Respected District Court judge passes

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 Lipscomb, 70, remembered as compassionate jurist, significant asset to the bench and valued mentor

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Retired 36th District Court Judge Willie Lipscomb Jr. was a mayoral candidate, an aspiring novelist and an Air Force veteran, but he identified an innovative program he launched to stem handgun violence as his greatest accomplishment and most enduring legacy. 

 Lipscomb was found dead by a family member Wednesday night. He was apparently working on his boat at his home on Detroit’s east side.

Former 36th District Court Chief Judge Kenneth King called Lipscomb an important member of the legal community.

“I was deeply saddened to hear the news,” King said. “Judge Lipscomb was an extraordinary  judge, a compassionate person and very in tune with the community. I enjoyed practicing in front of him as a young attorney, as well as having him as a colleague on the bench.”

“He was an incredible judge and a huge asset to our bench,” said 36th District Court Judge Cylenthia LaToye Miller. “We all appreciated his service to our city, our county, our state and certainly to our court.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy issued a statement regarding Judge Lipscomb’s death, calling him an important mentor to her and generations of law students. 

Born in Knoxville, Tenn., Lipscomb’s family moved to Flint while he was a child. His mother died when he was 16 and he then moved to Detroit. After graduating from high school he joined the U.S. Air Force and served five years as a medic. Four of those years he served in Athens, Greece, where he learned to speak Greek fluently. He then attended Wayne State University and subsequently graduated from the University of Notre Dame Law School. 

Lipscomb served as District Court Judge for 14 years. He was Director of the Notre Dame Legal Aid and Defenders’ Association from 1974-75 and an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Wayne County from 1975-79. He was in private practice from 1979-83 before joining the 36th District Court as a magistrate, a title he held for two years before becoming a judge.

Lipscomb ran for mayor of Detroit in the recent primary election, coming in seventh out of 14 candidates.

He was an adjunct professor, teaching criminal law, at Wayne County Community College District.

One of his most important community contributions was his founding of the Handgun Intervention Program (HIP), which was called the first of its kind, in 1993. For almost two decades, Lipscomb has dedicated his Saturday mornings to conducting intense workshops and classes with defendants, as a condition of their bonds.

“I believe that my most significant and lasting accomplishment while on the bench is the founding and administration of the Handgun Intervention Program,” Lipscomb told the Michigan Chronicle last year. “The program has helped to educate citizens about the senseless violence that too often results from the possession of handguns. Although I have retired from the court as a sitting judge, I intend to continue with my involvement in this program and others, aimed at improving the quality of life in The City of Detroit.” 

King said that Lipscomb contributed time to the program over and above his responsibilities to the court.

“He did the Handgun Intervention Program on his own time because he cared,” King said. “He cared about the community and he cared about our young people.” 

“He was there doing the program every single Saturday,” Miller said. “That’s the type of man he was and that’s the type of judge he was, to make sort of commitment.” 

The State Bar of Michigan recently gave Lipscomb a special award recognizing the program and Miller nominated him.

Lipscomb, who received his J.D. from the school in 1975, was named the Alvin McKenna Alumnus of the Year by the Notre Dame Chapter of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) in April of 2011. The award is presented by the BLSA to a graduate who distinguishes him/herself with the African American legal community and demonstrates a commitment to service through active involvement within the community.

Lipscomb didn’t limit his assistance to law students from Notre Dame.

“I’ve known Judge Lipscomb since law school and he always had an open door policy,” Miller said. “He made it clear that if there was anything he could do to help us, he would.”

He was also named a “Michiganian of the Year” in 1995. Lipscomb was also a lifelong member of the NAACP.

Perhaps inspired by the man he called his favorite writer, John Grisham, Lipscomb recently wrote a book called “The Crocodile King.” The summary on Amazon says, “A mythical King and his Queen attempt to stop slavery in Africa at the height of the Slave Trade. The courageous King ascends to the throne at the age of nineteen after his parents are abducted by slavers.“

I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Judge Lipscomb this morning. I met him when I was a law          student at the University of Notre Dame. He is the sole reason that I joined the Prosecutor's Office in 1984, and he helped guide my entire career. He was a mentor to several decades of Notre Dame African American law students and had a profound impact on many lawyers. He had a passion for the law, he was committed  to the community and was generous with his time and wisdom. The legal community will miss him, and I will miss him terribly. 

— Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy

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