Rare Supreme Court hearing for Judge Sylvia James in Lansing

(WXYZ) - It is expected to be the last chance for Inkster District Court Judge Sylvia James to save her job as she is set to appear in a rare hearing before the Michigan Supreme Court today.

The hearing starts at 10:00 a.m.

It was a 7 Action News investigation that called into question how James ran her court. Now, after nearly a dozen stories, over the past 18 months, in the on-going investigation into alleged misconduct, Sylvia James will again, try to defend her actions.

Judge James and her legal team will argue she should keep the job she's had now for 23 years as Chief Judge of Inkster's 22nd District Court.

But after two audits that revealed James secret financial misdeeds, and a broader probe into other misconduct, the judicial tenure commission recommends her removal.

From that first interview with 7 Action News in January of 2011, and even now, Judge Sylvia James insists it was politics, not her misconduct that got her into trouble. She said then, "I think that a lot of this is overblown. I think certain people are driving this."

In fact, a number of Inkster city officials were asking questions about how James ran her court. It was suspicion about how millions of dollars flowing through the court were spent, about a lack of transparency, her refusal to open the books and years of fighting with managers of Inkster City government.

Inkster Mayor Hilliard Hampton complained about James refusal to allow city officials to examine the courts books.

He said in an interview in the winter of 2011, "What bothers me is, three years of no audits, problems with the last audit, discrepancies in book keeping that were identified back then that we don't know have ever been addressed."

City leaders said they simply wanted things run "by the book," while James, they say, "demonstrated a distain for established rules of proper, lawful management."

An example: James refusal to make timely payments of court funds to the city.

"There is a specific Supreme court order that requires any district court judge or any district court administrator to produce the financial records of any district court to anybody that requests them, " said David Jones, the attorney hired by city government to go after James for months of unpaid funds collected by the court and due the city monthly.

James, Jones said, "had been months, as many as six months behind in paying the city what court rules mandate."

The Judicial Tenure Commission, in its four count complaint, said under James justice in her court was delayed or denied, as in the strict dress code that turned court visitors away at the door for wearing jeans.

Finally, a process server filed suit against Judge James. Joseph Kassab said he was turned away from the courthouse for wearing jeans.

"It's kind of crazy! Ya know. They tell you to come to court and when you get there they say you can't come in here, and then you're automatically found guilty!," he says.

Our stories led to questions from the State Court Administrators office, and a pair of audits that revealed how James took over control of a Community Service Program fund. She then gave away some $233,000 in court funds to charities, despite rules that required city council approval before charitable contributions were made.

Then came the fight over James refusal to allow city officials to examine court books, which James answered by closing court bank accounts so city administrators couldn't see how court funds were spent.

7 Action News asked James "you made the unilateral decision to remove those funds?"

"No, No, No, "was her response.

She was placed on paid administrative leave in April of 2011. Then a closer look at her conduct lead to a four count complaint by the Judicial Tenure Commission, and a six week hearing that saw fifteen witnesses testify against her.

When it ended, the special master or judge who heard the evidence concluded that Judge James "did misappropriate Community Service Funds" and did ignore court rules that require the judge to sign bench warrants for arrest. But James, for years, had ordered her magistrate to sign them, which left 15,000 bench warrants to be corrected, and signed properly by the interim judge who took her place.

Judge Val Washington, interim chief judge after James was placed on paid administrative leave said, "it's clear to me that there were a number of violations over an extended period of time."

For months now, James has been campaigning for reelection, holding fundraisers like the one we visited in April.

She's passing out full color, laminated campaign messages, complete with naming this reporter as the person responsible for her troubles, saying, she's been "Proctorized."

She has approached potential voters in person, like Bernice Wilson.

"She just was a passing out flyers and explaining her story," Wilson said.

Tom Lumpkin, like so many others have voted for James in the past, and may again, but he said, "I got to, you know, think about it a little bit more to see what I'm going

to do."

Voter Carl Lindy suggested "why don't she just go ahead and retire, enjoy the time while she's young."

It's possible James could be reelected, despite sanctions that are likely to come from the Supreme Court. The hearing is set for 10 o'clock tomorrow morning.
 

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