Washtenaw County judge to retire after 24 years on bench


by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Judge Melinda Morris, who retires in January from the Washtenaw County Trial Court Civil/Criminal Division when her fourth 6-year term comes to a close, can look back over a long and illustrious career where she broke barriers, crashed the “glass ceiling,” and blazed a trail for women in law.

All in a day’s work for Morris, who once thought of following her mother into teaching before deciding that was too challenging. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from the University of Michigan in 1961, she earned her J.D., with honors, from U-M Law School, one of only three women in her class

“I liked the idea that law was the glue that kept our civilized society together,” she says. “At U-M, I liked the Socratic method, where you learned the subject matter through hypotheticals, questions and answers, after reading cases that demonstrated certain points. I was very comfortable in law school. The three of us were a trio.”

While thoughts of a judicial career were far from her mind, after graduation she started breaking barriers as one of the first women partners in a Washtenaw County law firm – Forsythe Campbell and Vandenberg in Ann Arbor – and became the first woman to serve as circuit judge in Washtenaw County history.

Elected to the 22nd Circuit Court in 1988 after winning a four-way race in an open election, Morris served as chief judge of the 22nd Circuit Court from 1992-95, and also served on committees of the Michigan Judicial Institute and the Unified Trial Court Demonstration Project.

In 1994, she was appointed to serve on the Michigan Justice Planning Committee, which provided valuable input to the Supreme Court on court reform.

“I’ve loved working with the lawyers and knowing that the quality of the experience litigants have in the court system is extremely important,” she says.

Being a judge hasn’t been without its lighter moments. In 1993, Morris tried a case with TV talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael as one of several defendants in a $72 million lawsuit brought by a member of the Church of Scientology, who claimed Raphael’s nationally broadcast airing of a conversation filmed in Ann Arbor violated her privacy.

Exasperated by Raphael taking over the courtroom as if it were a TV studio and asking lawyers questions from the witness stand, Morris put her judicial foot down and told Raphael to wait until she was asked questions – or the case might drag on for days.

“She seemed to think it was her TV show,” Morris says. “Quite a drama!”

During her term as president of the Washtenaw County Bar Association, Morris initiated “No Bills Day” in Washtenaw County, with pro bono legal advice available to residents. She has also given back to the community by serving on the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Board, the Legal Aid Board, the Soundings Board, and the Ann Arbor Schools' Committee on Excellence; and in 2001, received the distinguished service award from the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation.

She has also received a raft of legal honors, including the Justice Blair Moody “Outstanding Judge” Award from the Washtenaw County Chapter of the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, the 1995 Mary E. Foster Award from Women Lawyers of Michigan (WLAM), and the Professionalism and Civility Award from the Washtenaw County Bar Association in 2000.

In 2009, WLAM honored Morris with the Jean King Leadership Award, honoring and recognizing lawyers who exemplify leadership in securing the rights of women in society and advancing women in the legal profession.

Morris has certainly seen the law profession change for the better for women.

“For one thing, we have more women lawyers and judges and I think women in general, feel like they belong in the profession,” she says.

For women entering the law, Morris has these words of wisdom: “Enjoy it, and appreciate all of its possibilities, including the balance of the professional with the personal, whether it be family or other circumstances.”
Morris, who enjoyed a Dec. 12 “Retirement Soiree” – with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Robert & Melinda Morris Fund under the auspices of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation – doesn’t plan to let the grass grow under her feet.

“I’m studying jazz piano, and I plan to travel to Italy where my daughter, Melissa, lives, and to California where my daughter, Molly, and my two sisters live.”