Judge Sylvia James to take witness stand in misconduct case

DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. (WXYZ) - Judge Sylvia James will again take the witness stand today to answer more questions from the Judicial Tenure Commission, the organization charged with holding state judges, magistrates and referees accountable for misconduct.

In this JTC administrative hearing for James, she may finally have the opportunity to take questions from her defense attorneys, which will allow her to explain her answers, well beyond the yes or no responses that have been sought by the prosecution or "examiner until now.

On Friday, Judge Sylvia James answered questions about her administration, and how she spent court funds in ways the state says is against the rules.

An important admission came from Judge James in the morning session, where she said she did withhold, for several months, state mandated monthly payments  from the court to the City of Inkster. At the time, the two sides were in a heated, public battle over how some court employees were classified and paid…as staff or contractors….and if the way the courts annual budget was structured should be changed, as the Inkster City Council had voted to do.

"They have had an almost constant problem with payments being slow, six months behind in some cases," said David Jones, an attorney representing Inkster City government in the dispute with James last February. "The payments to the cities general fund should be timely," Jones said.

Judge James, who for 23 years has been the chief judge of Inkster's 22 nd District Court, has argued that Inkster Mayor Hilliard Hampton was a political enemy who helped "drive a closer look" at how James ran her court, and is somehow responsible for the hearing that is now underway. State court officials have testified, however, that a combination of anonymous tips and Judicial Tenure Commission complaint - not to mention last years Action News investigation helped convince the regional State Court Administrator and the Judicial Tenure Commission to audit the courts books, which revealed a number of questionable practices by James.

Questions about how Judge James spent money from a Community Service Program fund account have been at the heart of much of her three days on the stand. Fees and fines collected under CSP are supposed to support the program and nothing more under court rules. James has admitted writing dozens of checks to charities and community organizations from the account. On Friday, James admitted to using money from the CSP account to pay for travel expenses for her and staff members who flew to legal conferences in California and Massachusetts.

In one incident, James, her court administrator and another staffer flew to Berkley. Before the trip, James wrote checks from the CSP fund, in advance, for more than $2,000 each, to cover expenses. She anticipated the air fare to be almost five hundred dollars, but used some 32,500 sky miles to cover the cost. Her out of pocket cash payment for air fare was $7.50.

She admitted on the stand, reading from documents provided by the JTC, that she got much more money for air fare than the actual cost, but could not show she refunded money to the court or the city upon her return.

She's charged with four counts of administrative, financial, and judicial misconduct. If found responsible, James could be removed from the bench.

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