Heartfelt Matter District Court Judge on crusade to keep marriages strong, intact

By Renee Collins

Legal News

On a cold January morning, District Judge James Sheridan calls a lunch recess in his courtroom and an entourage of bailiffs, docketing clerks, secretaries and a pair of interns representing Siena Heights University and Adrian College, respectively, follows him into his office at the Rex B. Martin Judicial Building in Adrian.

In the chambers, papers are piled on every available surface and spill over onto the window sill. On his desk is a framed comic that says it all: two men in an office, one seated behind a desk piled with cartoonish paperwork, a caption reading, "Think this is bad? You should see my head."

Behind a desk covered with the minutiae of a multi-tasker, Sheridan slouches in his chair and banters with the interns. He jokes with a detective who stops in to get a search warrant signed and then quizzes his interns on the laws for search warrants.

"I have compulsive-obsessive disorder or whatever you want to call it," he quips. "When I was a kid, I always had to be doing something else when I was watching television."

By his own admission, Lenawee District Judge Sheridan was raised in a very Ozzie and Harriet style family. Word games, table talk at dinner, parents who cared and respected each other all contributed to Sheridan's outlook on life. His own father was a patent attorney who almost became a high school science teacher. Sheridan, too, often finds himself thinking he is a teacher who got into the wrong profession.

"However, it seems to me that any trial judge -- or any judge at all, for that matter -- who is worth the black robe he's wearing should be a teacher at heart," he says. "Teaching defendants a better way, teaching the public about the role of the judiciary and the value of the rule of law, teaching litigants about the law of the case that controls the court's decision, teaching the public about how all societal systems interact and how the judicial system plays a role in that, teaching other judges about how other systems play a role in how the judiciary works."

Sheridan, a Midland native, has been on the bench for more than three decades. His parents moved to Detroit when he was 2. The summer he turned 12, his parents moved again, this time to Dearborn, where he graduated from high school.

"I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was in my early teens," Sheridan recalls. "When no one was home and I could do whatever I wanted, I'd make a big batch of popcorn and sneak down into the basement to where my father kept his old laws books. And I'd sit there for hours reading them without anyone bothering me."

Sheridan earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration and graduated in the top 10 percent and a member of the Order of the Coif from the University of Michigan law school. When he finished school, he found a perfect-fit legal firm -- Walker, Watts and Timms in Adrian -- and also worked as a city attorney "from the get-go."

Says Judge Sheridan: "I've always been interested in criminal cases. I find law fascinating."

In 1979, he ran against incumbent District Judge Yale Leland Kirby and won. He has been on the bench ever since. For Sheridan, the law is more than just logical and systematic.

"It is also meant to reflect the best values that humans have and putting them into practice," he explains. "When it is practiced well, the law is an instrument of good, protecting the weak from the strong, the minority from abuses by the majority, while allowing the majority to rule without constant, inappropriate interference from the minority, through a system of balances that is designed to protect everyone and, if done right, truly is blind."

Blind justice sometimes surprises those who have come before Sheridan.

"I've had people who seemed surprised that I ruled in their favor, because they thought I didn't like them personally," he says. "The fact was that I did not like them. But, they had the law and the facts on their side. When law is applied as it is supposed to be, personalities are not relevant. It is only a matter of truth and the object application of appropriate rules, which were lawfully adopted. Sadly, the law can be perverted. But, so can art -- it becomes pornography; and journalism -- it becomes sensationalist; and politics -- it becomes corrupt. Fortunately, as in most professions, the law has a solid core of people who truly care that the right is done."

He plans to retire in 2014 when his current term expires and likely will be putting even more work into his other passion, "Marriages that Work," an organization he founded in 1998. A singular piece of data from an article in a "Focus on the Family" publication led Sheridan down the road to the nonprofit organization. A graph caught his eye and sparked interest in "the correlation between marriage and my caseload." In the district court, which Sheridan jokes is the "Kmart of courts," drunken driving and domestic abuse cases comprise the majority of his workload.

"We have probably 700 drunken driving cases every year," says Sheridan, who shares district court cases with fellow Judge Natalie Koselka. "That means I get 350 of them. If you count holidays and weekends, that means more than one drunken driving case per day.

"In this article, the author, Linda Waite, reported that as you go from married to divorced, alcohol problems double. That's half my caseload. So I started thinking, does marriage matter?"

According to his research, it did. And so Sheridan began a crusade to prevent divorce, whether by discouraging people who shouldn't get married to avoid walking down the aisle or making sure those who got married stayed that way.

"Looking at the number of alcohol-related problems in my caseload got me thinking, if we can improve the health of a relationship and help people stay in a healthy relationship, well it should reduce that number of alcohol-related problems," he explains. "The data ended up going way beyond domestic violence."

Why should public officials care about marriage? Since he started Marriages that Work, Sheridan has been on a quest to demonstrate just that. In a power point he developed, "Marriage As Public Policy," he outlines a convincing case for marriage based on statistics showing the reduction in alcohol and drug use and even smoking between married couples and single people, both men and women.

"As men and women get married, these problems drop," Sheridan says. "Does that mean healthy marriages affect a judge's caseload? Clearly it does by a huge amount. When you're talking about divorce, poverty levels increase, children of single parent families don't get the education they need, there are more fights, thefts, alcoholism. I only had to look at my caseload to see this."

Sheridan himself has been married to Sharron for nearly 40 years. The couple has a daughter, Anita, and a son, Jimmy. The jurist has written a book, "A Blessing for the Heart," which discusses marriage from a Christian perspective. In addition to his judgeship and Marriages that Work, he also is an adjunct professor at Siena Heights University, where he has taught law classes for 35 years.

"No one wants to be the bedroom police, but what is amazing about marriage is that it is a profoundly private institution that has a profoundly public impact," Sheridan says. "It may not be right to tell people how to live in their own homes, but how they live it does affect the public. To that extent, the public has a right to educate and encourage healthy living.

"The best guys can be real dinks at times, so can the best women. But, we're better off having someone with us, that other person who balances our weaknesses with their strengths, walking the walk with us. We live longer, healthier lives."

Published: Wed, Mar 17, 2010