North Face Judge offers northern look to the federal court bench


By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

While his law school buddies spent their summers in San Diego, "learning what lawyers did" by working as legal clerks and law firm interns, the young man from Midland spent his time hitch-hiking to water skiing competitions, or running water skiing schools, or working odd jobs pumping gas or waiting tables.

And after he graduated from law school and returned to Michigan, the young man had a lot of catching up to do when he was hired by a law firm.

"I had never been in a law office or court," the young man said. "My first job was an eye-opening experience, and the transition from law school to lawyer was a big jump."

But the young man grew with experience. He was later a managing partner of the law firm, and followed that as a state court judge and later as a federal judge. So it's safe to say that U.S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Ludington did okay for himself.

"This was never my plan," Ludington said as he sat in his second-floor office in Bay City, the northern-most bench of the Eastern District of Michigan. "I never anticipated it, but I certainly enjoy it."

Ludington, 57, was exposed early on to different social and ethnic people and backgrounds when his parents moved from one side of Midland to the other while he was in high school. Although his father was an executive officer for Dow Corning, Ludington said he was a modest man and raised his family to be middle class.

"It was a real opportunity to be introduced to kids from both sides of the city," he said. "Midland was not as diverse as some cities, but it was a good cross-section of people."

After graduating from H.H. Dow High School in 1972, Ludington attended Albion College, majoring in political theory, economics, and philosophy. His plan was always to attend college, but beyond that he did not know what he wanted to do. That changed when he attended the University of Sussex in Brighton, England for two years as an Albion exchange student. He said being there exposed him to many things academic and cultural.

"It was probably the most rigorous academic environment I was ever in, including law school," Ludington said. "And the expectations were very high."

Ludington found himself in small group settings there, and had to digest a number of books each week to keep up.

It was there that Ludington decided to go into a law career after taking classes on political theory, which translated well into the area of jurisprudence.

"I was not sure how I would use a law degree, but it seemed like the most comfortable direction to take at that point," he said.

Looking back, Ludington said he was also influenced to enter law by his maternal grandfather and an uncle, who were attorneys in Saginaw, although he didn't realize that until later.

After spending two years in England, Ludington returned to complete his degree at Albion in 1976 and set off for the University of San Diego School of Law. Two factors influenced his decision to attend law school in California. A close friend was already there, and Ludington said he was drawn by the interesting debates about law being cultivated there.

For the next three years, Ludington focused on law -- and skiing. No doubt there was ample opportunity to water ski there, as compared to Michigan's shorter summers. Ludington is not one to brag, but he was an excellent water skier.

"It was something I really enjoyed," he said.

He spent 1978 studying at the Institute on International and Comparative Law in Paris, France, and graduated from USD Law School in 1979.

Ludington passed the California state bar, but had no idea what type of law he wanted to practice. But he yearned for Michigan, its defined seasons, his family, and the Midwestern "sensibilities" of the people, so he moved back to Midland.

He was hired by the Currie and Kendall law firm in 1980, and called his time there filled with "tremendous teachers and mentors" a real team experience. He worked with two men in particular, learning mergers and acquisitions from one, and litigation from another.

"The combination of personalities and experiences, their dedication to quality and clients, was a tremendous opportunity for me," he said.

Ludington spent time learning the profession, researching and arguing cases in court.

He honed skills that would later help him as a judge, helping clients craft settlements that accomplished something for everyone and advancing cases rather than making matters worse. Ludington also was on the court-appointed list, handling criminal cases, and that gave him the chance to meet an entirely different group of people.

One person he met did not appreciate his legal recommendation. But she married him anyway. Ludington said he met Katrina at a business meeting in Midland. She was working for Dow Chemical and asked him for legal advice regarding a ticket she had received.

"And I told her she ought to pay the ticket," Ludington said. "She didn't think that was very good legal advice."

They married in 1986 and now live in Sanford with two sons, J.T, 17, and Christopher, 13.

In 1994, Ludington decided to run for a circuit court spot in Midland after spending 11 years as a practicing attorney in criminal and civil matters. He said the first few years were a learning experience.

"You begin with a reasonable amount of knowledge in certain areas from your practice, but judging by definition is truly general practice," he said. "You work with such a wide range of cases that good judges have to be good students. You're constantly learning."

After spending 11 years there, the last six as chief judge, Ludington applied for the federal bench.

"I had a fairly significant federal practice in bank and commercial law, and I always enjoyed that, but I was ready to try something different."

He was nominated to the U.S. District Court in 2002 by President George W. Bush and commissioned in 2006. After spending six weeks in Detroit learning and meeting the other judges in the Eastern District, Ludington moved to his seat in Bay City.

He said switching from state judge to federal judge was not a huge difference, even thought they work with a different body of law.

"The similarity is you make decisions that affect people's lives," he said.

Ludington said his judicial demeanor could be described as being "pragmatic, considerate, and, hopefully, principled."

"I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of difficult problems, and the satisfaction of working with people," he said.

Even though Ludington is in a one-judge office, away from the dozen or so other federal judges that occupy most of the Eastern District, he does not feel isolated from his colleagues.

"I make every judges' meeting in Detroit that I can, and remain actively involved in the various committees and court operations," he said. "And there is ample time for video-conferencing to keep all the members of the bench up to date.

"And they are very considerate of me," he said. "If an issue arises that I need a different perspective on, I can lift up my telephone and any one of the judges will take the time to assist me."

Ludington puts in a full week of work at the court, and spends several hours each night editing opinions and other legal chores. But he said he loves the job and all the stress and pressure it entails.

"I'll stay here as long as they don't impeach me," he joked.

What he never gets used to is the difficulty that comes with sentencing a convicted criminal, especially for the person's family, who are left to fend for themselves in a difficult situation. Ludington said sentencing guidelines have changed over the years, and will continue to change, affording Judges a greater amount of discretion now than when he started. But he said too much discretion can lead to a disparity between judges and courts.

"It's a difficult balance," he said.

The Eastern District is also wrestling with eliminating the judicial boundaries between the north and south districts, and Ludington said that is a matter that may be addressed soon. As far as notable cases he's heard, Ludington take the politically correct stance.

"They're all notable and important to every single person that's affected by it," he said.

For now, Ludington said besides his judicial duties, he stays busy raising two teenage sons. The family enjoys water skiing - imagine that! - snow skiing, and taking advantage of the four seasons of Michigan. He is involved with mini-triathlons, saying the activity "is a good way to discipline myself and get in better shape." His wife is an active bicyclist.

Ludington has taught various courses in law, and serves as a director on the Board of Trustees at Albion and holds other professional associations.

But he hopes his legacy reads as one who "was helpful and constructive in resolving disputes."

"I've loved every aspect of my legal career, from lawyer, to circuit court judge, and what I'm doing today," he said. "It really is a highlight of life to be able to make a career out of something you really love doing. The idea that someone pays me to do this is remarkable because I enjoy it so much."

Published: Mon, Jun 13, 2011