Called to the law: New judge wants to help resolve issues


 By Christine L. Mobley

Legal News
Beginning a new job can be nerve-racking for some, yet others embrace the opportunity before them. Newly-elected Oakland County 46th District Court Judge Debra Nance is the latter.
A second-career attorney 13-years into her journey in the law, Nance, a wife and mother of two, loves the legal profession and has since her youth. 
“I’ve always admired lawyers. I’ve always loved legal dramas,” Nance recalled. “When I was 8-years-old I was one of the only kids that ‘Perry Mason’ was my favorite television show.”
With her first career being in Human Resource Management, Nance regards the law as a calling.
“Some people are called to serve in medicine and they know they want to be doctors or psychologists because they want to help. Some people are called to be nurses...some are called to the ministry...,” Nance explained. “I feel called to the law and to this role of judge, not because I think it’s my job to judge other people – I don’t see it that way.
“I think what I want to do is help them resolve their issues whether they’re in my court because of a criminal matter or they’re in my court because of landlord/tenant issue or a civil case that’s gone wrong,” she said. “Sometimes we are the place of last resort when people cannot resolve issues themselves and so I want to give them closure. I want to help them resolve that problem so that they can move on.”
Though she has only been on the bench a short while, Nance has been preparing for her role as judge for a considerable time.
She first considered becoming a judge while attending Wayne State University Law School. It was during a student event where Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford Morris spoke that the seeds were first planted.
“I’ll never forget these words,” Nance recalled of Langford Morris’ address, “‘I’m sure all of you will be excellent lawyers, but think about the bench. It’s lonely on the bench. Perhaps one day some of you will join me.’
“It’s always stuck with me throughout the practice of law. I love the courtroom. I was a litigation attorney and took every opportunity I could to get into court whether they were contested matters or sticky or not, I felt that I, at every stage of the process, was a zealous advocate for my client.”
Her courtroom observations helped navigate her thoughts on serving from the bench.
“I watched carefully every time I was in court – the judges, how they carried themselves, how they conducted themselves, how they dealt with their court personnel, how they addressed attorneys – and took lessons always thinking in the back of my mind that when the time came, I too would want to run.”
And run she did.
Nance first campaigned for the same judicial seat she now holds in 2010. 
Though her first campaign ended with a loss, Nance was determined that she would run again in 2012 and continued to campaign. And election night, the hard work and long journey paid off.
“It was magical,” Nance recalled. “I think the appointment process is wonderful when you can be appointed, but there’s nothing like being elected. There’s just such a level of pride that it gives you when you see the voters.
“The day after the election I went throughout various neighborhoods and businesses and thanked them and let them know that we – I don’t say I – that we won, because I considered it to be a joint experience.
“People felt invested,” Nance said of her campaign and subsequent election. “It was just magical to win and to be on the same ballot in a presidential election. So there were people who were very content with the world on that night. It was a great experience to know that you have the support of the community.”
The 46th District Court, while seated in Southfield, not only serves that community but also Lathrup, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, and Franklin Village. Within these communities are many diverse cultures and Nance recognizes that this diversity should be celebrated.
“I want to let the diverse culture in this community know that we are a court that represents everyone and I want to be a judge that would represent everyone in the community,” Nance noted.
“We forget sometimes how important diversity is. Everybody is not the same. Everybody does not come from the same place with the same experience with the same education or the same opportunities and the same customs and traditions, but I think that’s what makes it so beautiful.”
Nance is also a firm believer in alternative and individualized sentencing.
“I don’t believe in cookie cutter approaches to sentencing,” she said. “I’m looking for all kinds of alternatives to jail – alternative sentencing programs.”
Sentencing that uses various technologies, such as GPS and alcohol monitoring; intervention programs; and various specialty courts, such as mental health courts; are among those on Nance’s radar.
“I think largely my philosophy on sentencing is to reduce recidivism. I want to reduce the opportunity that person will be back again because that’s best for the community and that’s best for the individual.”
“Cookie cutter” sentences aside, the law must be applied.
“The part about being a judge that you have to understand is that I don’t get to make the law – I have to follow the law,” she said. “I want to do that with compassion and sensitivity.”
In her quest to accomplish this, Nance has taken it upon herself to learn all she can to be the best she can in her new role.
“I work late and love it and take files home and review them before the cases come up and read the briefs and I just enjoy the legal arguments, I enjoy – still – researching some of the legal arguments on my own to understand this is the plaintiff’s position, this is the defendant’s position, and where the law lies in my opinion because I’ve got to make a decision. 
“It fills my evenings and weekends and I have tried to put my hands on everything I can about the court system, the jury system, and what makes jurors tick. I’ve just become a voracious reader regarding this whole process,” Nance said. “I’m trying to learn everything I can about my new role to make sure that I’m the kind of judge that I want to be.”