By Steve Thorpe
Most 14-year-old kids dream about what they'll be when they grow up. Maybe they envisage walking to the plate in the ninth inning of a World Series game and swinging for the fences. The young Kenneth J. King saw himself in a black robe swinging a gavel.
"I recently turned 42. At 14 I decided I wanted to be a judge," says King. "I had no idea what it took to become a judge. I had never even met a judge."
Taking a giant step beyond his original plan, King became chief judge of 36th District Court in January.
"Chief judge was never really part of the plan," King says. "Our former chief judge indicated that she was going to step down. I went to one of our other judges and asked if he was going to go for it. He said, 'Are you kidding me? Why would an old guy like me want that? Why don't you do it?' I thought about it and said to myself, 'Why not take a stab at it?' I started looking at what it takes to be a chief judge and what the responsibilities are. I also thought about things I'd like to implement that would positively affect the court and the people who come here."
Judge King is an All-Detroit, All-Michigan guy, having grown up on the west side of Detroit, attended Michigan State University for a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice and received his law degree from University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
He then worked as a prosecutor, defender and private attorney, all in southeast Michigan, providing a panoramic view of the legal landscape he says has helped him on the bench.
"It's good for a Detroit judge to feel the pulse of the community and know what the issues are," he says. "Everything I've done up to this point has prepared me for what I'm doing now."
He hopes to streamline and modernize 36th District Court, but few doubt he has a steep hill to climb. Including him.
"It's by far the busiest court in the state and one of the busiest in the nation. We have 8,000 people come through our doors every day, with only 31 judges," King says. "The state court administrator's office has indicated that we're operating with five fewer judges than we need. With the current state of the economy, we probably won't see those five judges anytime soon."
And the staffing issues aren't restricted to the bench.
"Today, when we're seeing police being cut, fire being cut, people taking reductions across the board, we've taken them, too. We used to have 500 plus employees, now we're down to somewhere around 340."
But back to that "master plan" King hatched when he was 14. It wasn't restricted to his career choice, but included all the educational preparation and even some "family planning."
"My worldview was so limited at the time that I didn't know what it took to become a lawyer or how long it would take me to get there," he says. "I started researching and found out that first you had to go to a four-year institution. I got a Michigan State course booklet and, while looking through it, I saw a criminal justice program. And I thought, 'Well, I guess I should major in that,' not knowing that's perhaps not the best program to prepare you for law school. So I knew that would be four years. Then I wondered, how long does law school take? I researched and found that would be at least three years. That's seven years after I turn 18, so I should be a lawyer when I'm about 25 or 26. I'll probably get married about 27 and probably have kids between 28 and 30. I'll probably practice a while before I become a judge. I should be a judge by the time I'm 35. I missed it by four months and was 36."
King credits his time as an attorney, especially with the prosecutor's office, with providing him with perspective and experience.
"Being in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is like 'dog years' anywhere else," he says. "You really get thrown into the fray and I enjoyed it. It was probably the best move I made career-wise. I faced some of the county's best attorneys. It helped me with rules of evidence, criminal procedure, all of those things. I was able to bring that with me to the bench."
The only downside King ascribes to the new chief judge job is giving up some of the cherished old job.
"I'm a litigator. I like trying cases," he says. "When I became a judge, I missed trying cases. Becoming chief in January was yet another adjustment because I'm not on the bench as much. I'm still there from time to time because I cover for judges when they're absent or on vacation. This isn't necessarily the job I signed up for. The job I signed up for was being in the courtroom because that's my passion."
The personal side of his grand life scheme has gone as planned, too.
"I have beautiful, wonderful kids, now 15 and 11. They were 'miracle children' because they were both born premature," he says.
King tries to lead by example, both in the courtroom and at home.
"Being a father or a judge you have to be careful how you conduct yourself," he says. "I want to be that role model to my sons that my dad was - and still is - to me."
Does that mean that the father and judge roles tend to get a bit blurred?
"My sons have to live with the judge aspect of my personality every day."
Just be sure you don't perjure yourself to dad.
"I have a knack for sizing people up so I'm sizing them up all the time," King says. "My first rule is don't lie to me. I just don't like it when you lie to me."
Published: Mon, Mar 19, 2012