New U.S. Court Western District Clerk brings Navy, DOJ experience to bear

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– PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS DORWIN


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Clerk of the Court for federal courts has a great deal of responsibility in an important system. New Clerk Thomas L. Dorwin has an interesting and varied background that has readied him for the challenge.

Dorwin took over January 11 as Clerk at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

For Dorwin, that means coming home.

“I was born at Butterworth Hospital,” he says. He grew up in Cedar Springs, but from there his career took him all around the world.

Right after graduating from Cedar Springs High School, Dorwin enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After serving for six years, he thought that was a closed chapter, so he used his college funding to obtain a business degree from Grand Valley State University.

The job market was still slow in West Michigan when he graduated in the late 1980s, so he decided to attend University of Detroit Mercy Law School. In the course of receiving his J.D., he clerked summers at Denenberg Tuffley law firm and at Detroit Edison.

As fate would have it, he was speaking with a recruiter and mentioned that he had been in the Navy. The recruiter suggested that he re-enlist, noting that Dorwin was already about one-third of the way toward retirement.

“I re-enlisted in my second year of law school, and I knew all along I wanted to go into the JAG Corps,” Dorwin says, “but here’s a funny story about that. It was 1993, and that’s the year the film A Few Good Men came out. I knew it was competitive to get in already, but after that, it seemed like everybody wanted to be in the JAG Corps. In the whole history of the world, there’s never been a movie about the Navy JAG Corps, but when I’m about to apply there it was. And the number of applications that year was way up — Tom Cruise really made it look great.

“I got in, and it really was great,” he adds.

Starting out as a trial attorney, Dorwin says there was a lot of camaraderie among the JAG Corps lawyers. “It really was a very collegial atmosphere. We were strong advocates in the court when we had cases, but when that was done we all got along. It sort of reminds me of what I’ve observed so far about the Western District,” he says.

He served on a nuclear aircraft, at sea; in Iraq from 2005 to 2006; and after that in Japan until 2009. He also received his master’s degree in transnational law from Temple University in 2009.

Over time, Dorwin also took on administrative roles with the Navy, which stood him in good stead on the path to his current position.

When his stint in the Navy was over, Dorwin worked briefly as General Counsel to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians before accepting a position with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Dorwin’s DOJ work initially was on a joint project with the State Department for something called the Civilian Response Corps. The CRC is a group of U.S. employees and, at times, private-sector volunteers who help countries in crisis, often war-torn countries, to rebuild and become stable.

“The idea,” Dorwin explains, “was that they would get people like me who had been in conflict zones, and who had some experience with international law to work in struggling countries and sort of facilitate this notion of justice, at least as our part of it. We looked at the courts, we looked at prosecution and defense, and made sure the rule of law was properly implemented in transitional countries. I did that for about two-and-a-half years.”

The program, which is now run out of the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, gradually “morphed to become more State-Department-driven,” Dorwin says, so he moved into the Fraud Section of the DOJ’s Criminal Division.

“The Fraud Section deals with advanced economic crime, which is a very specialized area. It does include cyber crime, working with what we call CSIP [Cybersecurity Strategy Imple-

mentation Plan], but for the most part it involves banks, trading problems, that kind of crime — for example, crimes falling under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” he explains.

Dorwin wound up as the 200-person section’s Director for Administration and Manage-

ment, overseeing support functions, acting as a liaison with law enforcement and other departments, and advising the Criminal Division’s senior management.

He notes that, despite spending much of his career as a trial attorney, administration and management have often been a part or all of his responsibilities, preparing him for the Clerk position.

“In the Fraud Section job, I dealt with forensic accountants, a large paralegal staff, and other contracted employees. We had a large budget, and I dealt with the logistical aspects of the section. When I started we had 96 attorneys, when I left it was pushing 125,” he explains.

“But in the back of my mind I always wanted to get back to Michigan,” Dorwin says. “My mother, my siblings, and my cousins and uncles and aunts still live here. My wife’s family has a farm up in Montcalm County. So when I saw the opening, I applied.

“I asked around about the Western District and everyone just had very good things to say. Chief Judge [Robert] Jonker has an excellent reputation, nationwide. So when they offered me the job it was easy to say yes.”

For his part, Chief Judge Jonker states, “Mr. Dorwin is obviously very well-credentialed for the job. It’s not easy to work through a selection process like this and wind up as a unanimous first choice candidate. But Tom did.”

Dorwin already finds the position rewarding, and enjoys his relationship with the judges, especially Jonker. 

Moreover, he says, “I inherited a very well running organization here. I’ve been involved with some organizations in my career that weren’t always firing on all cylinders, but that is not the case here. That’s a credit to Tracy [Cordes, whose position he filled], and especially my deputy clerk, Michelle Benham.

“Michelle was acting clerk after Tracy left, and she did a wonderful job. I was fortunate that when I stepped in here she had not only been the chief deputy before that, but she had done this job. I talk to her every day  and it just makes the process very much easier to have someone who’s so experienced.”

The Clerk of the Court, under 28 U.S.C. § 956, has responsibilities for all administrative duties including financial and personnel matters, budget preparation and submission, policy procedure recommendations, liaison with the public, and facilities management.

“We have facilities in Grand Rapids, one in Lansing, one in Kalamazoo and one in Mar-

quette. That is a challenge frankly because like all of us in government we’re being asked to take a look at our space allocations and reduce our footprint where we can, as Congress has asked us to do,” Dorwin comments.

While he notes that being an attorney is not a statutory requirement for the  position, Dorwin feels it is a plus. “I guess it might be a little self-serving, but I think being an attorney is helpful. I understand different perspectives, the needs of litigants, the needs of the public, maybe in a way that I wouldn’t if I didn’t have that experience,” he says.

Working with Chief Judge Jonker, Dorwin has already made a change in which department heads report to him, but he will move cautiously with additional changes. “My goal is to learn more about the people and the processes here.  I’ve only been here a few weeks, but I’m open to working on maximizing the capabilities of this great staff, and I can see other opportunities coming down the line. But it’s not as if there’s anything lacking now, so I don’t know exactly what form any of this is going to take.”

One change Dorwin is anxious to see personally is his family joining him here. For now, his wife Cheryl has stayed behind in Woodward, Va., so their oldest son, David, can finish out his senior year in high school. The rest of the family, including a boy and a girl who are also in high school, will move to West Michigan after David’s graduation, and Dorwin says, “I’m really looking forward to that.”

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