Respected judge to take on academic post in the fall

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

 

For years, it’s been no secret that Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Donald E. Shelton would retire from the bench at the end of 2014.

What wasn’t known until last week is that another career is about to begin for Shelton.

The judge announced that he will retire four months earlier than expected to become associate professor and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, beginning the upcoming fall semester.

“He’s going from one big challenging job into another one,” said Trial Court Administrator Dan Dwyer. “Which is exactly what I’d expect from him.”

Dwyer said he’s not a bit surprised that Shelton, who is being aged out of his job on the bench, is moving on to a second career in academia.

“He’s not a guy who’s ever going to go quietly into retirement,” he said. “I’ve never met a person with such a thirst for knowledge, and a thirst for doing something important in the world.”

“How many judges do you know who—at any age, let alone his age—go get their masters, then their PhD, and publish books, all while being chief judge of a large urban court?”

Sitting in his Washtenaw County Courthouse office Friday morning, Shelton said he never thought about retiring in the normal sense.

“The things I do for fun are the things I do for fun,” said Shelton, who has been on the bench for 24 years. “I love to fish. I love to sing. And a lot of other activities. But they’re avocations. I’ve spent most of my life dealing with people and the law, and I’m not ready to stop doing that by any means.

“So much of my life the last 20 years has been involved in academia, that it’s always been my goal when I finish judging to pursue my second love, which is teaching.”

As for age—that’s arbitrary, says Shelton, who will turm 70 in June.

“There are 80-year-old judges who are as sharp as a tack,” he said. “And there are 50-year-old judges who probably shouldn’t have been a judge in the first place. Until we find a way of judging judges individually, we’re going to end up with those arbitrary age limits.”

Not only does Shelton love to teach, but he also loves to create and be around for the reorganization of things, said Dwyer, who has no doubt that when the implementation of the trial court’s $2 million case management system is launched, Shelton—who has overseen the project for several years—will make sure he comes back to the courthouse on the day it is launched.

Shelton, who thrives on six hours of sleep each night, says his staff gets sick of his motto: “Time is just an asset that you choose how to spend.”

Shelton applied for several teaching options in criminal justice, but this one turned out to be the perfect situation because in addition to teaching, it allows him to give direction to a “vibrant, growing program with an invigorated staff.”

“The combination of those two was exactly what I was looking for,” he said. 

Martin J. Hershock, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, considers hiring Shelton “a real coup.”

Hershock said the Criminal Justice Program has grown rapidly under the direction of its current head, Kevin Early, who is returning full time to the faculty.

“We were very interested in hiring a new director who was connected to the local legal/criminal justice community and who could help us to continue to grow our program in ways that are consistent with new trends in the field and with our emphasis on a broad and socially-grounded curriculum,” Hershock said.  “Our search committee was both surprised and thrilled to see Judge Shelton’s application. The judge’s sterling reputation, his strong publication record, and his enthusiasm for the program, and for teaching, made him the ideal candidate to head up our program.”

Shelton was born in Jackson, where he lived until he went off to Western Michigan University.  He and his wife, Marjorie, who were married between their sophomore and junior years at Western, will celebrate their 50th anniversary this August.

Though the commute to Dearborn will add an extra 20 minutes or so on the highway, Shelton had considered moving out of the area for the right teaching job. So the fact that he doesn’t have to move away from his son and his daughter and his five grandchildren, all of whom live in the Saline area, is a huge plus, he said.

A 40-year resident of the Saline area, Shelton served as the city’s mayor for the 10 years ending in 1988. He was on Saline’s planning commission, urban design commission, economic development corporation, and tax increment finance authority, and was a member of the EMU Board of Regents from 1987 to 1990 and chairman the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) from 1983-85.

Shelton is no stranger to academia. He has been an adjunct criminology and political science professor at EMU since 1997, and an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School. He has also written for and lectured at numerous academic and professional organizations throughout the U.S.

Diplomas on his office wall include a juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School, a master’s degree in criminology from Eastern Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in judicial studies from the University of Nevada.

But Shelton, who is nationally known for his expertise in jurors and their need for electronic evidence as well as forensic evidence, says the last two degrees were simply extensions of specific interests related to law.

Dwyer says Shelton is constantly seeking new information, whether that’s concerning data on jury management, or how to improve Courthouse operations.

Shelton “fills a room when walks into it,” said Dwyer.

“Over the years, he’s gotten this reputation as a kind of surly, powerful guy, so people wonder how it was to work with him for 13 years,” said Dwyer. “I’m blessed to say I got to know the other side of him, the one which cares deeply for his employees and for his family. He was very good to me for 13 years.”

Dwyer said it’s true that Shelton has high standards.

“He’ll push you to not sit stagnant,” he said, before describing the ways Shelton reorganized the Washtenaw County Juvenile Court, then provided management oversight assistance of the Probate Court following a state audit, and oversees the jury system. “I’m going miss him pushing me to be better than I am.”

Shelton said he doesn’t feel particularly important when he walks into a packed courtroom. Rather, he’s already spent so much behind-the-scenes work on the case, he sees the courtroom as an extension of that work.

Washtenaw County Bar Association President Delphia Simpson said Shelton has always been one of the most well respected judges not only in Washtenaw County, but nationally.

“He is widely recognized for his research on the impact of forensic science in courts, as well as his scholarly work creating and analyzing a database of persons convicted of felonies in Washtenaw County that will surely assist in improving general criminal justice policy,” she said.

While most people hate the job-seeking process, Shelton said he actually enjoyed it this time.

“When I was on the Board of Regents at Eastern, I became a strong advocate for emphasizing teaching—not at the cost of research, but certainly equally with research,” said Shelton, who uses a modified Socratic method when teaching, which includes lots of interaction with students. 

His interview at U-M Dearborn lasted two days, with the first day including the search committee watching as he taught a 90-minute class.

“That impressed me so much, that they want academics, but they want academics who can teach,” he said. “I thought: That’s the kind of program I want to be associated with.”

He had applied only for a teaching position at U-M Dearborn when the recruiters approached him about the directorship, as well.

“That’s when I knew it was precisely what I wanted to do,” he said. “And so I’ve been meeting with them to see what the direction of the program in the future ought to be. Of course, I know enough about change that I’ll spend my first semester there keeping my ears open and my mouth shut.”

His Sept. 1 start date at U-M means there will be a four-month gap before whoever wins the November election is slated to take over. While Chief Judge Swartz will make the final decision, Shelton predicts that a visiting judge will fill for part of that time, and he has urged the State Court Administrative Office to allow his replacement to take over sooner than January.

Asked what he’ll miss most about the bench, he said it’s the ability to directly impact people’s lives

When Shelton first became a judge, an older judge told him that half of his cases would be drug-related. He was wrong. When Shelton later analyzed the data while working on his master’s thesis, he found it was more than 70 percent. And looking strictly at property crimes, the figure was an astounding 93 percent.

He said it would require social and economic changes in the community to significantly reduce drug abuse. What doesn’t work, he said, is filling the prisons with non-violent drug offenders.

His most high profile cases include the closing of the General Motor’s Hydra-Matic plant; the cold case of Gary Leiterman, whom he sentenced to life in prison in 2005 for the 1969 murder of University of Michigan Law student Jane Mixer; and the 16-day trial of serial rapist Ervin Mitchell in 1995, which was one of the first cases locally to use DNA evidence. That trial lasted 16 days and in his 24 years on the bench, it was the only time the jury was sequestered, due to all the publicity.

But he said it’s the unknown cases in which he was able to sentence a drug offender to treatment rather than jail time, for instance, that have meant the most.

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