Senior status: Another 'first' for judge on Circuit Court bench

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

She jokingly refers to it as her new “dinosaur” status.

In reality, Denise Langford Morris is the new “dean” of the Oakland County Circuit Court.

She attained the unofficial title in July following the retirement of Circuit Judge Rudy Nichols, who recently moved to South Carolina following 25 years on the bench.

“Never in a million years did I ever think that I would become the most senior member of the bench,” Langford Morris said in reflecting upon her time in office. “I remember vividly my first day on the bench on August 3, 1992 and to think that I would still be here after all that time is hard to comprehend.”

A former assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit, Langford Morris was appointed to the Oakland Circuit Court in 1992 by then Governor John Engler. She was a surprise pick by the conservative governor.

“I had been encouraged by a lot of people to run, but I thought it would be a real long shot because of my political background and the fact that 23 of the 25 county commissioners on the board at the time were Republican,” Langford Morris said. “Even though I had the experience that was necessary, it was still a shock when I received the appointment.”

Two years after her appointment, Langford Morris was elected to a six-year term in office, reportedly becoming the first African American judge to receive the nod from Oakland County voters. She has since won re-election in 2000, 2006, and 2012.

A Detroit native and a graduate of Cass Tech High School, Langford Morris sports a legal career that is dotted with “firsts.” Upon graduation from law school, Langford Morris was offered a job with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office in 1983, becoming the first African American woman on staff. She began by handling cases in the 48th District Court, quickly advancing to trial work at the Circuit Court level, principally before Judge Steven Andrews.

After two years in private practice, Langford Morris returned to the public service sector, accepting a job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, handling a variety of civil litigation matters. While there she helped launch the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association, an organization formed in 1990 to promote legal practice opportunities for minorities and women.

“I was one of 10 people involved in its formation,” she said of the special purpose bar association. “One of our principal goals was to help get an African American on the Oakland County bench. There was a definite need for diversity on the bench and we helped lead a groundswell of support to make it happen.”

Now, in her 23rd year as an Oakland Circuit Court judge, Langford Morris has earned two more “firsts,” according to Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner.

“Not only is Judge Langford Morris the first female judge to be the ‘Dean of the Bench,’ she is also the first African American to be the Dean of the Bench,” said Oeffner.
“So, two ‘firsts’ with one judge.

“We have records showing the appointment and election of Circuit (Court) judges going back to 1848, so for Judge Langford Morris to be the first female dean is a special thing for us,” said Oeffner.

A past president of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, Langford Morris obtained her master’s degree from Wayne State University. She went to work for the Michigan Department of Social Services, making “house calls” throughout Detroit on behalf of abused and neglected children as well as disabled adults and the elderly. It was not a “9 to 5” job.

“There was so much heartache in that job,” she said of her time as a protective services worker for the Department of Social Services. “There was no way you could leave children in certain situations while you waited for help to arrive. As a result, I was constantly running late for my law classes (at the University of Detroit). I figured that I was answering to a higher-calling.”

While a law student at U of D, Langford Morris began her string of “firsts.” She and her partner, David Williams, became the first minority team to win the moot court competition. Like Langford Morris, Williams also has risen to professional success, currently serving as vice chancellor and athletics director at Vanderbilt University.

During her career on the bench, Langford Morris has served on the board of HAVEN (Help Against Violent Encounters Now), the Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency, the Child Abuse and Neglect Council, and now the University of Detroit Mercy Board of Trustees. She has been honored by the State Bar of Michigan with its “Champion of Justice Award” in 2007 and also was the 2008 recipient of the coveted CLEO (Council on Legal Education Opportunity) Legacy Award among a host of other honors.

As a judge, she has presided over a number of high profile cases, including those involving Dr. Jack Kevorkian, rapper Eminem, and the 2004 “Malice at the Palace” involving Piston fans and members of the Indiana Pacers. Those cases, and the hundreds of others that have come before her during her 23 years as a judge, have left a lasting impression.

“Everyday that I come to work I realize what an awesome responsibility that I have as a judge,” she said. “I absolutely love my job and I will never take for granted the trust that the public and my colleagues have placed in me.”

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