LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) - It was her last chance to save her seat on the bench, just 30 minutes of oral argument before the justices of the state’s highest court.
Now, Inkster district court judge Sylvia James must wait for the Michigan Supreme Court to decide her fate after this morning’s hearing in Lansing.
The 7 Action News Investigators broke this story more than a year ago, and it’s still unfolding today.
Our first story in February of 2011 was soon followed by audits of Inkster’s 22nd District Court where James had been Chief Judge for more than two decades. Examiners found sufficient misconduct in the books to convince the Judicial Tenure Commission to investigate.
The JTC’s formal complaint led to a seven week hearing that led to the recommendation that James be removed and pay fines in excess of $81,000.
It could be weeks before the State Supreme Court decides if, as the JTC recommends, James should be fined, removed from the chief judge bench she’s held for 23 years, and be denied the right to sit as a judge for the next six years.
In an exclusive interview, she spoke about her future in Lansing this morning.
Judge James has a simple argument as to why she should not be removed from the bench.
“No judge has ever been removed for the things that I have been charged with,” she told 7 Action News on the courthouse steps this morning.
James was in court as her attorney Mayer Morganroth tried to convince the justices that Judge James use of money collected from an alternative sentencing program was used for good, charitable purposes, and not to enhance her community image.
It was against the rules, the lawyer admitted…but James blames Deb Green, head of the regional state court administrators office, for not telling her how not to break the rules.
“Had I been told by SCAO at any point that these were problems, which I was not (told about) until this process was in full bloom, then I would have done some things differently,” she said.
But explaining ignorance of the court rules, and how funds collected by any court should be handled didn’t go well for James defense team, as the chief justice was angered by the claim that James was doing what had been “done before,” without knowing she was breaking the rules.
“This woman is a judge,” said Chief Justice Robert Young. “What do you mean she might not look at the law? I find that highly offensive, to suggest that a judge, of all people, can wink and blink at the law.”
The Judicial Tenure Commission, and its executive director Paul Fischer insist James lied to investigators, and many times failed to be truthful at the seven week hearing where, he says, the facts presented support James removal from the 22nd district court bench.
“She lied about a number of issues at the hearing,” Fisher said, and the master (the retired Judge hearing the case against James) caught most of them, so I won’t repeat them here. But the misappropriation of public funds is grounds for removal,” Fisher said.
There was, however, some push back from the Justices when Fischer suggested that James should not be allowed to seek reelection.
“If the court determines that Judge James should be removed from office, she’s currently as I understand it a candidate for reelection,” the Chief Justice said. “If the citizens of Inkster want to return her, despite her removal from the bench, why isn’t that a sufficient solution?”
Reelection is what James wants. “Yes!” she said emphatically when asked if she wants to return to run 22nd District Court.
Supreme Court insiders tell me it’s difficult, if not impossible to predict when the justices will decide James fate. But while James continues to be on paid suspension, tonight she’s expected to be front and center at a candidates forum in her effort to be reelected to the bench, and once again be Chief Judge Sylvia James.
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