Drain ready to assume new role on U.S. District Court

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Photo by Steve Thorpe

Judge is assembling a staff and adjusting to the federal system

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Judge Gershwin Drain is probably grateful that his parents weren’t big fans of Tchaikovsky or Rostropovich.

“My parents liked George and Ira Gershwin,” says Drain, who was just confirmed to U.S. District Court. “I really didn’t like the name growing up because it was so unusual. But the older I got, the more I liked it.”

President Barack Obama nominated Drain to the post in November 2011 and his confirmation had been delayed since a 10-6 vote in his favor on the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. Some Republican committee members questioned Drain’s past writings on the death penalty and gun control.

“The Republicans called me ‘controversial’ because of an anti-death penalty article I had written,” he says. “I told them that I have to follow the law and apply it. I also wrote an article called ‘I Have a Dream of Non-violence’ in which I said critical things about the NRA. That became an issue, too. Those who hadn’t said or written anything tended to go through smoothly.”

Drain’s parents may have believed that naming him after famous composers would give him a creative, musical bent, but he found himself increasingly attracted to the law. And the small Catholic high school he attended in Detroit gave him an early opportunity to shine both academically and athletically as he moved toward that goal.

“The city of my childhood had a lot of small Catholic schools,” Drain says. “Students like myself, because the schools were so small, had opportunities we might not have had at a large public school. I’m not a great athlete, but I did real well in the small environment of St. Gregory. We were Class C and that meant you could play all the sports … football, basketball, track. That led to additional opportunities. For example, I was able to get a football scholarship to Western Michigan University. That scholarship might not have come if I hadn’t been able to stand out in the smaller environment.”

He also found himself thrust into leadership roles in a school where everybody knew everybody.

“I was also president of my senior class. In a different environment with a bigger class, that might not have happened either.”

A confirmed family man, Drain is proud that both of daughters are now successful attorneys.

“I have two daughters, one in the area and one out of state,” he says. “The oldest one works for Kym Worthy. The other daughter graduated from U-M Law School and works for an organization called the American Council of Life Insurers.”

Drain knows that he’ll have to get up to speed quickly on the changes in his new job.

“There’ll be a difference in the types of cases that I handle,” he says. “In the circuit court, we were divided up into divisions. I was in the Civil Division for 12 years and the Criminal Division, plus Recorders Court, for about 13 years. You only did one thing at a time. Here, I’m actually looking forward to handling criminal and civil at the same time.”
And, of course, basic logistics and personnel issues will initially eat up a lot of his time. 

“The biggest challenge right now for me is getting a staff together,” Drain says. “As soon as I got confirmed, I got sworn in as soon as possible. Judge Rosen did that on Aug. 13. Then the challenge will be to get acclimated to the federal system versus the state.”

He is enjoying some of the small perks of the job, like a fancier, more sophisticated phone system.

“I was talking to one of my colleagues last evening about adjusting to a new phone and computer. I was telling him about all the buttons we have on our phones here and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re barely able to get a dial tone over in the circuit.’”

So, what single thing does he look most forward to about the new job?

“This will sound funny, but I most look forward to not having to campaign and run for office,” Drain says. “I like being a community minded person and being involved in the community, but I really don’t like campaigning.”

He also thinks that being a federal judge will prolong his career.

“I look forward to not being term-limited. In the state system, once you hit 70 you can’t run again,” he says. “But here, in federal court, once you get to a certain point you can go on senior status. Then, really, you can stay as long as you want. I’m really looking forward to that. I like being a judge, I like the work and I like that there’s a lot more longevity to the position.”

In addition to eventually coming to like his unusual first name, the judge has maintained an affection for the musical genre.

“I still like jazz now,” he says. “I recently even bought the postal service’s commemorative stamps of jazz greats.”

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