Legal Pioneer: Judge to break ground for yet another time in her legal career


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

From first lawyer in her family, to first Chaldean American judge on the Oakland County Circuit Court bench, Hala Jarbou will soon add another “first” to her impressive legal resume.

Perhaps as early as next week, Jarbou will become the first Chaldean American judge to join the federal bench, following her recent presidential appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. She will fill a vacancy created in early 2017 when Judge Robert Holmes Bell retired from the court that has offices in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Marquette.

“It’s definitely a thrill to be chosen and it has been a very humbling experience, considering all the very qualified candidates that were being considered for the job,” Jarbou said in a phone interview. “It’s been a long process since I was first called by the White House legal counsel office last August (2019) to see if I was interested in applying for the position. It’s not a call that I expected to get.”

More than a year later, on September 10, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm Judge Jarbou to the federal bench. Michigan’s two senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, voted yes on Jarbou’s nomination.

Jarbou, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from a small village in northern Iraq when she was 4 years old, said her rise through the legal ranks is a “shining example of the American dream.”

After earning her bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Michigan with high distinction, Jarbou was awarded her juris doctor from Wayne State University Law School. Her first job was with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, where she worked as an assistant prosecutor from 1997 to 2010, spending much of her time with the Child Sexual Assault Unit. It was there that she met another assistant prosecutor, Cheryl Matthews, a member of the Oakland Circuit Court bench since 2005, and one of Jarbou’s many admirers.

“I worked with her at the Prosecutor’s Office for at least eight years, where we dealt with some very difficult cases involving child abuse,” Judge Matthews said of her longtime friend and colleague. “We were in the trenches together and she proved to be an excellent advocate for child victims, leaving no stone unturned in her prosecution of a case. As a former prosecutor, she possesses incredible courtroom experience and a tremendous understanding of the justice system.”

Jarbou, said Matthews, also has a “wealth of knowledge” about the rules of evidence and the bounds of civil/criminal procedure.

“She is very committed to ensuring that the letter of the law is followed, while also being respectful to all parties appearing before her,” Matthews added. “She is an outstanding choice for the federal bench.”

After spending more than 12 years with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, Jarbou joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, serving as an Assistant United States Attorney for five years before accepting a gubernatorial appointment to the Oakland Circuit Court in the fall of 2015. While with the Circuit Court, Jarbou served for two years as the presiding judge of the adult drug court program, helping male participants seek substance abuse counseling and treatment in an effort to avoid the cycle of recidivism.

A 1990 graduate of Ferndale High School, Jarbou – and her five brothers – were raised in Oak Park, “an eclectic community” with a “great mix of people and religions,” far removed from the religious strife that engulfs much of the Middle East.

“Religious targeting in Iraq was certainly a factor in our desire to leave, although there certainly wasn’t the persecution there is now,” Jarbou told The Legal News in 2015 after she was appointed to the Circuit Court. “The stronger factor was to reunite with the rest of our family already living in the U.S.”

The story of her family’s odyssey from war-torn Iraq to metro Detroit will be forever ingrained in her soul, Jarbou acknowledged.

“My brothers and I have talked about how different our lives would have been had our parents not brought us here,” she said.

In fact, Jarbou said she has often pondered, “Did I ever think this little girl born in a village in Iraq would be a judge someday?” The answer, she said quite clearly, was: “No. It’s amazing.”

When she joined the Circuit Court, Jarbou said she “hit the ground running,” leaving her job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on a Friday and beginning her new judicial job three days later. She expects the transition to the federal bench to be just as quick.

“The seat has been vacant for more than three years, so I know that it is important that I get started as quickly as possible,” said Jarbou, who is scheduled to be assigned to the Lansing office of the federal court.

She will be one of two women on the five-member Western District bench that is led by Chief Judge Robert Jonker.

“I’m excited to get started and to affirm the trust that has been placed in me,” Jarbou said. “It is truly a great responsibility and very humbling to know that someone has placed that trust in you.”


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