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February 24, 2009

MSC Oral Argument: In re Servaas

On March 4, 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court will hear oral argument In re Servaas, No. 137633, on whether to accept, reject, or modify the Judicial Tenure Commission’s ("JTC") Recommendation for Order of Discipline against Hon. Steven R. Servaas. The JTC recommended that Judge Servaas be removed from office because he vacated his judicial office by failing to reside within the division of the district from which he was elected, by engaging in sexually inappropriate conduct toward his staff, and by lying under oath during the JTC proceedings. Judge Servaas challenges the JTC's interpretation of Michigan law regarding whether a judge must reside within the division of the district court from which the judge is elected as opposed to the district as a whole, the JTC's conclusion that he lied under oath, and the severity of the sanction recommended. The Michigan Supreme Court reviews the Commission’s findings of fact and recommendations de novo. The JTC's decision and recommendation can be found here. The parties' briefs can be found here.

On November 7, 2008, the JTC issued an Order of Discipline on Formal Complaint No. 84. The JTC adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the Special Master. The JTC concluded that Judge Servaas vacated his judicial office by moving his residence outside the geographic limits of the territory from which he was elected, and that he engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct that demeaned the court's female staff. The JTC further concluded that Judge Servaas lied under oath before and during the proceedings to conceal his misconduct. The JTC recommended that Judge Servaas be removed from office. The JTC recommended that Judge Servaas be ordered to pay costs to the JTC for making misstatements during his testimony at the hearing regarding his conduct involving doodles and communications, which allegedly constituted sexual harassment of his court staff.

The Court will consider whether Judge Servaas vacated his judicial office by moving his principal residence from the first electoral division of his judicial district, where he was elected, to the second electoral division of his judicial district. Judge Servaas contends that he is only required to live within the district in which his court sits, and that he can make his principal residence in any division within that district. The Court will consider whether this constitutes judicial misconduct, and whether it is grounds for the sanction of removal from office.

The Court may also determine whether the JTC's unitary structure for investigating and adjudicating Judge Servaas's alleged wrongdoing denied Judge Servaas's rights to procedural due process. Judge Servaas claims that he was threatened by the JTC's Executive Director before the disciplinary proceeding was initiated, that the JTC's conclusion was fore-ordained, and that the alleged misrepresentations all arose from documents that had been excluded from the case. The JTC denies any misconduct.

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