Detroit-area judge says 'Supreme Court needs me' Langford Morris offers experience beyond the bench

By Ed White

Associated Press Writer

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. (AP) -- Denise Langford Morris had found her niche. Long before becoming a lawyer, she appeared in Detroit courts as a state caseworker, testifying and presenting evidence to remove children from troubled homes.

Morris looked around and saw attorneys handling other cases. Friends said she needed a challenge. Next stop: law school.

Decades later, she's now a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court with experience as a prosecutor, a lawyer in private practice and, for 18 years, an Oakland County judge, the first black jurist on the circuit bench.

Morris, 56, is promising civility on the state's highest court, something definitely lacking among liberal and conservative justices the past two years. Self-confidence? That's not a problem.

"The Supreme Court needs me," Morris declares before listing the diversity of cases she has presided over in Michigan's second-largest county. "They could use a good trial judge at the appellate level. I hear every area you can think of."

Most judges and lawyers, she says, "could only dream" of her experience.

For a candidate nominated by the Democratic Party, Morris carries some contradictions. She was first made a judge by a Republican, Gov. John Engler, in 1992.

She subsequently made campaign contributions to Engler, and, in 1996, to Robert Young Jr., who was running for the appeals court, according to public records kept by Practical Political Consulting of East Lansing.

Now, 14 years later, Young is an unflinching conservative Supreme Court justice -- and Morris' opponent in the Nov. 2 election. She can't recall donating to Young but acknowledges supporting Engler. She notes that she also gave to President Barack Obama's Democratic campaign for the White House.

"When you're running in Oakland County, you have to get out and be seen. You don't get free tickets" to political events, Morris said of GOP fundraisers.

Morris and the other Supreme Court candidates won't carry a party affiliation on the ballot, and she won't say if she's a Republican or Democrat.

"When people walk in courtrooms, they don't come in with an 'R,' a 'D,' an 'I,'" Morris says. "You follow the law, whatever the rule of law is, and impose the law. It's not a personality contest."

The Democratic Party is satisfied. Morris "never puts a political agenda ahead of the law," spokesman John Tramontana said.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the Detroit native talked about her background as a teen mom at Cass Technical High School -- "I missed two days my senior year" -- to working woman pursuing two degrees at Wayne State University and, later, a law degree.

Morris worked at Sears and handled billings for a medical office, earning money to put herself through school. She says her father, a tool-and-die maker for 47 years, believed "once you were married you were on your own."

It was her seven years at the Michigan Department of Human Services, formerly the Department of Social Services, that set Morris on her career path. She counseled adults but switched to children, stepping into troubled homes in every community in Wayne County.

"I would perform the investigation, make thousands of phone calls," Morris says. "I would prepare the petitions, if necessary, meet the crack mother at Children's Hospital, put the baby in foster care, then use my master's degree to rehabilitate the family.

"I was in court on a regular basis with lawyers who worked at Juvenile Court," she says. "They all encouraged me to go to law school."

Her first job was as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County, north of Detroit. She subsequently turned to private practice, then resumed government work in 1989 as an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit handling civil cases.

In 1990, Morris was a founder of the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association, a group of minority lawyers, named after the first black attorney to appear before the Michigan Supreme Court. A goal was to get a black judge on the Oakland County Circuit Court. Two years later, Engler tapped her for a vacancy.

"The county looked rather ridiculous," Morris says. "People felt with that many African-American defendants coming through the system, you would have one (black judge) at the felony level."

Vicky Valentine, a lawyer for 12 years, has appeared in Morris' court in business disputes. She says the judge is not swayed by special-interest groups.

"She lets us put our case in. She doesn't have a knee-jerk reaction," Valentine says. "It's important to have the perspective of a trial judge when you're on the Supreme Court and ruling on things that seem distant. A transcript just can't do it."

Democrats have a 4-3 majority on the court. With two seats at stake, the margin could grow or conservatives could regain power. Morris declined to offer an opinion on the court's performance, saying, "I haven't studied their substantive decisions."

Democratic Party leaders have criticized conservative justices as foes of average Michigan residents. Morris says the choices for voters shouldn't be framed that way.

"I don't believe you should rule against the little guy, the working guy, all the time or rule for them all the time," she says. "People should count on me to be fair. They should count on me to be civil."

Published: Mon, Oct 11, 2010