Imagine you are the second-longest serving district court judge in the state of Michigan–you have some 35 years sitting as a district judge. When you last ran, the bar association in your county gave you a rating of “exceptionally well qualified.”
Then on January 16, 2008, the executive director of the state’s Judicial Tenure Commission–an agent of the Michigan Supreme Court–comes to your office unannounced, accompanied by an armed State Police Officer, tells you that you have until 9 a.m. the following morning to resign. The charge is that you have vacated your office by moving out of your district. You are presented a letter of your resignation, prepared on your office stationary, and told that either you sign and resign or your name will be dragged through the mud. And the mud will be charges of sexual harassment. You said something inappropriate at an after-hours party about a female staffer’s chest size. You had apologized. But there is more: there are two doodles, one of breasts, perhaps, and the other of something that is perhaps phallic. The latter had been on a note that was tossed in the trash, not sent to anyone. There is no proof that you drew them, but there is a supposition.
And this agent of the Michigan Supreme Court, Paul Fischer by name, threatens you. He promises you the Court will, upon his filing the papers, have you removed from the bench. Guaranteed, he says.
That’s what happened to 63rd District Court Judge Steven Servaas. There has been much ado about the case. The Grand Rapids Press followed it day by day, assiduously. Reporters John Tunison, Barton Deiters and others did a stupendous job. And we know quite a bit about the encounter between Mr. Fischer and Judge Servaas because the accompanying State Police Detective Lieutenant, Curt Schram, kept a small pocket recorder running throughout the office visit. And this is the 16 minutes of the conversation:
After the encounter, Mr. Fischer went of to speak with Judge Sara Smolenski, the Chief Judge of the District Court (and who had known Mr. Fischer was coming), and was asked (ordered) to remove Judge Servaas’ gun (all legally accounted for and a part of the court security system) from under the bench in the courtroom. There was much made of Judge Servaas’ mental condition and the possibility that he might do himself or others harm.
And, indeed, Judge Servaas name, otherwise unsullied, was dragged through the mud via the assertions of Paul Fischer. The news media reported all sides of the events.
Subsequently, the Judicial Tenure Commission recommended discipline that included removal from office and payment of costs for the investigation.
Truly fascinating in this case was the recording of the entire oral argument before the Justices. Michigan Government TV holds intellectual property rights on it. You can order a copy: you’ll need to specify that the oral arguments were heard March 4, 2009, and this was case in re Servaas, No. 137633. We’ll see if they would give me permission to post it.
In the end–as much an end as you can have in this kind of doing–The Michigan Supreme Court, narrowly recommended only a censure. Here’s the opinion of the Supreme Court.
And here’s an interesting account by the Michigan Lawyer’s Weekly that review the decision. Indeed, Justice Corrigan, Young, and Markman sent Justice Weaver before the JTC, a matter that came to nothing. But another indication of acrimony that existed on the court.
One of the most interesting observations to come out of all of this is the testimony by Mr. Fischer, that about five times a year this kind of thing comes up…and his office quietly handles matters. Does that mean he walks into Judges’s offices, threatens them, and walks out with resignations?
Three questions: If this is the people’s business, don’t we have a right to know about the conduct of our elected or appointed judges?
And, second, how has this guy held on to his job? Justices Weaver and Hathaway wanted a thorough investigation. Hasn’t happened yet.
Third, what motivated this? If you listened to the recording, either at the Grand Rapids Press’ site or here, you might recall that Judge Servaas asked if Supreme Court Administrator Carl Gromek was behind the visit. Why would he think that? It could be that’s where this story begins.