Metro Detroit judges under scrutiny for $11 dispute at Mackinac Island bike shop
The state agency that investigates judges for misbehavior – in and out of the courtroom – says two Black judges from metro Detroit lied about a dispute they had with a bike shop on Mackinac Island and that the two should not have pulled rank by telling shop employees and police that they were judges.
In their responses to state investigators, the two judges say they rented bikes together, then were mistreated by racist bike shop workers and police after they requested half off the $23.34 charge.
Although the dispute occurred in 2019, the state’s detailed investigation is nearing a conclusion, and the Free Press recently obtained surveillance video showing the climax of the dispute: the moments when, as Southfield 46th District Judge Debra Nance watched, Detroit 36th District Judge Demetria Brue suddenly reached out and grabbed at a receipt held by shop owner Ira Green, tearing the receipt as Green clung to it.
Brue, according to allegations of state investigators, then said to Green: “You assaulted me. Did you just assault me? You took my receipt and tore it up. I want the police. ... I am a judge. ... I am an African-American female. That was racist, and it was disrespectful and it was violent.” Unfortunately, the video has no audio track to replay what was said. State investigators apparently relied on the bike shop owner, his employees, and two other customers who were nearby for deciding what Brue said.
The two judges have responded to state investigators by saying they were mistreated by racist bike-shop workers and by island police after they complained, following an afternoon bike ride, that Brue's bike malfunctioned and they deserved a discount. Both judges deny key parts of what Brue is alleged to have said, including whether she accused Green of "assault,” and also whether she told two police officers, separately, that she'd been assaulted, as the state's Complaint says. The judges also differ with the state's account as to many times and to whom Brue said she was a judge, and said that they were both judges.
After police arrived at the shop, according to legal documents of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, the two were told to wait outside the shop while the shop owner, Green, showed the video of the dispute to officers in his back office. After viewing the video, and with two other members of the tiny Mackinac Island Police Department standing by, Officer Kenneth Hardy informed Brue, "It looks like you did the assault." The incident ended with Green and Brue getting a 100% discount for renting bikes during the annual judges' conference on Mackinac Island, at which most expenses are covered by taxpayers.
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According to the Judicial Tenure Commission's complaint against Brue, "Trooper Bergsma negotiated a settlement whereby respondent Brue and her colleague did not pay for their bicycle rentals, Mr. Green provided respondent Brue a receipt showing that she did not owe any money, and respondent Brue and Mr. Green would not seek to prosecute the other."
That might have ended it, except that when judges announce their status in commercial dealings, they violate a key rule of judicial ethics. Moreover, when questioned separately by state investigators about the incident, the two made things worse for themselves with numerous false statements, according to documents compiled by the Judicial Tenure Commission.
Now, the two cases will come before a judge, yet to be appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court. That judge, in this process called a master, will hear both sides before making a disciplinary recommendation to the Supreme Court. The high court decides whether to drop complaints against judges or to assess discipline, which ranges from warning letters and suspensions to outright removals from the bench.
Green's bike shop is apparently closed for the winter; he could not be reached in multiple recent attempts. Responding to the allegations of the Tenure Commission, Brue's lawyer, Philip Thomas, has submitted a detailed "Answer to Complaint and Affirmative Defenses." Reached Thursday, Thomas said in an email:
"On behalf of Judge Brue please be aware that we intend to contest all of the allegations of misconduct set forth in the formal complaint. While we do not intend to try this case in the media, I can tell you that we believe the events underlying the allegations set forth in the formal complaint arose from an incident where Judge Brue and another African American jurist described the incident in one manner while a group of three white store employees described it very, very, very differently. The incident itself arose from an approximate $23 bike rental fee which itself should tell any objective observer that there is more here than meets the eye."
Nance said last month in a news release that she would dispute the allegations.
"While I make no comment as to the allegations, I want the public to know that I intend to defend this matter zealously while maintaining my dignity," her release said. Nance also said that she had served as a judge for a decade "with an unblemished record of accomplishments" and, despite that, "like many judges of color before me" she was the victim of "a very public attack" by the state tenure investigators.
Nance is accused of making false statements to state investigators in 2020 and again in 2021. Brue is accused of making false statements to state investigators in 2020 and refusing to respond to "supplemental questions" when contacted again in 2021. Among the state's allegations are violations of the following ethical rules for judges and lawyers:
Canon 2(A), which requires a judge to avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety;
Canon2(B), which prohibits conduct that tends to erode confidence in the integrity of the judiciary;
Michigan Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(b), which forbids a lawyer from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, or misrepresentations, where such conduct reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawye
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Michigan Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(c), which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Michigan Court Rule 9.104(6), which prohibits knowing misrepresentation of facts or circumstances surrounding a request for investigation or complaint.
Contact Bill Laytner: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Dispute over $23 at bike shop up north has two Black judges under fire