Fisher receives award for a lifetime of service to courts

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

One would think that 16 years as a popular judge who led the way in making his court a model of efficiency would be enough.

But not for James Fisher, who has gone on to lead a major task force, act as a consultant to courts statewide, and develop a mediation and arbitration focus at Law Weathers.

A lifetime of recognition for excellence is capped off by receiving the 2012 State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Representative Assembly Michael Franck Award, well-known across the state as a truly significant award.

“I had the privilege of knowing Michael Franck personally,” Fisher says. “Michael was a person who was highly regarded around the state, and he really dedicated his life to the improvement of our profession. So the award is very meaningful to me, and I’m very thankful that people thought I was worthy of it.”
Fisher’s comments echo the words SBM uses to describe the potential award-winner, “a lawyer who has made an outstanding contribution to the improvement of the profession.”

Michael Franck was the Executive Director of SBM at the time of his death in 1994. There is also a national Michael Franck Award given by the American Bar Association, which in 2012 was won by New York City attorney Seth Rosner.

Franck worked tirelessly on behalf of ethics and professional conduct, including at the national level. The ABA description states, “Michael Franck’s work stood as a benchmark for turning intellectual honesty, compassion, and uncompromising ethics to every aspect of the practice of law.”

So it is indeed an honor to receive the SBM award bearing Franck’s name, an honor that fits former Judge Fisher well.

Fisher is perhaps best-known around the state for chairing the Michigan Indigent Defense Advisory Commission (IDAC) in 2011. Addressing the problem that in Michigan each county handles its own financing and administration, and the resulting wide discrepancies across the state, the Commission made strong recommendations. Probably the most forceful was that the commission become permanent, and that it have oversight statewide.

Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, has introduced HB 5804, which establishes a permanent Michigan Indigent Defense Commission and charges it with “[d]eveloping and overseeing the implementation, enforcement, and modification of minimum standards, rules, and procedures to ensure that criminal trial defense services providing effective assistance of trial counsel are consistently delivered to all indigent adults in this state consistent with the safeguards of the United States constitution, the state constitution of 1963, and this act.” Rep. McMillin served on IDAC.

Fisher credits Ingham County (55th District) Court Chief Judge Thomas Boyd with intense follow-up on the legislative front. “I should mention that Tom Boyd was a  real workhorse on [IDAC] and has done yeoman’s work following up – he was a great asset to the commission and had a great deal to do with the final report.
“We’re hoping the legislature will vote on HB 5804 so that it gets done before the end of the year. It has 77 cosponsors in the House, and we hope the Senate will also move it this year.”

But Fisher can take a lot of the credit for making sure the IDAC report appeared in a timely fashion (it was actually early), as well as in shaping the recommendations. He says the opportunity to serve came up after he had joined Law Weathers and adds, “They’ve been very supportive of these pro bono efforts.”

Shortly after IDAC finished its work, Fisher began consulting on a granted project to help courts around Michigan increase efficiency.

Fisher explains, “I was on the structure and resources subcommittee of the Judicial Crossroads Task Force, chaired by Justice [Alton T.] Davis. Our main recommendation was to encourage as many concurrent jurisdiction plans as possible, to deal with dwindling resources. Justice Davis and I have been working through a grant from the State Justice Institute to be consultants for local courts for approximately the last year, and we hope to continue.”

When Judge Fisher was at the Barry County court system, it was chosen as a pilot project for concurrent jurisdiction organization and has ever since been a unified trial court. His work on that while Chief Judge has consistently met with recognition over the years.

Fisher says, “For example, in one of the counties I’m working with now, the circuit bench is under-judged, they need help and they need judicial resources. But the district courts are over-judged, so the idea is if you look at the county as one entity you could balance the work load.” He adds that the concept used to be met with hostility, but now courts are more receptive.

Fisher graduated with a degree in Engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), and got his J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. He was a litigator in private practice and a prosecuting attorney in Barry County before becoming a judge. As a prosecutor, he won more than 90 percent of his jury trials; the Michigan State Police recognized him for professional excellence.

He serves or has served on a long list of community boards, including the Hastings Child Abuse Prevention Council. The person who nominated him for the Franck Award, Stephanie Fekkes, also of Law Weathers, says, “I can honestly say I do not know if I would have enjoyed the success in my career had it not been for the guidance and caring of Judge Fisher.”

What does the future hold for this dynamic attorney? “I’d like to see my mediation practice a little more robust,  and court reform is not going to go away. It’s not an event, it’s a process. I’ll still be dedicated to doing whatever I can for improving the courts and the profession.

“The law is a great profession, and I’ve always been glad I chose it.”