Faith, family supported judge over 40-year career

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

In more than four decades of hearing cases, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards has seen thousands of people enter and leave his courtroom. Only one went out the window.

"When I first got elected to District Court in '83, I had a guy jump out of my window after being bound over," Edwards says. "He and his friend had been charged with first degree murder. They robbed a man and put his body in a barrel, then had confessed to their mothers. So, as part of the preliminary examination, the mothers testified. The second floor courtroom had these large windows. They were taking them back to the lockup after I had bound them over and the one guy ran and -- boom! -- hit the window and went straight out."

It's not clear whether the suspect's intent was to escape or kill himself, but he failed at both. Police standing on the sidewalk nearby took him to the hospital. But Edwards hadn't seen the last of the leaper.

"A couple days later I had to go over to Receiving Hospital to do an arraignment and there's a guy sitting in the hallway drinking an orange juice with a big cast," he says. "I told the police officer escorting me that the guy looked really familiar and he said, 'Well, he should. That's the guy who jumped out your window.'"

Most of his 40 years of cases were more routine, but Edwards still has many memories to take with him as he retires from the bench at Wayne County Circuit Court. In his most recent high profile case, the judge sent Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun and Detroit International Bridge Company President Dan Stamper to jail for contempt because of unresolved issues in the $230 million Gateway Project.

Edward's career could've developed much differently had he pursued his love of computers and software.

"I started my career working for the federal government as a computer programmer and systems analyst," he says. "Research on computers was a growing thing and I thought that might be an interesting area to pursue. I knew a guy who was in law school in the evening. I decided that I had the spare time and I would do it, too. At the time, I had no intent of becoming a practicing lawyer, let alone a judge."

Edward's mild interest in the law blossomed at Wayne State University Law School as he bonded with other young would-be lawyers and they gathered evenings and weekends in a study group.

"Sam Gardner (later head of Recorders Court), who was older and teaching at the time, became our leader," he says.

After law school, his first stop was Friend of the Court, where he stayed about a year. Although he grew up just across Eight Mile Road in Royal Oak Township, which he described at the time as "a small southern town transplanted North," he had very little experience with the huge neighbor across the road. His Friend of the Court experience changed that.

"While there I met some Detroit lawyers," he says. "I was from north of Eight Mile, so the 'big city' of Detroit was like a foreign country to me. I was able to join a law firm Damon Keith had founded and, although he was long gone, his high standards continued in the firm. I started there and was able to get valuable experience."

Edward's next stop was as a Juvenile Court referee.

"I then became a juvenile court referee for three or four years," he says. "The register of the court was James Lincoln. He and I had a great relationship. After working hours he would invite me into his office and he would share all the political 'scoops' and strategy. I was there about 10 years or so."

Somewhere along the way, Edwards got bitten by the bench bug.

"When I was originally practicing, I never had much interest in becoming a judge," he says. "Judge Lincoln was a big influence and gave me a lot of insight into the politics of the process. G. Mennen Williams appointed him and Lincoln had also been a city councilman and had run for various other city offices. So I started to say to myself, 'maybe I'll do this.' Once you get into it, it's very exciting."

Family and faith have both played big roles in the judge's career.

"My family has been very supportive," Edwards says. "My parents didn't have any advanced education, but they emphasized how important it was. They bragged about me so much it was embarrassing. A neighbor would come over and they'd say, 'Here's what Prentis did today!' I excelled, at least in part, because I didn't want to disappoint my parents."

He's tried to pay that debt by projecting it into the future with his own children.

"We have four children and all of them have advanced degrees," he says. "My oldest daughter has a masters in electrical engineering. My second daughter has a masters in finance. My youngest daughter has a masters in education. My son is a lawyer (and judge)."

And it isn't only his own children he's tried to inspire. Through his membership in Fellowship Chapel, Edwards has tried to influence other young people.

"We had mock trials at the church as part of a mentoring program," he says. "We did historical civil rights cases like the Dr. Ossian Sweet case and Brown v Board of Education. The kids really got excited and competitive, some of them even wearing period clothing to set the scene. I was a boys mentor and they had girls mentors, too. It got really competitive when we set the boys against the girls."

Perhaps because of his youthful experience with computers, Edwards has closely watched the advance of technology as it changes the way law is practiced.

"When I left the computer business and went to law school, I moved away from that world," he says. "Then, when the changes came, I was as surprised as anyone else. It all changed so fast and I don't believe anyone really saw it coming.

"It's possible to practice now without going to the library or owning any law books," he says with a tone of wonder.

It isn't only computers that have radically altered the daily business of the law. In the hallway outside his courtroom, young jurors stare at a dusty phone booth that might now be better suited for Greenfield Village. Once, attorneys would stand in line to use that phone.

"Charlie Campbell used to practice over in Recorders Court. I remember when he first got a portable phone," Edwards says. "It was a big, clumsy thing. But everybody was thinking, "Man! He's really something!"

Edwards has also seen vast changes in the rainbow of people practicing law during his long career. In addition to a dramatic increase in the number of black lawyers and judges in the courts, the role of women has changed.

"When I passed the bar in 1965, I could count all the women lawyers I knew on one hand," he says. "As time went by, there were more and more women in the field. At one time the only jobs women law grads were offered was secretarial jobs. Over in 36th District Court the majority of the judges are now women."

Professional organizations also experienced those shifts.

"I used to be very active in the Wolverine Bar Association," he says. "The president was always a male. The treasurer was always a male. One day the women members said, 'We're not going to be the secretary any more.' They refused to do it."

Edwards believes that the changes have benefitted the law and society as a whole.

"It's a good thing. The merits of the individual are what counts."

With all the analysis recently about what a law degree costs versus the compensation it garners, would Edwards still recommend a law career?

"I would still encourage a young person to go into the legal profession," he insists. "There are so many possibilities for someone with a law degree. You don't have to be a trial attorney. You can do a lot of different things. I have eight grandkids, and if they wanted to go to law school I would be cheering them on."

Edwards has a pragmatic outlook about work versus retirement.

"When I look back, I've been hearing cases for about 40 years, including juvenile court," he says. "I'll miss hearing those cases and making decisions, but I'm really looking forward to retirement."

The jury is still out on what activities Edwards will pursue with his newfound time, but a palette and canvas may be involved.

"I used to paint and I took some courses," he says. "I wasn't that good and did it strictly for my own satisfaction. But my wife used to frame them. I'm hoping to do some more of that."

Although the judge hasn't ruled yet on what activities he will pursue in retirement, he has no doubt about where he'll be.

"My wife and I might do some traveling, but we're staying in the area," he says. "I like Michigan."

A retirement party for Edwards three other retiring judges is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 16, at the International Banquet Center in Greektown, 8th Floor Ballroom from 5 to 8 p.m. For more information regarding sponsorship, participation or ticket sales, contact Bill Winters at freezewinters@aol.com or 313-510-3316, or Susan Reed at sfreed@rocketmail.com or 313-468-0990.

Published: Wed, Nov 14, 2012