PONTIAC, Mich. (WXYZ) - By all accounts, Rae Lee Chabot is one of Southeast Michigan's most well-respected judges, admired even by lawyers who come out on the losing end in her courtroom.
But this isn't a story about what Chabot does in her courtroom: it's how she spends her time outside of it.
Tonight, Chabot is on the defensive in the wake of an Action News Investigation into her courthouse work habits, and whether she's earning her almost $140,000 salary.
Courtroom insiders tipped us off, telling us that for years, Judge Chabot’s attendance at circuit court has been poor. With undercover cameras rolling, Action News started watching.
On a Thursday morning in March, just after 9:00am, Judge Chabot was slow to get to work. She didn't leave her house until 9:10, and didn't pull into work until a full hour after court is set to begin.
When she finally showed up around 9:30, Chabot spends a few hours on the bench, but shortly after 12:30, it’s time to leave the building. The destination is West Bloomfield’s Red Coat Tavern. And if you think the wheels of justice grind slowly, it turns out the wheels of lunch grind just as slow. Hours go by, and still no sign of her honor, until finally, just before 4 o’clock, she emerges, spending just as much time at lunch—a full three hours—as she did all day in court. After she paid her tab and headed out, our cameras saw her share a hug with her friend, and then head home.
Monday, March 28th, we saw Chabot was late again for work. This time was a 9:20 start. And after a few hours on the bench, it was off to Buffalo Wild Wings. She finished up at 1:15, but didn't head back to work; instead, she went home again, putting in less than three hours on the bench.
Criminal defense attorney Dan Hajji has spent time all over Michigan courtrooms. He said he can’t imagine a good reason why any judge would spend so little time in the courthouse.
"I just can’t see how a judge can just…go there in the morning for a couple hours, and have nothing to do thereafter," said Farmington Hills criminal attorney Dan Hajji.
Hajji has argued before Chabot, and like many lawyers we talked to, says he always found her to be fair. But he says a Judge’s work is never done.
"There are briefs to read, there (is) legal research to do," he said.
"There are many, many obligations and duties imposed upon them that they need to fulfill."
On some days, we found Chabot didn’t go anywhere near the courtroom, like Friday, April 1. In a recent e-mail to Action News, Chabot said “I believe I was at work in the morning.” But that’s not what our cameras saw. Chabot didn’t leave home until just before 11 o’clock. When she finally did, it was off to an office building on Orchard Lake Road. After an hour inside, there was other business to be done: at the Gap. It was a full forty minutes passed before the judge emerged from the clothing store, bag in hand. And after running a quick errand, it was back home.
She didn't set foot inside her courtroom on this day, or on April 7 either, though she says she spoke at a medical malpractice seminar in the morning. On that day, we saw her grabbing an early lunch at Andiamo restaurant in Bloomfield Hills. Our undercover cameras saw her sitting at a table for three. But putting in time on the bench was not on the menu. After lunch, as has been her typical practice, the judge went straight home.
Over the five weeks we watched Judge Chabot, we saw what a half-dozen courthouse insiders told us has been commonplace for years: showing up late, working half days, and sometimes not showing up at all, without putting in for time off.
And despite having 18 criminal and civil judges, a recent study says the Oakland Circuit Court needs three more to keep up with its busy docket. But when it comes to completing trials, Chabot ranks at the bottom. In 2009, her colleagues averaged about 25 civil and criminal trials a year, with Judge Jack McDonald completing the most, at 47. In the same year, Judge Chabot held only six. In 2010, while her colleagues averaged about 24, she held only 11.
Chabot declined an interview with Action News, but issued this statement, saying that looking at the number of trials she completes is “an inaccurate reflection of (a) judge's productivity.” She says, and records show, that she’s in “the middle of the pack” when it comes to resolving total cases, and that she uses methods “less costly” than trials to resolve disputes, which saves taxpayers money. And lawyers we talked to said she’s well-prepared for hearings and has a reputation for fairness.
But we still had more questions for the judge, and so we caught up with her outside a local restaurant last week.
"You wanna know why I haven’t returned your calls," Chabot asked Channel 7's Ross Jones.
"We’d like to know why you don’t show up for work," he responded.
Chabot went on to say that she wouldn't address Channel 7's questions.
"We’ve returned the reports over to you, and, I comply with the same rules that every other judge has to comply with," she said.
Chabot's boss Chief Judge Nanci Grant told Action News that her judges are inside the courthouse and working very hard. She would not tell us if Chabot had told her she was leaving work on the days featured in our report.
Even if Chabot had told her boss that she was leaving early, she may not have needed to use time off. State court rules say judges only need to report full days missed. Working a couple of hours and then heading home does not require taking vacation time.
If you have a tip for the Action News Investigative Team, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.
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