Judge's career is testament to faith, hard work, good fortune and resilience

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By David Ashenfelter
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

When U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts stands to have her official court portrait presented Friday at a ceremony marking two decades on the federal bench, she no doubt will be thinking about how far she has come since her childhood in Detroit.

"I never envisioned this kind of life for myself," Roberts recalled during a recent interview in preparation for a ceremony that is expected to draw scores of friends, family members and other supporters to the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in downtown Detroit.

"I didn't grow up around professionals or college-educated people," Roberts added. "My world was very small. Back then I didn't know enough to dream. Now, I firmly believe that all things are possible and that dreams can come true."

Roberts' career is a testament to faith, hard work, mentors, good fortune, resilience and a determination to overcome adversity.

Roberts was born in Detroit in 1951, the fifth of seven children of blue collar parents.

Her father was a machine repairman at Great Lakes Steel on Zug Island. Her mother cleaned houses and eventually tagged merchandise at the J.L. Hudson warehouse in Dearborn.

"Neither of my parents finished high school," Roberts said. "But they had a strong work ethic and believed particularly my father in the power of education. It was the route to overcome and the path to success." Her mother obtained her GED in her 40s.

Roberts' parents enrolled her in Catholic schools where she excelled in reading and writing. She penned poetry, short stories and, on one occasion, wrote a play in Latin.

"I read books all of the time and lived in the library bookmobile that rolled down our street on a regular basis," Roberts said.

Roberts graduated as class valedictorian from St. Martin de Porres High School in 1969 and enrolled at the University of Michigan, majoring in journalism and sociology. She paid for college by working in a dormitory cafeteria, obtaining scholarships and loans and working summers at a bank.

She spent two summers writing for the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit and planned to become a journalist after receiving her Bachelor's Degree in 1973.

But an editor at The Detroit News extinguished that dream by telling her during a job interview that, despite her excellent writing portfolio, the newspaper had already hired a black reporter.

She was crushed.

"I left The Detroit News in tears," Roberts said. "It was the first time I had faced such blatant racism. The editor actually was proud that the paper had fulfilled a quota of hiring one black reporter."

A friend who had driven Roberts to the job interview urged her to become a lawyer so she could battle injustice.

And that's what Roberts did.

She enrolled at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, where she studied law and gained valuable legal experience as a student representing black residents who were swept up in volatile racial protests resulting from court-ordered busing to integrate Boston's segregated schools in 1973. She also worked in the law library.

During her final year of law school in 1976, Roberts became a research attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals in Detroit where she screened incoming cases and wrote memoranda recommending how they should be handled. Roberts decided to stay there after receiving her law degree that summer.

In 1977, Roberts joined a prominent and upcoming Detroit law firm and made partner in 1980. She said her male partners terminated her in 1983 and she sued for sex discrimination. While the suit was pending, Roberts worked as a senior litigation attorney for American Motors.

She said she was forced to settle her sex discrimination lawsuit on the eve of trial in 1985 when a federal judge criticized her for suing such prominent male lawyers and threatened to damage her legal career. The threat came the very week she began working as an Assistant United States Attorney a job requiring her to work exclusively in federal court representing the government in civil litigation before the judge and his colleagues.

In 1988, Roberts joined Goodman, Eden, Millender & Bedrosian, a legendary Detroit law firm, and specialized in personal injury cases. She became a partner in 1993 and was promoted to managing partner in 1996.

Along the way, Roberts made valuable connections and forged professional relationships that helped advance her career.

She was president of the Wolverine Bar Association from 1987-88 and served as general counsel of Detroit Mayor-Elect Dennis Archer's Transition Team in 1993-94. In 1996, she became the first and only black female to serve as president of the State Bar of Michigan the governing body for Michigan lawyers.

The same year, the late U.S. District Judge Julian Cook, who had taken an interest in Roberts' career, urged her to apply for a vacancy on the federal bench. Roberts was hesitant but changed her mind virtually at the last minute when Cook sent a law clerk to her office to deliver a judicial application.

