Circuit judge hopes to blaze another trail in legal circles

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

As a law student at the University of Detroit, Denise Langford Morris had a habit of running late for class.

Her tendency to be tardy contrasts quite sharply with her current insistence on punctuality.

"That was then and this is now," says the Detroit native, a member of the Oakland County Circuit Court bench since 1992.

Of course, there is more of an explanation to the differing patterns than that. For Langford Morris, the first African American judge elected in Oakland County, there was good reason for her tardiness. In some cases, a multitude of good reasons.

After obtaining her master's degree from Wayne State University, she went to work for the Michigan Department of Social Services, making "house calls" throughout Detroit on behalf of abuse and neglected children as well as disabled adults and the eldery. It was not a "9 to 5" job.

"There was so much heartache in that job," she said of her time as a protective services worker for the Department of Social Services. "There was no way you could leave children in certain situations while you waited for help to arrive. As a result, I was constantly running late for my law classes. I figured that I was answering to a higher calling."

The demands of work and school weren't her only juggling acts, however. There also was the challenge of motherhood, particularly as it applied to a single parent.

"I wouldn't recommend trying to do all three at once," she said during a recent interview in her Circuit Court chambers, more than 30 years removed from the work-school-parent routine. "Fortunately, I had a lot of help from family and friends."

The Detroit Cass Tech grad likely will lean on them again in the coming months as she seeks a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court, vying for one of two openings on the seven-member judicial panel. The terms of incumbents Robert Young and Elizabeth Weaver expire this year.

Her candidacy for the state's highest court figures to highlight a legal career that has been rich with experience as a private practitioner, assistant Oakland County prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, and Circuit Court judge in one of the country's wealthiest counties. Her campaign is pinned on the statement, "Justice for the people of Michigan hangs in the balance."

While the field of candidates for the Supreme Court seats is crowded, Langford Morris has a track record of success even when the odds appear daunting. An early indication was evident at the U of D School of Law when she and her partner, David Williams, became the first minority team to win the moot court competition. Like Langford Morris, Williams also has risen to professional success, currently serving as vice chancellor and general counsel at Vanderbilt University.

Upon graduation from law school, Langford Morris was offered a job with the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, becoming in 1984 one of the first African American women on staff. She began by handling cases in the 48th District Court, quickly advancing to trial work at the Circuit Court level, principally before Judge Steven Andrews.

"I learned a lot about the importance of preparation in his courtroom," she said of Judge Andrews. "It was there that I really learned how to try a case, handling approximately 55 felony trials over the course of my stay there."

After two years in private practice, Langford Morris returned to the public service sector, accepting a job with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, handling a variety of civil litigation matters. While there she helped launch the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association, an organization formed in 1990 to promote legal practice opportunities for minorities and women.

"I was one of 10 people involved in its formation," she said of the special purpose bar association. "One of our principal goals was to help get an African American on the Oakland County bench. There was a definite need for diversity on the bench and we helped lead a groundswell of support to make it happen."

Somewhat surprisingly, then Governor John Engler appointed Langford Morris to an opening on the Oakland County Circuit Court.

"I had been encouraged by a lot of people to apply for appointment, but I thought it would be a real long shot because of my political background and the fact that 23 of the 25 county commissioners on the board at the time were Republican," Langford Morris said. "Even though I had the experience that was necessary, it was still a shock when I received the appointment."

Two years later, Langford Morris was up to the challenge again, earning a full six-year term on the Circuit Court in a judicial race featuring four incumbents.

"Running a county wide race is quite a commitment in terms of time and money, but I was fortunate to finish in second place, less than a percentage point behind Judge (Edward) Sosnick," she said. "The campaign was exhilarating and fulfilling."

A self-professed "workaholic," Langford Morris is the daughter of Plennie and Victor Langford. Her father, who died at age 78 in 1994, was a tool and die maker at Ford Motor Co., retiring in 1980 after 47 years with the automaker.

"My dad was one of 12 children and was extremely hard working," his daughter said. "He was steady as a rock, always offering words of encouragement. He made breakfast for us each morning, took us to apple orchards in the fall to pick apples for pies he would make, and insisted that I take karate lessons so that I could defend myself."

He also urged his daughter to take golf lessons, seeing her budding talent for the sport at the tender age of 9. It remains a lifelong passion, a leisure time pursuit that she said has offered tangible benefits far beyond any course. In a Q & A with "The Green Magazine" two years ago, she said of golf: "It's kind of like life. You want to maintain the fortitude of staying on course, if you will. As a young person, you have to stay out of trouble, try to focus on your education, try to complete tasks, you also have to pay attention to details once you get to the green, really focus on reading the green. It is what I analogize to young people: being focused, concentrating, and following through. That what golf does and that's what we need to do as people."

Her 86-year-old mother, who still lives in the couple's house on the west side of Detroit and took her daughter to march with Martin Luther King Jr., was a longtime community activist, volunteering for the March of Dimes, Boy Scouting, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and in the Detroit school system.

"She taught me the benefits and the importance of giving back to the community, and the lifelong rewards of such work," said Langford Morris, who has two brothers and a sister. "She also stressed the need to always stay in touch with your friends, to be there when they need you."

Langford Morris has relayed the same messages to her daughter, Cherise, and granddaughter, 12-year-old Cari. The theme is carried on in her mentoring work with law students and young lawyers, as well as in her involvement at various local churches.

"I attend a lot of churches in Pontiac and love being involved in their outreach work," she said. "It helps me stay in touch with the needs of the community."

Past president of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, Judge Langford Morris has served on the board of HAVEN (Help Against Violent Encounters Now), the Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency, and the Child Abuse and Neglect Council. She has been honored by the State Bar of Michigan with its "Champion of Justice Award" and also was the 2008 recipient of the coveted CLEO (Council on Legal Education Opportunity) Legacy Award.

On the Circuit Court bench, Judge Langford Morris has presided over a number of high profile cases, including those involving Dr. Jack Kevorkian, rapper Eminem, and an Oak Park elementary teacher accused of molesting two boys. Those cases, and the hundreds of others that have come before her during her 18 years as a judge, have left a lasting impression.

"Everyday that I come to work I realize what an awesome responsibility I have as a judge," she said. "I truly love my work and believe that I can take my trial court experience to the appellate level, where it will be my goal to help in efforts to restore dignity there."

If luck plays a role in the statewide campaign, the Oakland County jurist figures to have a leg up on those seeking the Supreme Court seats. On the first Saturday in May, the traditional date of the Kentucky Derby, Judge Langford Morris was invited to attend a local gathering of the Women's Lawyers Association of Michigan in Macomb County. She had already spent a busy day on the campaign trail, but arrived in time to pick a horse in the "Run for the Roses." By that time, it indeed appeared to be slim pickings.

"All of the favorites had been picked, so I ended up with a real long shot," she related. "It was a horse called, 'Super Saver.' Nobody seemed to think it had a chance of winning."

But win it did, racing to a surprise two-length victory in the first jewel of racing's Triple Crown. For her Derby choice, Judge Langford Morris was the recipient of approximately $300 in prize winnings, money she donated to the coffers of the Macomb Chapter of WLAM.

"I will look upon that day as a good omen," she said.

Published: Thu, Aug 19, 2010

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