Lasting impact: Retiring judge 'set the bar' for business courts

Just days before the Oakland County Circuit Court closed operations due to the pandemic, Judge James Alexander posed with his staff for a keepsake photo at a March 12 retirement party for Donna Labelle, a legal colleague for the past 30 years.

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As far as first days on the job go, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge James Alexander experienced a doozy.

September 11, 2001 – the day the world came to grips with how terrorism can change our way of life in a heartbeat.

Now, nearly two decades later, Judge Alexander is approaching the end of his judicial career due to reaching mandatory retirement age. The end, much like the beginning, will be etched in historical terms by another form of terror.

“I started on 9/11 and now I will end my career in the midst of a pandemic,” Alexander mused. “How’s that for bookending a career?”

It’s a question better left for philosophers, but there can be no denying that Alexander’s time on the bench has been framed in distinguished terms as well.

For years, Alexander and Wendy Potts were colleagues on the Circuit Court bench. Potts, who retired in 2018 from the Circuit Court after a 21-year career in the judiciary, initially had a hand in Alexander’s ascension to the court.

“Although I encouraged Judge James Alexander to seek a judicial appointment, I wasn’t sure that the transition from high-powered political strategist to judge would be smooth,” said Potts, now one of the principals in the Detroit office of JAMS (Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services). “It turned out that I didn’t have much to be concerned about.

“Judge Alexander became a role model for me and many of my colleagues,” said Potts, former chief judge of the Circuit Court. “His work ethic and commitment to justice has been with him for all his years on the bench. He has been involved in every important statewide judicial committee. His premier accomplishment has been making the Oakland County Business Court one of the finest in the state. His creativity and intelligence have set the bar for how business litigation is conducted. By the way, if you are a friend or family of Judge Alexander, you are very fortunate.”

Alexander and Potts talk almost daily and are part of a Saturday morning breakfast club that sports a decidedly judicial look. The group, which for years has met at a bakery in downtown Birmingham, also includes U.S. District Court Judge Paul Borman and retired Oakland County Circuit Judge Edward Sosnick.

“We do our best each week to solve all the world’s problems,” Alexander said with a smile.

Such a sense of humor is one of Alexander’s endearing – and enduring – qualities. He undoubtedly developed it while working in the political arena during the Engler administration where he rose to the title of director of the governor’s Southeast Michigan office in 1999.

“In effect, we served as the ‘eyes and ears’ for the governor in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties,” said Alexander, a 1970 graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “It was an incredibly interesting job where I had the opportunity to interact with key people on the local, state, and national levels.”

He began forging a bond with the eventual three-term Michigan governor in the late 1980s when John Engler was making a name for himself while serving in the State Senate. It became stronger when Alexander took the reins as chairman of the Oakland County Republican Party in 1988, helping gubernatorial candidate Engler win the key region in the 1990 upset victory over Democratic incumbent James Blanchard.

Alexander’s important role in helping deliver Oakland County to the Engler camp became apparent shortly after the election results were tallied. Noted attorney Henry Baskin made it plainly clear about the discernable power shift.

“I remember running into Henry Baskin near the elevator after the election results had been finalized,” Alexander recalled. “He cracked, ‘Hi, Jim, I’m your new best friend.’”

Alexander whet his political appetite on the other side of the aisle in the late ‘60s, working on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Following Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968, Alexander shifted his political allegiance to Republican hopeful Nelson Rockefeller, who had adopted RFK’s campaign plank opposing the Vietnam War.

“I attended the Republican National Convention in Miami that year and got a real lesson in hardball politics,” Alexander said, referring to Richard Nixon’s rise to GOP power.

He continued his interest and involvement in national politics, attending the Republican Convention in 1980, 1988, 1992, and 2000.

After earning his bachelor of arts in political science from Miami, Alexander enrolled in the University of Detroit School of Law, graduating in 1973. He then worked for several small firms in the Detroit area, handling commercial litigation work before starting his own practice in 1981. He would spend the next decade as a solo practitioner, chiefly involved in commercial collection work for such clients as Henry Ford Hospital, Michigan Bell, and Anthony Franco Public Relations. In 1991, he joined Foster Swift, where he was involved in governmental relations, commercial litigation, and arbitration. He was appointed to the Oakland County Circuit Court by then-Governor Engler in 2001 and was elected to a full six-year term in 2002, winning re-election twice.

Shalina Kumar, chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court, is among many ready to sing Alexander’s praises.

“Judge Alexander has been a tremendous asset to the Oakland County Circuit Court,” said  Kumar. “He served in many leadership roles, including chief judge pro tem, presiding judge of the Family Division, and judge of the Business Court Division. He has been a wonderful colleague and will be greatly missed by both the bench and bar.”

Alexander’s impending retirement, not surprisingly, may offer an array of other legal opportunities, including the possibility of mediation and arbitration work. He also may explore teaching or public policy consulting work, although he ruled out a return to private practice, putting that option in the “been there, done that” category.

Instead, he may well be content in serving as the chief cheerleader for his wife, Lynn, who is senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, which operates 32 senior living communities across the state.

“My wife is a gifted public speaker and has served as a consultant to a number of Fortune 500 companies,” said Alexander. “She was a cabinet member for Governor Engler as the director of the Office of Services to the Aging from 1997 to 2002 and also was appointed as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging. She is an amazing woman who has been a tremendous advocate for senior rights.”

Over the course of his career, Alexander has frequently attended the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, a traditional rite of spring that brings together hundreds of political and business leaders from across the state.

“I probably will be in the running for the most iterations of those who have attended – first as a lawyer, then lobbyist, government official, judge, and now my wife’s spouse,” Alexander winked.

He also could add “proud dad” to the list. The couple’s son, Scott, an alumnus of Western Michigan University, works for the National Collegiate Scouting Association while also serving as an assistant football coach for Carmel High School, the largest public high school in Indiana with more than 5,000 students. He previously was an assistant football coach for Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

“Scott and his wife, Beckie, have blessed us with two grandchildren (Ella and Austin), who we enjoyed seeing with some frequency before the pandemic hit,” Alexander said.

The current health crisis, of course, has made Alexander’s final year on the bench particularly “memorable,” he admitted.

“This isn’t how I scripted my final year to be, but we are making the best of it through the technology initiatives that the court has implemented,” he said. “I’m not sure if I will conduct another jury trial before I leave, which is hard to fathom.”

In the meantime, Alexander hopes he can bid farewell to the bench at a “real going away party,” tentatively scheduled for December 10 at a site yet to be announced.

“Hopefully we will be able to gather in a group of more than 10 by then,” he said. “Leaving will be bittersweet, as I will truly miss my colleagues on the bench, my staff, and all the wonderful people in the legal community that I’ve met over the years. It’s been a great ride, yet I’m ready for the next adventure, whatever that may be.”


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