Roberts and two other candidates Arthur Tarnow and George Steeh beat out 100 other candidates. President Bill Clinton nominated them in 1998 and the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Roberts appointment. Cook, who died last year, administered her public oath of office and served as her role model and mentor during her years on the bench.

Roberts quickly made her mark.

In 1999, she torpedoed the Michigan Legislature's plan to test all welfare recipients for drugs saying it would constitute an unreasonable search and seizure. Her decision withstood two appeals.

In 2002, she declared that Michigan's internet sex offender registry containing the names and addresses of sex offenders violated the offenders' procedural due process rights. The decision was overturned on appeal.

In 2006, she presided over the criminal trial of former Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga now a circuit judge whom a jury acquitted of swapping prosecutorial favors in exchange for contributions for his unsuccessful 2002 congressional campaign.

The same year, Roberts sentenced former Detroit councilman Alonzo Bates to 33 months in prison for putting friends, relatives and his yardman on the city payroll without requiring them to perform any work. "He was unscrupulous, lacking in integrity and prepared to place his friends above the constituents that he took an oath to represent," Roberts said during sentencing. She also fined him $10,000 and ordered him to pay $91,168 restitution.

In 2011, she presided over the death penalty trial of Timothy O'Reilly. A jury convicted him of murdering an armored car guard during a credit union heist in Dearborn. Jurors spared O'Reilly's life and Roberts sentenced him to mandatory life in prison.

In 2012, Roberts dismissed seditious conspiracy charges against seven so-called Hutaree members whom prosecutors had accused of trying to overthrow the U.S. government from their base in Lenawee County. Roberts said the evidence didn't support the charges.

"I agonized over that ruling and lost sleep," Roberts recalled. "It was difficult to take that case away from the jury, but I believe people should not be subjected to prosecution when there isn't enough evidence."

In 2013, then-Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen asked Roberts to help mediate Detroit's historic municipal bankruptcy. Roberts re-negotiated numerous city collective bargaining agreements over the next 18 months.

In 2016, Roberts sentenced 11 Detroit school principals and other officials to prison terms ranging from six months to three years in prison and ordered them to pay restitution ranging from $4,000 to $194,000 for accepting kickbacks from a school vendor. She sentenced the 74-year-old vendor to 5 years in prison and ordered him to pay $2.7 million restitution for submitting fraudulent invoices.

Last week (Aug. 1, 2018), Roberts added another $552,862 to the restitution bill former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick must pay for his role in a municipal corruption scandal. His bill now exceeds $11.5 million.

Roberts played a role in major court initiatives.

She co-chaired a committee in 2010-12 that examined ways to improve the racial makeup of federal court juries and has led a program the past 18 years to improve the diversity in the selection of summer court interns.

Roberts also initiated major projects in 2017 and 2018: the creation of a clinic staffed by University of Detroit Mercy law students to assist low-income citizens who represent themselves in federal civil suits, and a mediation program to try to quickly resolve civil rights lawsuits filed by Michigan prisoners who represent themselves.

Roberts has received several top honors during her time on the bench, including the State Bar of Michigan's Champion of Justice Award in 1999 and the Roberts P. Hudson Award in 2001. Michigan Lawyers Weekly selected her as "Woman of the Year" in 2013.

Lawyers praise Roberts for her legal ability, fairness and courtroom demeanor.

"She's the best in the building, she's extremely bright," one lawyer said in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary in its 2018 edition. "She runs an excellent courtroom."

Roberts, who has two adult children, said she's looking forward to Friday's portrait unveiling a traditional ceremony to mark a judge's lengthy service to the court. The program begins at 3 p.m. in Room 100 of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse.

Her portrait eventually will hang in a courtroom when Roberts transitions from active to senior semi-retired status.

Although the ceremony has sparked speculation that Roberts may be planning to go on senior status soon, clearing the way for another judge to be appointed to the bench, Roberts said she has no such plans.

"The past 20 years have gone by swiftly and I've enjoyed every moment," Roberts said. "I'd like to think I've made a difference and that I can continue to make contributions ¬ through this position to the law and to this community."

Published: Thu, Aug 09, 2018

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