Concerned About Racial Disparities, The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission Will Review

Concerned About Racial Disparities, The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission Will Review

Following a request from an association representing the state’s Black judges, the agency in charge of looking into and punishing judicial misbehavior in Michigan has consented to a review of its record of disciplining judges.

The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission has “over the past 15 to 20 years prosecuted Black judges at a disproportionately higher rate than White Judges,” according to a March 2023 letter from the Association of Black Judges of Michigan to the Michigan Supreme Court. The association’s research shows that while the proportion of Black judges in Michigan has stayed relatively stable at 16% throughout that period, Black judges make up the majority of those that the Commission has accused of misconduct, a difference that has increased significantly since 2020, the group stated.

“ABJM would like empirical data that proves there is no racial bias at the commission,” the letter said, “given the alarming rate at which the commission has sought to remove Black judges from the bench via formal charges.” Since 2017, the organization has suggested that the best method to accomplish that would be to conduct “an independent audit of all files handled by the Commission.”

The letter ended, “Without concluding that there is racial prejudice, we respectfully request that you investigate this matter to determine how the figures can be justified.”

In response, the National Center for State Courts was hired by the commission “to review the commission’s investigation dispositions for the years 2008-2022 for evidence of racial disparity in outcomes,” the panel said over a year later. According to a statement from the commission’s executive director, Lynn Helland, the process started on Monday and should be finished by December.

State court administrator Tom Boyd stated in a statement that “this effort responds to the request made by the Association of Black Judges of Michigan and other groups, while consistent with the Supreme Court’s drive for transparency in the Judiciary.” Through a decision enabling the Judicial Tenure Commission to share the files required to perform the study, the Supreme Court made this investigation easier. Ensuring that our legal system is equitable and treats all parties equally, including litigants and judges, is the main objective.

Tenure of Judges Unless the commission files a public complaint against a judge, complaints and investigations by the commission are normally confidential. These public complaints are uncommon; according to an annual report, the Commission filed three of them in 2022, while two earlier complaints were unresolved. That year, it was discovered that several additional judges had engaged in some sort of judicial misconduct; nonetheless, the panel decided to treat those cases in private. Most complaints submitted to the commission are determined to be “without merit.”

An email from Michigan Public seeking comment on the commencement of the National Center for State Courts study and whether it adequately addressed the group’s concerns was not answered by the Association of Black Judges of Michigan. They received support for their request for an audit from the ACLU of Michigan, Black Women Lawyers of Michigan, the Detroit branch of the NAACP, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer in a June 2023 letter.

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