Law School in 1985. Hunt also completed coursework at California Western University School of Law in San Diego. He lives in Dearborn with Carol, his wife of 33 years. They have two daughters and three grandchildren.
Hunt has been a practicing attorney for more than 31 years. For 20 years, he was the court-appointed public defender in Dearborn and represented indigent defendants.
“Ever since junior high, I thought about being an attorney. I know it sounds like a trite statement, but it’s true in my case: I’ve wanted to help people. I was good at figuring out ways to help. My law degree provided greater opportunities to do that,” he explained.
Becoming a judge expanded his opportunities even more.
“It’s an extremely rewarding job because you are in contact with so many people,” said Hunt. “When you’re a lawyer, you get to argue your position. When you’re a judge, you get to hear the arguments and make decisions about the right thing to do.”