By Brett DeGroff
Jerry Schrotenboer has a knack for details. Talk to him about his two decades in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and you can see for yourself. Every story is punctuated with a date or case name. Precise details are freely offered.
The knack is apparent when Schrotenboer discusses his favorite case, People v Ewing. Schrotenboer persuaded the Michigan Supreme Court to clarify, though Schrotenboer would say overrule, its previous case, People v Grimmett. The rule of Ewing is fairly straightforward – when sentencing a criminal defendant, a judge may consider facts beyond those of the sentencing crime. But Schrotenboer loves Ewing for the details.
“I was 16 when the court decided Grimmett,” Schrotenboer said. “I was watching and my brother was at counsel’s table. He was only an intern, but he had written the brief for the defense. When I was arguing Ewing, I mentioned that I was now mature enough to see the error in the court’s ways.
“They were amused by that also,” Schrotenboer added dryly.
For Schrotenboer, the county’s Chief Appellate Attorney, litigation in the Michigan Supreme Court has been fairly common throughout his career. Trips to the state Court of Appeals are frequent as well. Once every year or two, Schrotenboer also makes it to Cincinnati to argue before the Sixth Circuit. But the jewel of Schrotenboer’s career was his 1992 argument before the United States Supreme Court.
The case was Fex v Michigan, and it was all about the details. The issue was whether a prisoner’s request to prison authorities triggered a 180-day limitation period, or whether the request’s delivery triggered the period. Schrotenboer won the case 7-2.
The Solicitor General of the United States Ken Starr, represented by one of his deputies, weighed in supporting Schrotenboer’s position.
“Arguing the case was somewhat exhilarating,” Schrotenboer said. “But, I also had a lot on my mind because I knew I would be out of work shortly after.”
Months before, a new prosecutor had been elected. Schrotenboer said he planned to leave his job before the new boss took office because of differences in their legal outlooks. Schrotenboer returned to the prosecutor’s office four years later.
Even today Fex is generating details for Schrotenboer to recount. Schrotenboer says he is the only active Jackson County attorney to have argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He also says he is the only full time county prosecutor in the state to have argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schrotenboer graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1981 where he took a trial advocacy class from Johnnie Cochran, of the O.J. Simpson defense case fame. Cochran was an assistant district attorney and adjunct faculty at the time. After graduation, Schrotenboer was a law clerk with the Michigan Court of Appeals, and then a staff attorney with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
In the years after law school, Schrotenboer’s knack for details extended beyond dates, case names, and factoids.
“I used to be able to go to the shelf and pick out the volume containing a case we were discussing,” Schrotenboer said. “Not so much any more.”
Schrotenboer notes the Michigan Court of Appeals has completely changed since he started work as a staff attorney. The court’s current longest serving member, Judge David Sawyer, wouldn’t take the bench until five years after Schrotenboer reported for his first day of work as an attorney.
In addition to handling the county’s criminal appeals, Schrotenboer does a great deal of extradition work. In 2010, Schrotenboer was awarded the Elvyn Holt Outstanding Achievement Award by the National Association of Extradition Officials for his work in this regard. Schrotenboer adds that he is just the second county prosecutor to receive the honor, not counting the award’s namesake.
The remainder of Schrotenboer’s practice consists of being what he calls the prosecutor’s “utility player.” Whatever the office needs, Schrotenboer chips in whether it’s a bit of research or a matter in court. Any last detail.
Chief Appellate Attorney counts a Supreme Court win among his triumphs
By Brett DeGroff