Award winner Circuit Court judge is lauded for her 'innovative approaches'

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Over the past two decades, Wayne County Circuit Judge Patricia Fresard has endeavored to create an environment that takes into account the expectations of all parties. Her efforts were applauded in June when she was presented with the Frank Murphy Award by the Detroit Bar Association (DBA) at its annual meeting.

The award recognized “her innovative approaches to improving the efficient administration of justice. Her respect for litigants and dedication to improving communication between the bench and bar are a shining example of professionalism and civility.”

For Fresard, who took the bench in 1999, those words represent a genuine reflection of her effort to improve courtroom conditions for the benefit of attorneys and their clients.

“The Frank Murphy Award is one of the greatest honors that a judge can receive. An acknowledgement from your peers that they recognize and appreciate your basic attempt to do what’s right and be fair is all we could possibly want,” Fresard said. “I really appreciate that they gave me the award but it’s definitely not just me. It’s support from the court’s administration, and our chief judge, Robert Colombo. He’s the hardest working chief judge I’ve seen in my lifetime.  Without him and the rest of our staff, you couldn’t make changes.”

Fresard credits the DBA for working to implement community-oriented initiatives that assist litigants and members of the judiciary.

“The work of the Detroit Bar is extremely important. That’s another reason this is a great honor. The DBA is formed by attorneys whose goal is to work closely with each other and the community to improve the work the lawyers and the court have to do,” Fresard said, pointing to the DBA’s Discovery Master Program, as an example of the group’s bench-bar initiatives.

The program expedites the mediation of lower value cases and is funded by a grant from the Mediation Tribunal Association to the DBA.

As important as her efforts to bring attorneys and judges together is the need to communicate the court’s intent to the public, Fresard noted.

“People come into court with their perception of what they think is right and just. And of course, our duty is to know the law, apply the law, and decide cases, but we should also remind ourselves each and every day of the importance of how we convey our message,” Fresard said. “We want people to know that we are doing our best job to be objective and fair to both sides, and to follow the law and do justice,” she added.

It’s from conversations with the parties who appear in court that Fresard assesses how well the message of objectivity and fairness has been communicated.

“When I talk to people they don’t complain about the rulings of other judges but they complain if they felt they were not heard or if they believed there was favoritism,” Fresard said. “We have to follow precedent, but sometimes there are some very small areas where we are allowed discretion. When that happens, we have to be very careful and very fair. And when we’re not given discretion we need to convey the reason for the decision, with simplicity and sincerity.”

Six years ago, Fresard moved from the criminal division to the civil court, where she is currently the presiding judge, but she still draws on her past experiences to frame her thinking.

“Coming to the court as a (Macomb County) prosecutor, I felt that if I had any choice between family (court) and criminal I would take criminal because I had the most experience in it and because I felt I would be doing the most important job that I could which was to do justice in a criminal court,” Fresard said.

“I knew as a prosecutor I had a different experience than some people who come to court but I didn’t realize how great the difference was. To be able to step back and see how the court system is perceived and how people feel gives you an incentive as a judge to explain ourselves.”

The first Latina woman to be elected to the Wayne County Circuit Court, Fresard said that jurists need to pay attention to minorities who come into court often feeling that the weight of the law is stacked against them.

“When minorities, African-Americans, Hispanics, Arabic people, walk into court they have questions like, ‘Am I going to be heard?’ ‘Will I be treated fairly?’ ‘Is someone going to recognize that I am a person and what my position is?’” Fresard said. “Their fear is not without foundation. That’s why we tell jurors that each and every one who approaches that stand must be given an opportunity to be heard.”

Always looking for new challenges, Fresard said the move to civil court was an opportunity to take on a new perspective.

“Working in criminal court was a great privilege, but as I got to be a more senior judge I wanted to have a broader experience, to be able to see what civil court is like, to learn new things at a later stage of my career,”
Fresard said. “Coming to civil court I wasn’t sure how it would be. In criminal law you have the Constitution, that doesn’t change. In civil court there are so many different kinds of cases, so to come here and do all that is really interesting. What was even more impactful was to be able to take what I learned in criminal, and apply it in a different setting.”

Even though Fresard was barely 40 years old when she was elected to the bench, she remains enthusiastic about embracing new initiatives in Michigan’s busiest circuit court.

“My first goal was to interact more, and enjoy the intellectual challenge of the job more with my extraordinarily erudite colleagues.  Sharing ideas with them on the how and why of determining our rulings has been exhilarating,” Fresard said. “And the desire to collaborate with attorneys in furtherance of more effective and efficient handling of the legal issues before us led to implementing quarterly bench-bar conferences.”

Fresard is keenly aware of how the strong support she has from her fellow judges has affected her ability to implement specific objectives.

“I can’t say enough about the support I’ve gotten from my colleagues. A lot of them have been here much longer than me. For them to work with me and allow me the opportunity to make changes in the court system that will help others is gratifying,” Fresard said. “I’m really excited to be working here. I love it.”.

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