26 years with the Federal Court: Magistrate Judge Virginia Morgan recalls a life dedicated to 'making the world better'

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By Frank Weir

Legal News

It's been a long way from Camp Newaygo to the Eastern District Federal Court.

But Virginia Morgan has enjoyed every minute of it.

The federal magistrate judge, who is well known locally even though she spent the majority of her 26 years with the court in Detroit, is "officially" retiring this Friday, April 29.

For the past two years, she has been based at the Ann Arbor court, having replaced Steven Pepe, who had himself retired.

And the Camp Newaygo reference? She attended the camp, located just north of Grand Rapids, as a young Toledo schoolgirl.

The camp is affiliated with Newaygo County Community Services (NCCS).

The camp, along with her college sorority, and an early teaching experience on a Navajo reservation, created a deep desire in Morgan to "try to make the world a better place" that has lasted her entire work life.

"Camp Newaygo offers a phenomenal opportunity for girls of all ages. It made a big difference in my life."

Morgan met girls from around the Midwest at camp and its strong environmental component, coupled with a spiritual emphasis, spoke to Morgan in a special way.

And the outdoor activities weren't too bad either.

"We developed self-discipline there and self reliance. Of course there were lots of opportunities for fun too."

But we've gotten behind ourselves.

Morgan earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan with no less than three course concentrations including mathematics, chemistry, and anthropology.

Upon graduation, she made her way to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to teach high school math.

"I taught there for two years and it really gave me an appreciation of other cultures and the positive values that they bring to us," she said.

"We have much to learn from them."

Morgan was especially impressed by the non-competitive nature of the Indian culture and its rich involvement with the natural world.

"If I singled out a particular student for his or her work, it was guaranteed that he or she would not produce to that level again.

"Why? Because it was frowned upon to try to stand out from one's peers. The idea was that all worked together for the common good."

Morgan also tried to incorporate references to the natural world in her teaching. Most of her students still spoke the Navajo language when she was there and they had a colorful mythology surrounding the coyote to explain the source of life.

"We created plays and other activities involving the coyote not only to enrich their learning experience, but to give them a positive feeling about their culture.

"In the distant past, there were efforts by the greater society to squelch Indian culture, to try to make it disappear but that attitude was long gone by the time I began teaching there."

After two years on the reservation, Morgan moved on to teach math in California and then in her Toledo birthplace. There, she began attending the University of Toledo College of Law nights graduating in 1975.

After passing the bar, she became Washtenaw County Prosecutor William Delhey's first female assistant prosecutor. She moved to the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of Michigan in 1979, becoming a magistrate judge in the office in 1985.

Over her 26 years on the bench, she's seen the types of cases before her change significantly and, in many cases, alarmingly.

"When I first came to the office, we saw a lot of criminal cases over a wide gamut including mail theft, armored car and bank robberies, embezzlement. And along with that, we saw drug and fraud cases of course."

But, disturbingly, she now sees many more drug and gun cases, as well as more highly sophisticated fraud cases involving Medicare provider fraud and mortgage fraud.

"And the drugs and guns defendants are very young now compared to what I saw in the beginning. Plus many of them are involved with gang activity."

Although the criminal cases always capture the headlines, Morgan confides that 75 percent of her work involves civil cases.

"I'm involved in pre-trial case management, facilitate mediation, decisions on summary judgment motions, and consent cases.

"The criminal work involves arraignments, detentions, arrest warrants, motions to suppress and dismiss, evidentiary matters, habeas corpus; it's civil case management basically."

As one might expect, Morgan will miss the relationships she has had over her years along with her mediation work.

"The best part of my job are the facilitated mediations on the civil side. You get to see the case as a whole when you are mediating and you help people reach a resolution that makes sense to them. And closing cases is a good thing for the court.

"When you mediate and settle a case, you feel good about that and it's a chance to touch other's lives in a good way."

And Morgan is sure to mention the lawyers who have appeared in front of her along with Judge John Corbett O'Meara and the Detroit judges she worked along side of for so long.

"Judge O'Meara has been a delight to work with. He's a very special man and there are many people in the Detroit office that I'll miss as well."

But Morgan's relationships extended far beyond local realms and she notes that Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed her to a long-range planning committee and, after that, to the board of the Federal Judicial Center, which he chaired.

"The board met three times a year, twice in Washington and once in Arizona. There were only seven of us on the board and I had some wonderful interactions with impressive federal jurists."

Add to that, she attended many meetings and seminars with Article Three judges and magistrates and bankruptcy judges.

"These were really unique opportunities and made the job that much richer," she said.

And retirement? It'll be more of the same: that is, "trying to make the world a better place."

She plans to become more involved with Camp Newaygo and to continue her involvement with Alpha Gamma Delta, her college sorority.

Morgan was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta when she was an undergrad at Michigan from 1964 to 1968. "It's a wonderful group of young women with grounded values and a strong commitment to education."

From 2000 to 2005, Morgan lived at the sorority house on the Michigan campus as a caretaker while it was being 'recolonized.'

Through it all, Morgan admits she was "lucky" to have had those camp, reservation, sorority, and court experiences.

"Truly, I've been very lucky and I owe a lot to camp and the sorority, as well as the reservation and the court.

She explains that they have formed the basis for her sense of institutional loyalty because of the influence of them in her life.

"In all of them there is a high amount of integrity, ethics, hard work, and a commitment to the institution."

And she gets frustrated when others criticize them since "no one certainly is there to get rich.

"They all want to make the world a better place and that's what I've tried to do and would like to continue to do: make the world a better place.

"I've tried to do that in this job and in other aspects of my life and I'd like to try to keep doing that.

She isn't sure how that will happen after retirement, but "that's what I want to do."

Published: Thu, Apr 28, 2011

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