BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Two candidates with extensive court experience are vying to be the first female judge in Grand Traverse County history.
Voters on Nov. 6 will elect either Melanie Stanton or Kirsten Keilitz to a six-year term as Grand Traverse County probate judge. The winner will replace two-term incumbent David Stowe, who did not seek re-election after a series of personal and professional problems.
A probate judge primarily works in family law and makes decisions on guardians, wills, divorces, estates, abuse cases and more. Both Stanton and Keilitz have toiled with probate-related matters for years, and each candidate contends she has more and better experience than the other.
Keilitz has been a 13th Circuit Court referee since September 2009, a position that includes making recommendations to judges — including Stowe — on child abuse and neglect cases, juvenile offenders and other issues. Prior to that she worked in private practice.
Stanton was a nurse before she became an attorney. She's practiced family and probate law for more than two decades, and spent time as an assistant prosecutor in Leelanau County.
Stanton believes her compassion and experience in handling cases makes her the best person for the job.
"I have been a trench person," Stanton said. "I know what it's like to go in and work with families."
She also believes the fact that she has children — she has two daughters; Keilitz has a stepdaughter — gives her an edge.
"I think that's a huge factor when you're dealing with people who have kids," she said.
Keilitz countered that her experience as a court referee elevates her beyond Stanton.
"I have experience on one side of the bench and the other side of the bench," she said. "I think that's a pretty good package."
She also contends she would have a smoother transition to the probate judge seat because she's already familiar with the court's staff and technology, among other items.
She dismissed Stanton's contention that bearing children is a significant factor in being a probate judge.
"I came into my stepdaughter's life when she was 15. We did prom. We did first boyfriend. We did college," Keilitz said. "Melanie has two wonderful daughters ... but I don't think that means I'm not qualified."
Keilitz used to work at a local law firm; her husband still works there. She said she'll disqualify herself from any cases that present a potential conflict.
Both Keilitz and Stanton acknowledged the probate judge's post was tarnished under Stowe and vow to improve its public image.