Margaret Mary Chiara

April 15, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Where ever she goes, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the Western District of Michigan usually has two objects with her.

One is a 5-inch-thick stack of case files.

The other is a zippered planner.

“I’ve always been a planner,” she said, smiling. “In the days before you could buy planners like these, I created my own Margaret-Mary Chiara Planner with a steno notebook and had it with me all the time.”

And it’s easy to see why.

Chiara (pronounced key-AR-a) is ultimately responsible for all federal law criminal prosecutions and civil disputes from Ingham County west in the Lower Peninsula and throughout the U.P.

That responsibility entails managing not only the three-floor suite of offices in the Law Building on Ionia Avenue, but also satellite offices in Lansing and Marquette.

Trials, grand jury hearings and countless other proceedings occur in the federal district courts in those same cities, as well as in the federal district court in Kalamazoo.

It also is why she constantly is updating herself on the progress of civil and criminal cases throughout her office’s jurisdiction. She said the process was a bit like keeping track of dozens of little serial stories as each progress from start to finish.

But there’s a little more to the job than that.

A glance into the phone book gives an idea of the number of federal agencies operating in Grand Rapids alone, and — excepting the armed services, which have their own internal criminal justice system — most of them interact from time to time with the federal prosecutor’s office. Thus, the federal district attorney must maintain liaison with them.

Beyond that, it’s necessary for Chiara and her staff to keep abreast of changes in the federal law, a process that most business people will agree is like trying to keep track of snowflakes in a blizzard.

“Oh, yes,” she said, nodding. “The law is constantly changing and evolving. And no matter what time of the year it is,” she added, “somebody from our staff is attending seminars at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, S.C.” It’s through the center that her staff and all the nation’s 92 other federal district attorney staffs keep abreast of the tides of changes in the law.

For where most businesses can focus on changes in law affecting employment, or taxes, or environmental law, or housing, Chiara explained that the Advocacy Center deals with all off it, which also is the breadth of her own office’s concern.

But if keeping up with the statutory roller coaster is a job, Chiara said the Grand Rapids office has a special asset in Julie Van Wingen, its staff librarian.

“She is able to focus all her attention on whatever the issue is,” Chiara said. “She’s really more of a research librarian.”

In fact, Chiara told the Business Journal that Van Wingen and her administrative co-workers, plus the staff of 35 assistant district attorneys, are what gives the district attorney’s office continuity from year to year and administration after administration. “I’m here for three years,” she said. “My predecessor was here for eight, and his predecessor for four, but the staff carries on.”

She currently is beefing up the district’s staff of 35 assistant district attorneys

The breakdown of casework in the district, Chiara said, is about three-to-one criminal to civil, with roughly equal numbers of violent versus non-violent crimes. And of the violent crimes, she said the largest single group tends to be felony firearms possession.

“Of course, it’s a felony for someone with a felony conviction to possess a firearm,” she explained. And that’s true under Michigan law as well, but Chiara pointed out that local prosecutors and police and sheriff’s departments seek her office’s involvement in such cases.

“The federal law carries much stronger sanctions against felony firearms possession than Michigan law,” she said, “so we work very closely with local law enforcement task forces in such cases, and we prosecute them under the federal statutes.”

Chiara described her work overall as supporting the work of her staff, but that’s not to say she is a stranger to the courtroom.

Chiara says her biggest career break came in 1982 after three years of private practice with the French & Lawrence law firm in Cassopolis (she graduated from Rutgers Law School in 1979). Her partners gave her leave to try her hand at litigation in the courtroom as an assistant Cass County prosecutor.

“Trial work is something you can study,” she said, “but it’s one of those things that you don’t know if you’re going to be any good at it unless you try it. I thought I might be able to do trial work, and I’m grateful that they gave me that break.”

Chiara doesn’t fit the picture of the archetypical hard-edged prosecutor. Her leave from French & Lawrence led to three years of service in the prosecutor’s office and then a judicial appointment to one unfulfilled term as county prosecutor and election to two subsequent four-year terms.

She also was elected for a term as the first and — she regrets — only woman president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

From that post, she was appointed in 1997 to serve as the administrator of the Michigan Trial Court Assessment Commission, whence she was appointed the policy and planning director of the Michigan Supreme Court.

What will she do if the Bush Administration winds up at the end of a single term?

Chiara grins.

“No matter what happens,” she said, “I’m going to continue in public service in some capacity.”

Public service is where she started in 1964 as a social studies teacher in the Bronx in New York, spending 12 years as a teacher and administrator before making the leap into the legal profession.

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