Judge Jackson demanded decorum in his courtroom

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Judges get called a lot of things by attorneys, usually under their breath. Soon to retire Circuit Court Judge Thomas E. Jackson usually gets called--out loud--tough, fair, no-nonsense, smart and firm. Not bad endorsements from those who have appeared before him during decades on the bench.

Consider these quotes from two adversaries who sparred before Jackson in 1994 during the first Jack Kevorkian assisted suicide trial.

Judge (and former prosecutor) Timothy Kenny: "Judge Jackson has been the judicial standard of excellence for many years at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. He represents the best in what we want in a judge ... someone who is hardworking, scholarly, fair to all who appear before him, and one who does not suffer fools easily."

Defense Attorney Geoffrey Fieger: "Judge Jackson became a judge in an age of racial division, yet his keen intellect and compassionate character steered many divisive trials to a just outcome. He is a wonderful example of a man whose understanding of the law and personal integrity can transcend social turmoil and reassure us all that 'equal justice under the law' can be a reality."

Jackson is one of four Wayne County Circuit Court judges scheduled to retire at the end of the year.??He has always had a reputation as a no-nonsense, take-charge judge who demands decorum, but gives attorneys room to work. He might not rule your way, they know, but he'll be consistent, fair and unswayed by external pressures.

Jackson was born and raised in Detroit and served in the U.S. Army from 1966 through 1968. He was offered a spot in Officers Candidate School, but decided to pass when he learned it would extend his commitment. When he came home he did a stint as a substitute teacher, which may have taught him some lessons about keeping order in a classroom that came in handy later in a courtroom.

But Jackson believes his legendary sense of order and decorum came primarily from a different source.

"Before I became a judge, I worked over in Federal Court as a defender for almost 10 years," he says. "The federal court system is a lot more orderly and disciplined. When I left federal court, which was so dignified, and came over here and saw some of the cases and judges, I said, 'My god, it's completely different.' So I mainly got my sense of how court should be run from my time in federal court."

Some of the realities that the young Jackson encountered in law school made him realize that change was overdue in the legal field.

"When I started law school, there may have been 10 or 15 African American students at most in the school and very few women," he says.

While in law school, Jackson was also influenced by the social and political ideas that were swirling in the community at the time, only a few years after Detroit's 1967 riot. Radicals like Milton Henry, Ken Cockrel and Justin Ravitz were demanding reforms and greater opportunities for minorities.

Jackson graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1972 and worked in the Federal Defender Office from 1973 to 1982.

There he met the man who he says had the biggest influence on his legal career.

"If there's one person who influenced my legal career the most, I would say it was (Judge) James Roberts," he says.

While helping Roberts in one of his judicial campaigns, Jackson was surprised to find his thoughts turning to a possible career on the bench of his own.

"I hadn't really given it a lot of thought (to being a judge) until I'd been at the Federal Defenders Office for seven or eight years," Jackson says. "Jim Roberts decided to run for Recorders Court and I was his co-campaign manager. I learned a lot during that process and that's when I first started thinking about being a judge. Roberts used to joke that I was following him around."

Jackson was elected to Detroit Recorder's Court in 1983 and never looked back.

In addition to the Kevorkian trial, Jackson has presided over other high-profile trials including that of police officer Walter Budzyn, accused in the fatal beating of Malice Green, and the trial of Richard Wershe Jr., who was called "White Boy Rick" while running the city's east-side dope trade.

As Jackson surveyed the courtroom during Wershe's sentencing to life in prison, he saw other members of the drug trade decked out in gold chains and Rolex watches in the audience. He turned to Wershe and said, "If they survive, they can be your neighbors in your new residence."

Jackson also presided over an early appeal by former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2008 after a lower court judge sent Kilpatrick to jail for violating a bond.

As the action swirled around the case, Jackson put his foot down. Hard.??"This is a courtroom, not a circus, OK?" he said at one point.??Later, one of Kilpatrick's attorneys wanted to interject while the judge was talking and he turned on the man, saying, "I gave you my answer. I don't want to hear any more."

Jackson has always had an interest in legal education and has served as an instructor at the Michigan Judicial Institute, which helps train judges. He has also served as a board member of the Michigan Center for Law-Related Education and the Center for Civic Education Through Law.

He also believes that not just judges, but average citizens, need to have a better knowledge of the foundations of the law.?

"It helps tremendously for young people to understand the nuances of the legal system," Jackson says. "They then understand what some of the ramifications might be when they violate the law. So many kids are naïve, often because their parents didn't understand the law. I would like to see some kind of a legal education requirement be a part of every junior high school curriculum."

Speaking of young people, would Jackson still recommend a career in law despite the profession's current cloudy weather

"I have mixed feelings," he says. "There was a time a few years ago where I would've been, 'Rah rah! Go to law school! Go! Go! Go!' But now I see young attorneys struggling to find work. Some of them are having a heckuva time. I'm not as enthusiastic about encouraging kids to go into law as I was even 10 years ago."

How would Jackson like his years on the bench to be remembered

Tough is nice but, at the end of the day, fair is the most important thing, Jackson says.

"I've never been swayed by public opinion," he says. "I took an oath to be a judge and I have to be true to that oath and the law. When it's all over, I want to be able to look in the mirror and say, I may not have made everyone happy, but I feel that I did the right thing."

Published: Mon, Nov 19, 2012

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