Unveiling: Federal judge marks milestone on bench at portrait ceremony

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Photos by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The “circle of life” was brought into focus for U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts earlier this month as she celebrated a career milestone – 20 years on the federal bench.

Once an aspiring journalist, Roberts was saluted August 10 during her portraiture unveiling ceremony at the federal courthouse in Detroit, an event that offered the opportunity to reflect on “all of the people, moments, and events” which have impacted her life.

Such an occasion, which came nearly 20 years to the day that she assumed her judicial responsibilities, seemed nothing more than a fanciful dream after Roberts earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in journalism and sociology.

“I went to school expecting to become a journalist,” Roberts told those gathered for the portrait ceremony. “So law school was an after-thought. The journalism dream was shattered when at an interview I was told that the paper had just hired a black reporter.

“I have to give thanks to my ex-husband, Michael Gehrls, himself a law student at the time, who suggested immediately following the interview that I go to law school ‘to fight that kind of injustice.’ Those six words propelled this career,” said Roberts, who received her juris doctor degree in 1976 from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.

Her career, in a word, could best be described as “illustrious,” highlighted as it is with such honors as the Roberts P. Hudson Award and the Champion of Justice Award, the two highest conferred by the State Bar of Michigan. In late September, Judge Roberts will be honored by the State Bar again, this time as the recipient of the Michael Franck Award, presented annually to an attorney who has made “an outstanding contribution to the improvement” of the legal profession.

In 1996, she became the first African-American female to become president of the State Bar, serving in the leadership role while managing the Detroit law firm of Goodman Eden Millender & Bedrosian.

It was there, and as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan, that she impressed U.S. District Judge Julian Cook Jr., who in late 1996 strongly encouraged Roberts to apply for an opening on the federal bench in Detroit.

“Judge Cook told me of the setbacks that he had when he ran his campaign to become an Oakland County Circuit Court judge,” Roberts said at the time of the jurist’s passing in 2017. “In all instances, he waited his turn. He fought for what was right and just. And in return, he experienced a righteousness and a grace in his life that did not come from his own, but it came from his faith. He knew of slights and setbacks and naysayers, both large and small.

“By 1996, after 66 years of living, Julian could certainly take the long view and he shared it with me,” Roberts recalled. “He shared his life of successes and failures, of the odds he had overcome, his persistence, his determination, standing up for what he thought was right, always with a quiet dignity, strength, respect, faith, and hope, of not allowing any man to dictate his destiny.

“And so on December 30th, 1996, on the last day that applications were due, and just before 5 p.m., I submitted mine,” Roberts said.

The anecdotal story from Roberts is symbolic of “how sometimes we have to look at ourselves through someone else’s prism to get the best perspective on ourselves,” she acknowledged.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford, who served as a law clerk for Judge Roberts from 1998 to 2002, can attest to that fact.

“In 1991, when I was a second year law student (at Wayne State University), Victoria hired me to be her law clerk at Goodman Eden Millender & Bedrosian,” Stafford said in her remarks at the unveiling ceremony. “I was very excited to be hired into Goodman Eden, which was the first interracial law firm in the country.

“But I did not know at first that I had been blessed with the fiercest role model, mentor, and advocate that I could imagine,” Stafford related. “I could not see that Victoria would become family to me. But it didn’t take long to realize that, although her stature is small, she leaves the footprints of a giant.”

In her remarks, Stafford recited tributes from some of the staff members and law clerks who have served under Roberts over the past two decades. Among those who expressed a debt of gratitude was James Valbrun, a former law clerk who now heads his own firm in Atlanta.

“From saturating my first bench memo in red correction ink, to helping me land my first private sector gig, you’ve been an outstanding mentor, friend, and guardian angel when I had no one in Michigan,” Valbrun wrote in his salute to Judge Roberts, who received the coveted Dennis W. Archer Award from the Detroit Bar Foundation in 2012.

One of seven children, Roberts graduated in 1969 as valedictorian from St. Martin de Porres, a Catholic school in Detroit that would be “foundational” to her career success. Her parents, Grace and Manuel, migrated from the south to Detroit “without the benefit of high school educations,” searching “for a better life.” Her father landed a job at Great Lakes Steel on Zug Island, where he would work for 35 years. Her mother was a homemaker and cleaned houses before taking a job at the J.L. Hudson warehouse in Dearborn.

“In this family, we learned the benefit of hard work and industry, of rebounding over and over again,” Roberts said, noting that her parents knew intuitively that “education is a path to a different life.”

Her thirst for learning and interest in teaching have taken Roberts to spots around the globe, including Kenya, Malaysia, Nepal, and Serbia. It was in Serbia, a Balkan country racked by an ethnic war in the 1990s, where Roberts got her first taste of international teaching. She was invited there by former Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch, then working on a special assignment for the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the fall of 2016, Lemisch invited Judge Roberts to be part of another U.S. effort abroad, this time in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“We were there to explain the benefits of our plea bargaining system,” related Lemisch, who spent 19 years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office before becoming general counsel for Lakeview Capital Inc. earlier this year. “In Nepal, criminal defendants can spend up to 5 years in jail awaiting trial, which, of course, has serious implications on many judicial and financial fronts.

“Judge Roberts, as is her custom, was compelling and convincing as she told court officials about our plea bargaining program,” said Lemisch. “She didn’t preach. She listened. She understood their concerns, and then carefully explained the benefits of our program and how it functions in our system of justice. Now, I’m pleased to report that the Nepal courts recently adopted plea bargaining as a means of speeding the administration of justice in their country. It wouldn’t have happened without Judge Roberts.”

Lemisch and Magistrate Judge Stafford were among four keynote speakers at the August 10 ceremony. Also offering tributes were Andrew Densemo, an attorney for the Federal Defender Office, and Rodney Sizemore, vice president of the Detroit Police Lieutenants and Sergeants Association.

“Andrew is one of the fiercest defenders I know, and although we have not always agreed, I have the utmost respect for how he approaches his role and represents his clients,” Judge Roberts said of Densemo.

The same could be said for Sizemore, according to Roberts, who served as a mediator in the City of Detroit bankruptcy case.

“I negotiated with Rodney in the bankruptcy case and while our views did not necessary align on a variety of matters, I was impressed with his willingness to compromise for the good of the city and for the long term benefit of those he was representing,” said Roberts.

Now, as she embarks on a 21st year of judicial service, Roberts noted that “there is a path that unwinds in each of our” circles of life.

“I trust so far that I have been on the right one, even though it hasn’t always felt that way,” she said in her closing remarks. “But I’ve learned enough to know that this life I have been given is not my own. I’ve said yes to it. Each moment has been in preparation for the next. This is a life that has been touched by nothing less than miracles, the hand of God, and all of the people-angels who have been placed in my life; so much has been done for me that I could not have done alone, or on my own.”




 

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