How Oakland’s County’s Next Judge, Julie McDonald Can Make Most of Her Drunken Driving Arrest

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Alone in the back seat of a Royal Oak police cruiser, her wrists handcuffed behind her as she slumped toward the video camera, Julie McDonald made an inventory and concluded that her not-inconsiderable reservoir of good luck had run dry. 

How Oakland's County's Next Judge, Julie McDonald Can Make Most of Her Drunken Driving Arrest

Alone in the back seat of a Royal Oak police cruiser, her wrists handcuffed behind her as she slumped toward the video camera, Julie McDonald made an inventory and concluded that her not-inconsiderable reservoir of good luck had run dry. 

It was a Saturday in early September, about 11 a.m., and McDonald, a 49-year-old lawyer who is making her first bid for elective office, had just been arrested after failing a roadside sobriety test on one of the busiest thoroughfares in southeast Michigan.

Now, wrangling her cell phone with manacled hands, she called her lawyer and pleaded with him to meet her at the Royal Oak Police Department.

"I'm screwed," she said. 

But that is hardly the case.  

McDonald is running unopposed for a newly created seat on the Oakland County Circuit Court. Ballots for the Nov. 6 contest were distributed to local election clerks weeks ago, so — barring her untimely death, or an even-unlikelier defeat by some 11th-hour write-in candidate — McDonald will be sworn in to her new, $145,000-a-year post early next year.

What she makes of that extraordinary opportunity, and her own recent encounter with the criminal justice system, may have consequences for a generation of litigants and criminal defendants.

When the race is all downhill  

How a first-time candidate reached the November runoff without confronting a single primary rival is a bit of a puzzler. McDonald's father, John J. McDonald, was a popular and respected member of the Oakland Circuit bench for 17 years before his retirement in 2010, but the McDonald brand is hardly a dynastic one.

Still, when two other lawyers seeking one of two open seats on the Oakland Circuit bench filed their declarations of candidacy earlier this year, they chose to run against each other rather than take on a respected judge's daughter. 

 

Unlike their federal counterparts who enjoy life tenure, state trial judges are obliged to stand for re-election every six years. But the job McDonald is poised to claim is uncommonly secure; no incumbent circuit court judge in Oakland County history has ever lost an election.

So McDonald would be eligible to serve until 2042, assuming she gets through what's shaping up as a singularly challenging first term.

Before and after victory 

Michigan's Code of Judicial Conduct warns judges and aspiring judges alike to avoid "impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all [their] activities," a catch-all that surely encompasses criminal charges like the one arising from McDonald's Sept. 5 traffic stop. And though she won't be subject to the Judicial Tenure Commission's jurisdiction until she's sworn in, that incident is certain to shadow her first months in office.   

McDonald could contest the charge, of course. Birmingham lawyer Patrick Barone, who has represented hundreds of defendants charged with drunken driving, says even sober motorists often fail to pass the sort of roadside challenges McDonald was subjected to — balancing on one foot, walking heel-to-toe, counting backwards from 54 to 37, and the like (I confirmed his conjecture by botching the first two in the sober privacy of my own office), and that the reliability of borderline blood and breathalyzer test results have been successfully challenged in many cases. But as a practical matter, McDonald's interest in a swift resolution will weigh heavily in favor of a guilty plea. 

If she'd been pulled over closer to her Bloomfield Hills home, McDonald might be facing incarceration by 48th District Judge Kimberly Small, who revels in her reputation for dispatching even first-time OUI offenders like McDonald to jail.

But she may have lucked out by being pulled over on the stretch of Woodward Avenue that borders Royal Oak, whose 44th District Court typically sentences offenders with no previous impaired driving records to some combination of supervised probation, periodic drug and alcohol testing and mandatory counseling or substance-abuse treatment.

A spokesman for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson says neither a conviction or nor a guilty plea would render McDonald ineligible for election. But if she wins, she's likely to face a 90-day suspension by the Judicial Tenure Commission soon after she's sworn in next January. That's the same penalty the JTC has handed out to four other trial judges convicted of drunk driving offenses since 2000.

And that's on top of any penalty or suspension imposed by the state Attorney Discipline Board, which typically intervenes whenever any member of the Michigan Bar is convicted of a criminal offense.

Making lemonade 

Even in the best-case scenario, then, the first phase of McDonald's judicial career are shaping up as an interval of austere humility. And I wouldn't blame her a bit if she fails to appreciate, at least right away, what a rare opportunity she has been given.

Not many judges, after all, have sat handcuffed in the back of a police car while a video camera mercilessly memorialized every detail of their worst day.

Few have faced the humiliation of the 130-question assessment impaired driving offenders must fill out before a sentencing judge determines what medical, educational and rehabilitative hoops they'll be required to jump through (and pay for) on the road to reclaiming their liberty, insurability and professional reputation.

And few have had to ponder, with any personal stake in play, the disparate fates assigned to people arrested in different places for similar offenses.

But litigants and defendants who appear before a Judge McDonald will face someone who has had all those experiences. 

Suffering does not inevitably ennoble all who suffer, of course. (See, for example, the enduring bitterness of Justice Clarence Thomas).

But the judge who endures trials and humiliations normally reserved for the more desperate citizens who appear before her has at least a chance to emerge as something rarer, and wiser, than the average member of her rarefied club. 

I'll leave for some other time and place a fuller examination of the haphazard way our state selects judges endowed with extraordinary authority to make or break their fellow citizens' lives. For today, it's enough to acknowledge that Julie McDonald is about to join their number, and hope that she makes the most of the extraordinary luck and temporary misfortune she's been dealt.                 

Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at bdickerson@freepress.com.