Judge turned the legal tables on noted litigant


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Former state Supreme Court Justice Kurt Wilder and I go way back – to a time in the early 1990s when he was in the first phase of his judicial career as a judge on the then Washtenaw County Circuit Court and I was the editor of a group of weekly newspapers in the greater Ann Arbor area.

We first met when he was running for a seat on the court in 1992 after earning a gubernatorial appointment to the bench in the spring of that year. As part of his judicial campaign, he made the rounds of media outlets across the county in a get-acquainted effort that could prove handy come election endorsement time in the fall.

It did, as Judge Wilder easily won a full six-year term in office that would help catapult him to eventual appointments to the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

But before a higher office came calling, Judge Wilder and I would get reacquainted in a more formal way – as parties to a lawsuit that appeared before him.

The case revolved around a libel case brought against me by the quintessential community gadfly whom I had known for years and had spent way too much time covering her various legal run-ins with assorted governmental officials, including a long list of judges who had ruled against her.

Somewhat suddenly, I was in her legal crosshairs after discounting her candidacy for a school board opening in an editorial I wrote on the upcoming election. In her eyes, it was the ultimate sin, one that she wanted me and my new employer – a large group of newspapers owned by sunroof pioneer Heinz Prechter – to pay dearly for in a case she filed in the Washtenaw County court.

The problem was that over the years she had sued every member of the Washtenaw Circuit bench but one, forcing all the others to gladly recuse themselves from presiding over the case. The lucky one left standing, of course, was Judge Wilder.

But before he could wade too far into the murky legal arguments the plaintiff had submitted in a hand-written complaint that went on for days, our company's attorney, noted First Amendment expert Herschel Fink, suggested that I try to reason with the plaintiff in hopes of making the lawsuit magically disappear.

I called her, repeatedly over a two-day period, to no avail. 

I then decided to stop by her sprawling farm, just a few miles down the road from my house, to see if we could have a meeting of the minds on the nature of her lawsuit.

I knocked on the front door. No answer. I walked around to the back and tried again. No luck. 

Figuring the third time would be the charm, I returned to the front for one more try. This time, she kindly opened the door – appearing with a double-barrel shotgun in hand and a message that I had one minute to vacate the premises otherwise the fireworks would begin.

Some five months later, Judge Wilder rode to my rescue, dismissing the case while politely rapping the knuckles of the plaintiff (who shall forever remain nameless for fear that she will rise from the dead and take yet another swing at exacting legal revenge).

In dismissing the suit, Judge Wilder wrote: “The Court further finds the allegations of both the Complaint and the Amended Complaint to be unintelligible in part and consistently preposterous and frivolous. Sanctions are awarded in favor of all Defendants . . .” 

My boss instructed our attorneys to seek enforcement of the order to deter the plaintiff from filing similar nuisance suits in the future. The strategy must have worked, for – at least until now – those were the last words I ever wrote about my lone libel combatant.

Thank goodness.

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