Asked and Answered . . .

Newly retired judge looks back on his career

By Steven Thorpe
Legal News

Judge Michael Talbot retired April 25 after 40 years on the bench. Talbot, 72, was appointed chief judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2014 and served as one of its judges since 1998. He also has served as a judge in Wayne County Circuit Court and Detroit Common Pleas Court, the predecessor to the 36th District Court in Detroit; and also served on the Judicial Tenure Commission. Talbot also chaired the Detroit Archdiocese Board of Review, which dealt with alleged abuse by Catholic priests.

Thorpe: Did the 10-year-old Michael Talbot say, “Someday … a judge!”

At 10 years of age, I only had a very vague sense of lawyers and judges. Rather, coming out of an Irish-Catholic household your thoughts were about becoming a priest. This was nurtured by your parents, grandparents, and the nuns at school. By then I was an altar boy and that experience of ritual probably played a part also.

I did go to Sacred Heart Seminary high school for two years as a day student. We lived in Livonia and the school was an hour and a half away in Detroit. When I flunked Latin, out I went. Footnote to that academic distinction is that 50 years later I was appointed by Cardinal Maida to Sacred Heart’s board of trustees.

Thorpe: You once requested a portrait of former governor and state Supreme Court Justice John Swainson, who was convicted of lying to a grand jury investigating bribery allegations, to be hung in your chambers saying at the time "It’s a reminder how human we all are.” Tell us about that.

When I became Chief Judge I ended up with a second office, this one in the Hall of Justice in Lansing. The walls have lots of portraits of justices on them. I couldn’t find Justice John Swainson and came to learn it was not up. I asked that it be hung in my chambers. I knew Justice Swainson and I knew his life story. He was a brave and decorated soldier who lost both his legs in combat at the age of 19. He suffered all his life from those wounds. He overcame  his injuries and served as the Governor of Michigan from 1960-62. Swainson then served as a circuit judge and a justice. He made a mistake. He was not truthful before a grand jury and lost everything. Judge Larry Glaser wrote a great book about all of this called “Wounded Warrior.” I chose to place his portrait in my chambers to remind me that we are all human and are wounded warriors.

Thorpe: Your career on the bench took an interesting sidetrack in 2013 when, for only the second time in history, the Michigan Supreme Court took control of a local court. They appointed you special judicial administrator over the 36th District Court with a mandate to reform it. What sort of mixed feelings did you have taking on a task like that?

For many years I’d heard stories from lawyers about the 36th District Court. I simply thought it was disgruntled court users but never knew why. I did learn that the court was spending $4-5 million beyond its budget consistently. The Supreme Court was asked by the Governor to act. For only the second time in the Supreme Court’s history, the court took superintending control over the court. They then gave that authority to me.

Frankly, I thought that it was just a fiscal problem. I brought a team with me and we started pulling everything apart. We came to realize that there was no part of that court that functioned as it should. I got to the point where I dreaded going into work since there would be some new horror story discovered every day. We kept our eye on a very limited number of high priorities and not get distracted by daily crises. When I left 14 months later, it was (and remains) a solid, responsive court with motivated court employees and a great chief judge and court administrator. I’m very proud of that turnaround.

Thorpe: You played a big role in the impressive update to the Court of Appeals facility. Tell us about that and the “symbol” issue.

I had a great time working with Sandy Mengel and other COA personnel as we planned the build out of Cadillac Place. It was quite a challenge since we had a tight budget, difficult floor space and a building that wasn’t especially adaptable to our needs.

Probably our greatest success was the courtroom design. The bench is only 8 inches off the ground in order to accommodate the handicapped. So we curved the bench and curved the corresponding back wall to soften the look. Then a large “disc” was suspended over the entire curved area. This disc I referred to as a baldacchino, Italian for a canopy commonly found over church altars. It’s a very dramatic element that was made by a Michigan company, weighs about 2,000 lbs. and bolted to the ceiling. The result is terrific and won a number of awards.

Thorpe: Considering the public image of a courtroom as a scene of placid decorum, strange things sometimes occur there. What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened in one of yours?

Appellate courts don’t get much in the way of courtroom excitement. For that I’d recommend the felony division of the Third Circuit. You haven’t lived until you are in the middle of a feud between families in a hallway or courtroom. In second place would be a nice, busy day at the Friend of the Court.

Thorpe: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the judiciary in the next 40 years?

I think we will continue to see more and more cases resolved outside the formal courtroom setting. We’ll also see technology being applied in ways we cannot even imagine now. I suspect that many disputes will be tried in a “virtual” setting and that all interested participants will be at home before a camera and monitor.

Thorpe: Retirement plans?

I hope to play golf and read a few good books. I also want to integrate some college courses into my year, but only to audit. I’m very interested in helping out on projects court related and otherwise. So, I’ll stay busy.


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