Profile in Brief-- Noceeba Southern Beyond the gavel

By Taryn Hartman

Legal News

Even before she arrived on the 36th District bench late last year, Judge Noceeba Southern's view of justice and the role of the judges who administer it was always "to do more than just slam the gavel down."

That's why she makes community service and requiring GEDs stipulations of the sentences she hands out.

"I don't want it to be, for me, a place where I get into a system of doing things in a way just because that's how they've always been done," Southern says of her approach to being a judge. "When people come before the court, they're not supposed to be afraid."

Southern made the leap from the U.S. Attorney's office to 36th District court in October when she was appointed by Governor Granholm to fill the seat vacated when Mark Randon was appointed magistrate at the U.S. District Court.

"When she called, I cried," remembers Southern, who had never given any thought to running for judge.

A native Detroiter, Southern grew up on the city's west side, graduated from Catholic school at 16 and the University of Michigan at 19, and took a year off before starting Michigan Law School at 20. On the decision between law and medicine -- which plagued several of her 36th District colleagues -- Southern's eventual realization was that "I love to run my mouth too much" for the operating room.

She specialized in prosecuting economic crimes as an AUSA, and at the direction of former U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins, Southern launched the office's outreach program, which she calls "one of the most rewarding things I did at the U.S. Attorney's office." Her programs included Chess for Life, which integrated teaching students how to play chess with making healthy life decisions and always looking two or three steps ahead, and a youth gun violence program that was honored by the Justice Department in 2004 as the best such program in the country and served as a model for similar programs around the nation.

Her emphasis on outreach there, combined with a strong faith, has colored her approach to being a judge.

"I just think it's critical for us not to overlook the glimmer of light that people have in their eye when they come before us," Southern says, explaining that many who come through the court often find themselves trapped in a repeating cycle. "I really believe that but for the grace of God, it could be me. That could be me," on the other side of the bench, she says.

Southern's success shouldn't come as too much of a surprise when you learn she came under the tutelage of local legal titan Judge Damon Keith when she clerked for him at the U.S. Court of Appeals, and later clerked for Judge Anna Diggs Taylor at U.S. District Court.

Judge Keith is "like my father," Southern says. "I don't do anything without seeking his consultation and advice."

He's also the source of the most formative advice of Southern's legal career.

"It's not impossible for me to be a jurist and still be compassionate," Southern says. "It's not impossible for me to be a jurist and still be humble. It's not impossible for me to be a jurist and love God's children."

This critical lesson came from Judge Keith, Southern says, adding, "If you lose sight of that, you fall faster than you rise."

Published: Thu, May 6, 2010