An important consideration in any Michigan criminal or DUI case is the identity of the Judge presiding over it. In fact, otherwise identical cases can have very different outcomes for that reason alone. This isn’t going to be some list of “best” or “worst” Judges. Instead, we will look at how a Judge’s idiosyncrasies can affect a criminal or DUI case. This article will be based upon over 30 years of experience in the courts of Metro-Detroit (meaning Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and the surrounding counties), where our firm concentrates its criminal and DUI practice.
Judges are human. They’re people. Some are friendlier than others. Some have more patience, and others less. Although the ultimate goal is for fair and impartial justice to be rendered, it is impossible to remove the human element from that equation. There are some Judges who are chatty, while others are more businesslike. Ultimately, the Judge assigned to any given criminal or DUI case is always a matter of location, and/or chance. If a person’s case arises in a municipality with only 1 Judge, then he or she is it.
If a person’s case goes to a court with multiple Judges, then the assignment is, quite literally, made by a blind draw. It’s not hard to imagine that if there was any choice in the matter, defense lawyers and prosecutors would try to get such assignments based upon their different and various preferences. In a perfect world, of course, both sides would be equally happy with any of the Judges in a given court. Fortunately, there are plenty of local Judges who actually do make that cut.
However, it would be naive to think that’s always the case.
In Michigan, a person must be a licensed attorney for at least 5 years before he or she can become a Judge. In practice, most Judges have way more experience than that. Many Judges get to the bench after having spent a considerable number of years working as a prosecutor or defense lawyer.
Although one might at first think, “Great, a former prosecutor, so [he or she] will be out for blood,” that’s almost never how it works in a criminal case. If anything, many seem to try to overcompensate and NOT show any pro-prosecution bias.
Unfortunately, though, that inclination to overcompensate can also hold true for defense lawyers who become Judges. There have been some who clearly don’t want to be perceived as being “pro-defense.”
The goal of impartiality sounds great, but the reality is that every Judge brings all their past life experiences to the job. That can’t be helped. Those experiences are just part of what makes up his or her personality. As far as people go, some are nicer than others. Who among us hasn’t had to deal with different customer service representatives, and found some to be nice, and helpful, while other were just plain grumpy?
At least here, in the Metro-Detroit area, we are lucky enough not to have very many “stinkers” for Judges. That said, the very idea of liking one Judge more than another can also be highly subjective. A Judge may be otherwise perfectly fine, but some lawyer may take an adverse ruling personally and then not like that Judge for the wrong reason.
As an wise old man once said to me (and yes, I was actually told this by and older man who was a wise, retired newspaper columnist), “That’s what makes prize-fights and horse races, and why the paint store sells different colors.”
As noted above, every Judge must be licensed as a lawyer for at least 5 years before he or she can ever take the bench, and most have considerably more experience than that. Most Judges have prior experience practicing law in the court system. As such, they, too, had “favorite” Judges back when they had to appear in different courtrooms.
In reality, there isn’t a lawyer out there who hasn’t pumped his or her fist in jubilation for having a case assigned to a “favored” Judge, or grumbled in frustration after learning it was assigned to to one for whom he or she doesn’t have any particular fondness. To be sure, every Judge had those same experiences back in their practicing days, as well.
As lawyers, though, our job is to never let on about that, and to be diplomatic. We can’t betray ourselves. No Judge should know that he or she is some lawyer’s favorite, or the one he or she likes the least. Here’s a real-life illustration, taken from a different context, of how that should work:
Years ago, there was famous morning show on WJR radio hosted by J. P. McCarthy. This show was HUGE, and probably had the biggest regional audience of any radio show anywhere, and certainly the biggest in the midwest. J. P. McCarthy interviewed everyone, including loads of U.S. Senators and just about every U.S. President for the better part of 30 years.
Here’s the thing: At no time when he interviewed politicians did you EVER have a clue about J. P.’s political affiliation. No president would ever be able to guess whether J. P. had voted for him, or for the other guy.
It should be that way with lawyers and their feelings about Judges. I say “should,” because there are some lawyers who do share their feelings too much on this subject. As the old saying goes, “loose lips sink ships.” One never knows how what is thought to be said in confidence can travel and reach the wrong ears. I have personally heard lawyers say things that make clear they don’t have a good relationship with some Judge or other.
That should never happen.
Even if a lawyer doesn’t like a particular Judge, that should always be an undiscoverable secret. Obviously, that Judge should never have a clue about anything like that.
If a potential client ever hears some lawyer talk about conflict with a Judge, that’s red flag warning to run the other way. As lawyers, we may disagree with a Judge’s rulings. Indeed, sometimes those rulings are appealed. Even if a Judge rules against someone, (especially in a criminal case) and the lawyer appeals, that’s not personal, and it’s not the kind of conflict I’m talking about. Specifically, I mean “conflict” as in a personal dislike. In the courtroom, it’s a lawyer’s job to be an advocate for his or her client, but to carry that out diplomatically.
Let me put it this way: If the Judge doesn’t like your lawyer, then you’ve got the wrong lawyer. Conversely, a lawyer may point out that he or she would have preferred a different Judge, but if that preference takes the form of obvious dislike, that’s not good, either.
Consider this: Often, in criminal and DUI cases, it’s helpful for the lawyer to slow things down. Rarely is hurrying a case through better than dragging it out. If there were no legal time constraints, defense lawyers would string cases along forever. There are, however, rules that govern how long a case can sit around. Some Judges interpret those more leniently, and will let a lawyer have more time.
Others have what’s called a “rocket-docket,” and want every case wrapped up yesterday.
As lawyers, my team and I have to know the preferences of the Judges before whom we practice. If buying time seems like the ideal strategy for any particular case, and it winds up assigned to a “rocket-docket” Judge, then there better be a “Plan B.”
In other words, it’s important for a lawyer to know, up front, the idiosyncrasies of the Judge who will be handling a criminal or DUI case. Anyone in need of a lawyer should be buying his or her experience and knowledge about these things, not paying his or her tuition to get it. This is why my team and I are so big on hiring local.
Ultimately, when a person has to go to court for a criminal case or an OWI (Operating While Intoxicated, the actual term for DUI in Michigan), the Judge he or she gets comes down to luck of the draw – sometimes, literally so. In that way, a person can be fortunate, and get a more lenient or “understanding” Judge.
Sometimes, a person isn’t so fortunate. The only thing that can be done about that is know it in advance, and come up with the best possible strategy to work around it.
If you are facing a criminal or DUI charge and looking for a lawyer, be a savvy consumer and read around. Pay attention to how different lawyers analyze the criminal and DUI processes, and how they explain their various approaches to them
This blog is a great place to start. It is fully searchable and updated weekly with new, original content. To-date, I have written and published over 820 articles in the criminal section and the DUI section. There is more useful information here than can be found anywhere else. Don’t take my word for it, though – look around for yourself.
When you’ve done enough reading, start checking around. You can learn a lot by speaking with a live person. If your case is pending in the Metro-Detroit area (meaning anywhere in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb or one of the surrounding counties), make sure you give our office a ring as you explore your options.
All of our consultations are free, confidential, and done over the phone, right when you call. My team and I are very friendly people who will be glad to answer your questions and explain things. We’ll even be happy to compare notes with anything some other lawyer has told you.
We can be reached, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., at 248-986-9700 or 586-465-1980.