John Middlebrook has spent decades practicing law, mostly as an assistant prosecutor, and he would like for his last years in the profession to be on the bench.
Middlebrook, of Ludington, is running for 79th District Court judge — a nonpartisan position that covers Mason and Lake counties — in the Nov. 3 election. Glenn Jackson, also of Ludington, is running for the position, too. Current Judge Peter Wadel is retiring at the end of the year.
Middlebrook looks at the position as one where he can help those defendants who may come before him if he were elected.
“I can help people. I can help try and change,” he said. “You can’t help everybody, but if you can help change the direction of a few people’s lives, it would be so worthwhile. I’m just trying to make Mason County, Lake County a better place to live.”
Middlebrook, and his wife Dr. Tammy Middlebrook, moved to Ludington about six years ago. Dr. Middlebrook is a pediatrician with Spectrum Health. The couple have four grown children, Hailey, Darby, Carson and Luke. Carson and Luke graduated from Ludington High School.
John grew up in Lathrup Village and graduated from Southfield Lathrup. He went on to Albion College where he earned his bachelor’s degree while running track and cross country. After he graduated in 1984, he went to law school at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he met Tammy. He passed the bar in 1987 in North Carolina.
The family moved around quite a bit, from North Carolina to Virginia to Colorado back to North Carolina and then here in West Michigan. With each move, Middlebrook either passed the bar examination in each state or was waived in because of his experience. In Virginia, while Tammy was serving in a Navy payback, John worked as a prosecutor in a variety of cases.
“While I was there, I tried over 16 murder trials. I sent five people away for life. I did a capital murder case… I did rapes, robberies, attempted murders, you name it… I think my first murder trial was in ’92,” Middlebrook said. “I ended up doing 16 of them. Sometimes they were a month apart, and one time it was as far apart as a week. Newport News is a shipyard town and a very urban population. They average 18-25 murders a year, and everyone had to pitch in. We didn’t solve all of them, but everyone had to bear their load.”
He intended on joining the Navy with his wife, but a medical condition prevented him from doing so. It led to the assistant prosecutor’s job, and it allowed him to take care of his father in the later years of his life. After his father’s passing, and Tammy’s work with the Navy was completed, the family moved to Colorado because they enjoy skiing. Their stay was short-lived as they moved back to North Carolina to help care for Tammy’s parents.
Once back in North Carolina, John earned a teaching certificate because the local prosecutor’s office wasn’t hiring. He did that for three years, but heading into the fourth year, he learned the local school district was hiring someone else full-time. He went for a run, and decided to call the local prosecutor’s office. As luck would have it, they had something, and he worked out of a prosecutor’s office for more than seven years in Boone, North Carolina, and it reached out over several counties.
A recruitment card came for Tammy as Spectrum Health was seeking a pediatrician in Mason County, and the couple visited.
“I love the western side of the state. I always wanted, if I was going to move back to here, I always wanted to live in the western part of the state,” John said. “Tammy came out here and she fell in love instantly with Ludington. She got a job, we moved here (and) I got hired by (Mason County Prosecuting Attorney) Paul (Spaniola).”
In those six years, Middlebrook has been primarily assigned to cases in 79th District Court. With Judge Wadel’s upcoming retirement, it opened the door for Middlebrook to run — the first time he’s run for any office. He views the role of the judge, and even to a degree as a prosecutor, as one that assists the victims of a crime, the community at large and the defendants facing the charges.
“I’ve always wanted, at the end of my legal career, to run for judge. One of the things that is frustrating as a prosecutor is that I present the state’s case. As a result of the state’s case, if I prove my case, the defendant is convicted. And then maybe positive things happens that helps the victims, helps our community, town and society and also help the defendant,” Middlebrook said. “I’ve always wanted to help people. I’ve always wanted to be in the role where I can help people and try to stop recidivism and continually revolving door of these guys.
“I think I can be effective in that regard. I will try to fix the problem, no matter the case.”
Middlebrook said that there could be a variety of ways in sentencing to allow for people to not return with future offenses. It is his preference that those who commit offenses don’t do it multiple times.
“We’ve got to think outside the box and try to encourage people to do the right thing. I get it. When people have substance abuse issues, as an example, they’re battling. It’s totally conceivable that they’re going to relapse and re-offend,” he said. “We’ve got to try and do whatever we can to save these people and turn them into productive members of society. (That’s) for a number of reasons.
“We should never give up on a person and throw them away. We’ve got to try and save them, even though at times they’re not willing to save themselves. But we’ve got to try and do that.”
While Middlebrook spent the bulk of his career serving as a prosecutor, he said he will be fair as a jurist.
“I’m going to be absolutely, 100 percent fair. I’m going to scrupulously uphold defendants’ rights. I’m going to make sure the trials and dispositions are fair and appropriate,” he said. “I’m going to try and work with the defendant to help them any way that’s possible so they don’t come back again. … By helping them by not coming back again, we help Mason County (and) Lake County.”
He is campaigning door-to-door, and he’s met a variety of people on the trail from Idlewild to Ludington and then some. He’s also done some outreach via social media, too.
“By and large, people have been so nice to me. I’ve been talking to these wonderful people,” he said.