Newest 61st District Court Judge Ayoub brings deep-thinking demeanor to bench

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The latest addition to the 61st District Court bench, Nicholas Ayoub, is a reflective person with a deep commitment to his belief in the rule of law.

Though he downplays the role his undergraduate study of philosophy at Western Michigan University plays currently, Judge Ayoub clearly has always had an inclination towards thinking a lot about his own actions and, now, the context of his judicial career.

“My degree is just in political science, but I took a track that allowed me to focus more on the philosophical side of things and particularly within the legal system,” he says.

His concern with the legal system in all its varieties is a strong theme. “I think there’s a real concern that the judiciary is being more and more perceived as just a third political branch – that judges are nothing but political actors and that they’re outcome driven in their legal reasoning and legal rulings,” he says. “That’s not the way it should be, and I really think that is not the reality.”

Ayoub, whose father was a Lebanese immigrant, is an Illinois native who moved to Grand Rapids when he was in second grade, after which his dad started a medical products company. Ayoub attended Ottawa Hills High School. There he had a couple of experiences that shaped his thought and, ultimately, his desire to become a lawyer.

“I was always interested in history,” he says. “Unfortunately we didn’t have a ‘We the People’ program at Ottawa Hills, but if there were opportunities to do a bit of extra study on constitutional history, I?always did. I had an AP History teacher, Ted Peters, who was really inspiring. He always found ways to explore beyond what was in the textbook. He’s somebody I would look to as guiding my path to the decision to pursue law.”

The other influence was participating in Boys State between his junior and senior years. Sponsored by the American Legion (and there is a separate Girls State sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary), the program encourages students to learn about becoming citizens by participating in hands-on activities, in Ayoub’s case held at Michigan State University in Lansing.

“At Boys State, you put together a mock state government. I ended up as the public defender in my ‘county.’ We challenged all the way up to the Boys State Supreme Court,” Judge Ayoub says says with a smile. “We made constitutional arguments, applying the law. At the time I was thinking a lot about how government works, the restrictions on government and the structure of the American system, and we put all that together in practice.?That experience really kind of guided me that way, toward a career in the law.”

However, Judge Ayoub has another passion outside of his love of the law. He is a pianist and musician who plays as often as he can; his bands cover a number of genres including what he calls the American songbook. In an interview on the web page of Hewson VanHellemont, where Ayoub practiced immediately before his appointment by Gov. Snyder in December, there is the following:

“What are you passionate about personally? What do you really enjoy? What can’t you stop talking about?

Music and theology.

Where can we find you when you are not working? What’s your favorite way to spend a weekend or a Sunday afternoon?

Working at the piano bar! Sunday afternoon, though, is reserved for the family (unless it’s a really hot gig).”

Judge Ayoub added to his story about Boys State, “When I got there, I thought, I just have to find the music building – I don’t know what I’m going to do for a week. But then I?got completely involved and pretty much forgot about music for a while. I just kind of ate it up.”

He followed that fascination by going on, after graduating from Western, to receive his Juris Doctor from Detroit College of Law (now called Michigan State University College of Law).

After that, he spent two years as a research attorney with the Michigan Court of Appeals, where he developed a love of legal research and analysis.

Between the COA and Hewson Van Hellemont, he was a civil litigator with Wheeler Upham for ten years, working on the defense side of insurance claims. “Wheeler Upham was a great place to work. They’re wonderful people,” Judge Ayoub says. “I look back at Wheeler Upham and all the mentoring and education I got there; I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And we had great discussions in the lunchroom,” he adds, smiling.

He also practiced briefly with Dale Sprik and Associates, in part because he thought working on the plaintiff side would mean more time in court, but when he discovered it did not, he moved on to Hewson Van Hellemont. The larger firm allowed him to focus on appellate litigation and legal research.

Did Ayoub always want to be a judge? “No...I think I can say no,” he says, reflecting. “I always liked being free from any constraint about what we want the outcome to be. I enjoy the legal question, looking at a situation and asking, what does the law say?

“I think a good judge has to be a student. But you have to recognize that the parties probably know more about the case and even about the nuances of a particular substantive legal area. But the judge has to remove the advocacy from it and find what the answer is. I came to see that as an attractive role as the years went on,” he adds.

Judge Ayoub feels very strongly that partisanship should play no part in judicial decisions. “I’d been involved in politics a little bit, in the local Republican party. But now I would say I’m not a partisan. I’m civic-minded.

Judge Ayoub’s appointment filled the spot created when former 61st District Court Judge Christina Elmore was elected a judge of the 17th Circuit Court. He will have to run for election in November 2020.

“So much of what judges do is supposed to be by nature independent of the political system,” he comments. “So I find the way we elect judges is kind of a strange way to do it. What can you tell the electorate? Hopefully everyone wants to be a Rule of Law judge..”

“Most of substantive law exists by virtue of statute. Probably the principal skill in law is the law of grammar. We’re given the law and need to apply it as written. Ambiguities exist certainly, so often, you’re a grammarian.”

Judge  Ayoub is excited about drug and other specialty courts, even though he does not know what role he will eventually fill at the 61st. He says, “We have this unique opportunity with the rise of specialty courts. What you have are folks with a lot of problems that don’t lend themselves to traditional solutions. It’s an exciting time to be joining the district court as we take a second look at what we have done and what we could be doing – moving away from traditional approaches and embracing the non-traditional to solve community problems.”

The new judge has long been involved in many professional and community organizations, including the Michigan Defense Trial Council Association, the State Bar Civil Procedures and Courts Committee, the Michigan Supreme Court Advocate’s Guild, the Federalist Society, Grand Rapids Circle Theatre, and Opera Grand Rapids.

But as he learns to become a judge, Ayoub says he will probably concentrate on St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, where he and his wife have served as youth group advisors.

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