Judge finds plenty of humor in his years spent in court

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 Kathryn and Judge John L. Conover co-authored a book of humorous and “Off-Balance” stories from his 22 years on the 67th District Court bench. They pose with a poster of hte book’s cover.

PHOTO BY PAUL JANCZEWSKI

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

District Judge John L. Conover has written a book that combines Midwestern sensibilities, self-deprecating humor, and more than 40 years of legal knowledge. But this is not some legal tome that contains court statistics, judicial lessons, and holier-than-thou stories. And the title says it all in two simple words.

“Off-Balance.”

Conover, 72, admits the title came from his wife, and co-author, Karen.

Actually, she said, it has several meanings. Part of it comes from the scales of justice. 

“It seems that no matter how hard you try in a courtroom setting, it’s always a little bit hard to hit that balance,” Karen Conover said. “Then I realized there are so many people who come to court who are not quite balanced, either them or their lives.” 

Through the years, she’s learned that her husband’s responses to certain situations in court “are so funny, and that just makes an off-balance situation just a little bit different.”

Years ago, Conover kept notebooks handy to jot down the humorous and offbeat situations he’s encountered in court. He did some of that while

a practicing attorney, too. He said he developed that sense

of humor from his father,

who always found a thread of humor despite how bad things got during the Depression, money problems, or personal tragedy.

Eventually, Conover’s notebooks stacked up to about 18 inches. And these were the legal sized large notebooks, dozens of those, filled out on every line. Over the years, Conover gained a reputation for not only his compassion in court, but also for his ability to ferret out truth and administer a quick decision. 

His reputation for mixing in humor soon landed him speaking engagements for all types of groups, from social and community clubs, to school kids, legal groups, and law enforcement circles.

“I quickly learned that people don’t want to hear about crime, they want to laugh,” said the 67th District Court judge. “They don’t want to hear about my accomplishments.”

So he began using the stories he’d gathered in the notebooks for his speaking engagements, tailoring just the right stories for a particular group.

But several years ago, when Conover began approaching his aged-out retirement date, he and Karen decided to write a book, using many of the stories he’s gathered over the years.

The result is Off-Balance, a 187-page book containing more than 170 of his favorite stories.

“In a lot of these stories, John’s the brunt of it,” said Karen. “He’s just as quick to poke fun at himself, he knows his own weaknesses, and he knows that it can be very funny.”

Conover’s background explains a lot about the man, and the judge, he’s become. He grew up in a small community in Illinois brimming with blue-collar ethics. It was a hard-working place, where people had little tolerance for braggarts, pompous attitudes, or slackers. Money, fancy titles, and big words carried little weight in these circles. Common sense did.

Conover explained it best in the book’s introduction, and in a recent interview.

He said he lives his legal life suspended and blended between a vision of Norman Rockwell America, in Davison, and Flint, often labeled as among the most violent cities in America. 

“An attorney once told me that I live in a world of white picket fences, mowed lawns, a place where kids play safely, and families go to church on Sundays,” he said.

“One day, I might be hearing cases on simple misdemeanors,” Conover said. “Then, when I go to the downtown Flint district court the following day, I’m facing cases of horrendous suffering, children being tortured and killed, or motorcycle methamphetamine gang cases.”

Conover says his district encompasses “a microcosm of America itself.” In one area, people live in relative peace, modest prosperity and have safe schools. But drive a few minutes away and one finds “a dank, crumbling” community riddled with failure, high unemployment, and poverty.

When they decided to write the book, Karen took all those notebooks and used her skills to put those stories into a readable form. She spent her entire career as a teacher, and has been a member of the Davison school board for many years.

“He always looks for the positive,” Karen said. “He‘s always loved his job, from the minute he became a lawyer right on through being a judge.”

Conover says he tries to make people, no matter the current circumstance, feel better about themselves.

“I try to give them courage,” Conover said. “You can’t throw an anchor to people who are already being weighed down by big anchors.” 

The book was self-published, and costs about $20. Conover plans to spend the next year marketing the book by going to numerous book fairs, club meetings, and groups. He is also having a book unveiling at his December 4 retirement open house in Davison. Anyone can also order the book at his website, www.judgeconover.

com, and request a personalized signed copy.

They decided to forgo seeking a national publisher “because our audience is here,” Karen said. “This is where we want to sell and promote the book.” 

But it’s already a hit in some circles. Conover passed out a few to a local barber in Davison to sell, but found that customers like to read it while waiting for haircuts. “And my hunting buddies all have copies in the bathroom,” he joked.

The book is dedicated to their two grown children, Bree and Chad, their spouses, and the couple’s six grandchildren.

Local officials have endorsed the book as well. Fr. Andrew Czajikowski, a local Catholic priest, wrote that “truth really is stranger (and funnier) than fiction.” Davison Police Chief William P. Brandon said the book contains “two decades of real life law enforcement stories that have you shaking your head, but also laughing out loud.”  And Genesee County Sheriff Robert J. Pickell said Conover is known as “a street-tough jurist, smart, compassionate caring and no-nonsense,” but this book also shows him as “a great humorist.”

Some of the stories point out what Conover often said in court to defendants – “What in the world were you thinking?” Not out of  “legal curiosity” but out of “sheer amazement.” Like the defendant who stood up and identified himself to a sight-impaired victim on the witness stand. Or the robbery suspect who dressed in all black to make his getaway into the night woods but wore sneakers that lit up with every step. Or the defense attorney who presented pictures in court of his client’s vehicle adorned with “Elect Conover” bumper stickers.

How about the woman who appeared in court for sentencing who tried to elicit sympathy by bringing two small children with her? Except the kids belonged to a neighbor. Or the defendant, representing himself, who wanted a change of MENU.

Many stories poke fun at Conover himself, or the Keystone cops stories that unravel in court. Such as the officer who tasered himself. Or the time Conover and a sheriff made their rounds on a long day campaigning at local parades and found themselves in Shiawassee County, miles out of their election districts. Or when Conover’s election ploy to hire a plane towing a banner overhead with his name flew over the wrong county.

Conover said many of the defendants were “more dopey than daring, more stupid than diabolical,” and has had many more who may be “Mensa Society rejects.”

The book can be devoured in a single day, or savored by reading a few snippets when the mood strikes and you need a quick laugh.

“I just try to kill everybody with kindness,” Conover said.