30 years ago--despite a contentious Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners--14-B District Court Judge Charles Pope helped plan the new court he presides over today

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Thirty years ago, Charles Pope was an attorney in private practice when Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Ron Allen came to him with a bold idea for a new courthouse in Ypsilanti Township.

Allen asked Pope to come up with the nitty-gritty details about what it would take to establish a separate district court that would keep Ypsilanti Township cases right there, rather than in downtown Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township, or Saline.

"It was such a unique experience to be involved from the ground up, recalled Pope. "It's not an opportunity that comes around very often."

While Pope worked on those details, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners did not want to lose a judge or so much revenue, and withdrew their initial support, forcing the township to turn to the Legislature.

The Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees prevailed, and in April of 1984, the Legislature passed a bill creating the 14B District Court.

But the county was still angry, and sued the state to prevent its creation.

"It was a very big deal," recalled Pope. "Very contemptuous."

The lawsuit was dismissed, and the court came into existence.

When attorney John Collins was elected its first judge, he asked Pope to become the court's first administrator and magistrate, roles he happily accepted.

"I had a real neat opportunity for a relatively young attorney in private practice at the time to establish a court from scratch," he said. "It was a wonderful experience looking back at it. It was very exciting, and I learned a lot."

The workload was also a bit much, he admits. And while the new court's relationship with county judges was great from the start, the county officials were still angry-at first.

In fact, he said one of his happiest days was the one he realized that war had ceased.

"I realized we were no big deal anymore," he said. "We were just another court on the block; we were another part of the judicial system in Washtenaw County. Those feelings and that contentiousness just kind of went away with time, so by the end of our first year of operation, that had smoothed out substantially. And since, we've enjoyed a very cooperative and warm relationship with Washtenaw County."

From the beginning, the court has had an exceptionally good relationship with its funding unit, the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees.

His first job out of law school was with Model Cities Legal Services working for

Nancy Wheeler Francis. Then he went into private practice with Henry and Clyde Ritchie as an associate, then a partner with Henry Ritchie, then he opened his own practice on Packard across from Ypsilanti High School.

In 2008, on the same night the country elected Barrack Obama, Pope defeated Washtenaw County Assistant Prosecutor John Reiser in his bid for 14-B District Court Judge, as Collins retired.

Pope is running unopposed in the November election.

"Six years ago (campaigning) was very exciting, very nerve-wracking, and a lot of fun," he said. "Now that it's over ? to not have to go through that again is a tremendous relief."

Experience helped the transition to the bench

His 24 years as a magistrate were useful to his job as judge, which made for an easy transition. He already had an intricate knowledge of the township, issues, problems, and people. And he was used to making decisions immediately after a hearing as a magistrate, which is useful in a single judge court with no research attorney on staff.

"I have found as a judge that as long as I take time ahead of time to study my files-and I always do-and to be prepared every time I walk into the courtroom, it's not that hard to make a decision immediately after hearings," he said.

He sometimes feels a bit isolated out in the Civic Center, but that's lessened by the fact that a highly cooperative group of colleagues sit on the bench in Washtenaw County. The district judges meet every month, for instance, and they share the preliminary examination docket at the service center. With the concurrent jurisdiction plan, judges are all cross-assigned, meaning they can legally hear each other's cases without needing a formal assignment from the state court administrative office.

"We have a very interactive and collaborative bench in Washtenaw County, which I'm very thankful for," he said.

Though Pope could take five weeks of vacation each year, he never takes more than three, and never for more than a week at a time because of the complications that could arise in the one-judge court.

In his absence, Magistrate Mark Nelson will do search warrants, arraignments, and work that must be done every day.

"I really do love this work, and I feel like in a way, I was made for it," he said. "I really enjoy the fact that every single day is different from the day before, so it doesn't get boring for me. And I like contact with the public."

He's not the only one who likes it there. Four others at the court have been with him from the beginning 30 years ago: His secretary, Jackie McClain; court reporter/secretary Jackie Wallen; civil division senior clerk Denise Roe; and probation secretary LaTina Roy. The entire staff numbers 12, not including two part-time bailiffs.

Sports fan; family man

Pope and his wife, Carol, who is retired from her longtime job at the Dixboro General Store, have two daughters. Julie, 25, graduated with a degree in education from Eastern Michigan University, and is thrilled that she'll soon have her first classroom of fifth graders at a charter school in Plymouth. Rebecca, 19, is an occupational therapy student at Western Michigan University.

Pope is a lifelong Tigers fan who attends 20 games a year. This season has been particularly special because he caught not one but two foul balls from his seat in Section 218 in the mezzanine which is too high and far for most balls to land.

"I went 64 years dreaming of that day, and then it happened twice in the same year," said Pope, who is also a Michigan football fan.

The first ball was hit by Ian Kinsler's first time at bat on opening day March 31. It flew slowly and directly to Pope, who caught it easily.

J.D. Martinez's fast curve ball on Aug. 15 was a bit more challenging when Pope caught it in the middle of his two hands. But then it bounced out, hit the seat to his left, bounced forward, hit a guy in the nose as he turned around, then bounced back under the seat next to Pope, who grabbed it.

Next goal: Getting those baseballs signed by Kinsler and Martinez.

In the meantime, Pope is proud of the success of the 14-B District Court he helped create. Which is not to say there haven't been those moments.

"Over 30 years, there are times the economy's going really strong, and I think to myself: "Geez, if I was only in private practice I could really be making some big bucks," he said. "And then there's times the economy is really down, and I just hug this building and thank God I work for the government. It rolls both ways."

All in all, he considers it an honor to be in his position.

"I have a good job in the community where I'm in the position to do some good and doing a lot of outreach in the community," he said. "I've never really wanted to do anything else, to be honest with you. And I'm happy to be able to finish out my career here."

Pope can now see that when the court was just taking off under his guidance, he was responsible for too many functions to the point where it would have been difficult if something had happened to him.

The day finally came when that was no longer true, and that's certainly the case today, he said.

"We're a staff, we're a team, we're an institution now, and it'll go on long after I've left here," Pope said. "And that's a good feeling."

Published: Thu, Aug 21, 2014