Chief judge's future in the balance

The hearing for Judge Sylvia James is coming to an end, with final arguments from her defense team, and from the Judicial Tenure Commission set for 9:30 Monday morning in a Dearborn Heights courtroom.

The JTC complaint against Inkster's 22 nd District Court Chief judge has been played out with some two dozen prosecution witnesses giving live testimony to bolster the written complaint against her. Before the hearing started, a JTC spokesperson said the process would likely take two weeks, three at most. But it took twice that long….six weeks of testimony and debate, with the JTC presenting a mountain of misconduct evidence, and Judge James insisting she did nothing wrong.

In the final words of testimony from Judge Sylvia James, "the charges are outrageous and ridiculous as are many other claims against me." James pronouncement came at the end of her last appearance on the stand in her defense, and summarizes her claim of innocence in the face of the 192 page Judicial Tenure Commission complaint. The four counts against her, including the misappropriation of court funds, detail a long list of financial, employment, and administrative improprieties that caused the people, and the administration of justice to suffer.

Her lawyers tried to discredit the parade of witnesses against her that brought former employees of the court and the City of Inkster, even a representative from Delta Airlines to testify against her. Among them was the former Inkster City Treasurer, David Sabuda. He made it clear seven years ago that James decision to write checks to charities and community groups without city council approval was against the rules of the court system, and the state treasury. "Requests to make payment to those types of non-profit entities are not allowable," Sabuda said in two days of testimony. He remembers the tension over several weeks back then very well.  His refusal to write checks to the Good Fellows and to Inkster High School's Alumni Association set off a firestorm of phone calls and letters from James who suggested Sabuda was either inexperienced in his position or insubordinate for not doing as she ordered. Judge James chose instead to withhold, without warning, more than $52,000 from a monthly check that was supposed to go to the City Of Inkster. That amount was the balance of the Community Service Program account. Withholding those funds was, according to the JTC, another state court rule violation. With the city no longer in position to question how she used money in the CSP account, James started years of writing checks to dozens of organizations and charities, as she saw fit.

On another issue presented against her at the hearing, James defended her controversial dress code policy, denying people wearing jeans access to the court. She said the "proper attire" edict was somehow misinterpreted by her security officers, who stopped people at the door, not allowing them to do business, even in the lobby, away from the courtroom. Joseph Kassab filed suit seeking damages after he was denied court access by security. He explained his position in an interview with Action News before the hearing began. "So I told him (a court security officer) what my business is and he goes you're not going in there like that," Kassab said. " I said what? What do you mean, I got a hearing. He says you can't wear those jeans in there." But it was testimony from an Inkster police officer at the hearing that revealed the shocking fact that Judge James delayed justice, and stopped court proceedings where police officers came to court wearing jeans. She had them leave, stopping arraignments and other proceedings, as she did everyone else. The officers could only return wearing clothes she decided were acceptable.

On still another issue, a trip to the offices of the 22 nd District Court reveals stacks of blue folders, some 15,000 of them, stuffed in file cabinets and piled high on and around desks. They revealed evidence of a clear violation of law, according to the JTC complaint. Inside the folders were cases, including arrest warrants, that legally must be signed by the judge before officers can take a suspect into custody. Judge James gave that assignment to her long time magistrate, Jeff Bowdich , who for years signed warrants instead of Chief Judge James. Among his duties as interim Chief Judge, Val Washington, every day for months, signed the 15,000 warrants to make the documents legal.

Members of the Inkster community, many who were regulars in the six week long hearing, came to her defense, but only the opinion of the special master hearing the case, retired judge Ann Matson will count. She has heard weeks of evidence and arguments. Now that the proceeding is over, her findings will be presented to the full Judicial Tenure Commission.

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