Historical Perspective Commitment to public service continues to drive area judge

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By Christine L. Mobley
Legal News
 

Call it an innate sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself. Call it a duty to do something more.

Whatever the label, Brian MacKenzie has plenty of it.

A member of the Oakland County 52-1 District Court bench for more than 22 years, MacKenzie boasts a belief that everyone has a moral responsibility to contribute to society and should actively participate in the political process.

“I collect American flags because I love the country,” MacKenzie says with a smile while glancing about his chambers with its many patriotic emblems prominently displayed throughout.
He animatedly discusses the democratic process and declares America as “the first great democracy” and how it has evolved into a beacon of hope for those invested in the ideals of liberty and freedom.

When asked when this love of country developed, MacKenzie simply states that he’s never known a time when he hasn’t felt this way. Always the avid reader, he recalls history being one of his early academic interests.

“I love the fact that America is one of the few, perhaps the only, country where you get to be an American simply by agreeing to the concept,” he says. “There is something unique about America in that you don’t have to be born here – you don’t have to look like any other particular person – in order to be an American.”

In abiding by his oath to follow the letter of the law, MacKenzie says that while he may not always agree with the decision as an individual, he does as a judge.
“Hopefully that produces justice the vast majority of the time,” he says.

MacKenzie made reference to an exchange between the characters of Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks) and Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington) in the 1993 movie “Philadelphia.” In that film, a man with AIDS (Beckett) is fired by a Philadelphia law firm purportedly because of his condition. He then hires a homophobic small time lawyer (Miller) as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit. During a courtroom exchange, Beckett testified about his love for the law:

“It’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done,” Beckett says. “That really is quite a thrill when that happens.”

For Judge MacKenzie, the statement is particularly telling.

“There aren’t many jobs where you can say that,” MacKenzie notes of the exchange. “I have one of them and on some days I walk out of this building knowing that I’ve made someone’s life different in a way that improves it or has improved it at the same time I’ve made the area and the people that I serve safer. There’s a real profound satisfaction to that.”

He recognizes the downside is if he makes a “bad decision and it goes the other way. That’s a scary thought,” he says.

“What drives me on this job, and frankly has driven my every effort in this court, is the idea that you can effectively sentence people and in doing that you can make society safer and the individual’s life better. I believe the basic thing that people want from me as a judge is to stop the criminal behavior that’s occurring in the individual that’s in front of me – that doesn’t necessarily mean punish. It means they want to be safe.”

As a judge, he has been instrumental in the creation of the district court’s decade-old Sobriety Court and its fledgling Veterans Court, which began this past January and celebrated its first graduation September 21.

Judge MacKenzie currently serves as the American Bar Association’s National Highway Traffic and Safety Association (NHTSA) fellow. He spends his time in that role discussing what are known nationally as DWI Drug Courts – or Sobriety Courts as they are known in Michigan.

He is also the past president of the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals.

“From a philosophical standpoint, I am a judge who believes in evidence-based sentencing, which is a very new approach to sentencing folks,” MacKenzie notes. “That’s a controversial philosophy in some ways, but if the goal is to make an individual change their behavior so that they’re no longer being arrested...they’re no longer causing disruption to the rest of us...endangering us, then the goal should be that; rather than worrying exactly what it is that brought them to you.

“I’m always looking for things to teach me how to be a better sentencing judge.”

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