Royal Oak – — A district judge up for re-election Tuesday hasn't been in court for weeks and plans to retire in January, rather than face possible disciplinary action for alleged intimate relations with a court employee, according to emails obtained by The Detroit News.
Royal Oak 44th District Judge Terrance Brennan went on a paid administrative leave in early October for "personal reasons," according to court officials, amid questions by the State Court Administrative Office about his alleged relationship with the female employee.
The employee has hired an attorney to negotiate a financial settlement for her to retire as well, in an arrangement being brokered by court and city officials, according to an email sent by city attorney David Gillam.
Gillam confirmed he sent emails to several city officials in October regarding Brennan's paid personal administrative leave, which began Oct. 8, but had no further explanation and would not divulge any of the email details.
Brennan, who makes $138,000 a year, is fully vested in a pension that would pay him nearly $89,000 a year, according to court officials. He's been on the bench since 1991 and is unopposed for re-election next week. Short of coming in second to a write-in, he will win.
Repeated attempts to reach Brennan and his attorney this week were unsuccessful. Neither responded to voice mail messages.
City Commissioner David Poulton confirmed he received emails from Gillam that said Brennan planned to retire in January, should he be re-elected Tuesday, and that Brennan is being investigated for allegedly having an affair with a female court employee who allegedly received preferential treatment.
"Judge Brennan is nowhere to be found, nowhere to be questioned regarding these allegations," said Poulton, who was advised by Gillam the emails were to be considered confidential. "I think the citizens of Royal Oak deserve to know that they will have someone on the bench for a complete term."
Upon learning of the Brennan situation, Poulton, an attorney, decided to mount a write-in campaign for the judge's seat.
He drove to Lansing and beat an Oct. 24 deadline for filing an affidavit with the State Elections Office required for write-in votes to be legally counted toward possible election.
"The public needs to know they have a choice: to vote for Judge Brennan or cast a write-in vote for me," Poulton said.
Poulton said he doesn't know details nor has he personally talked with Brennan, but confirmed the judge hasn't been on the bench "for weeks."
An email from Gillam to several officials said a meeting took place this month among several city and court officials and state representatives from the Michigan Supreme Court.
The state Supreme Court, through the State Court Administrative Office, supervises circuit and district courts in Michigan.
When asked about a meeting about Brennan's future this month that included State Supreme Court representatives and Royal Oak city and district court officials, John Nevin, spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court, said Friday the meeting may have occurred and that would not be unusual.
"Meetings are held all the time between judges and the (State Court Administrative Office)," Nevin said. "But that information — what goes on in those meetings — is not public record."
Nevin was asked to explain why a judge who apparently planned not to serve out an elected term — as was detailed in a city attorney's email to Royal Oak City commissioners — would be permitted to run for re-election unchallenged. He said: "Those are the kinds of decisions judges make all the time. The Judicial Tenure Commission has the authority to investigate allegations of misconduct and ultimately the Supreme Court makes a decision based on those investigations."
He said he had no knowledge of any investigation of Brennan.
Retired judge presiding
One of the district's retired judges, Daniel Sawicki, has been handling Brennan's docket in his absence and Judge Derek Meinecke, a former assistant prosecuting attorney elected to the Royal Oak bench in 2012, was named the district's chief judge by the court administrative office Oct. 13.
"Judge Brennan has been on personal leave," said Court Administrator Kevin Sutherland, who provided no additional details.
Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State's office, said Wednesday in a hypothetical situation where "a winning candidate refuses to serve, the office is considered vacant" and is not awarded to the second-place finisher.
"It's not a crime" to refuse to serve, Woodhams said by email.
When Sutherland was asked what he knew about a court administrative office investigation of alleged improper conduct by Brennan, Sutherland said: "No comment." Gillam would not confirm a state probe of Brennan.
Paul J. Fischer executive director of the Judicial Tenure Commission which investigates alleged wrongdoing by judges for the State Court Administrative Office, said there was no formal complaint on record regarding Judge Brennan.
"There is nothing for us to comment on," Fischer said.
Gillam also told The News he's leaving his position next month.
Court to be consolidated
Sutherland confirmed a court consolidation with Berkley is to occur in January 2015.
Due to decreased dockets, the State Court Administrative Office, which supervises courts across Michigan, has planned for more than a year to eliminate 45 judgeships in some district courts including Royal Oak. It's estimated the consolidation could save $7 million annually. The Royal Oak plan would have two judges in the 44th District Court representing Royal Oak and Berkley and close the current court in the neighboring suburb.
A vacancy in Brennan's courtroom would facilitate that change.
Berkley's district court is served by one judge who would move into the Royal Oak court, Sutherland confirmed.
Royal Oak officials reportedly with knowledge of aspects of Brennan's personal leave declined comment, despite having received information from Gillam.
In the email, Gillam outlined that: "At this point, rather than contest the allegations, the Judge has agreed to (1) request a paid administrative leave through the end of the year and (2) assuming that he is re-elected on November 4th, notify the Governor that he will be retiring at the beginning of 2015. In exchange, formal disciplinary action will not be taken against him by the Judicial Tenure Commission.
"If the terms of this settlement fall into place, pursuant to the amendments to State law providing for district court consolidation, as of January 3, 2015, Judge Brennan's seat will be eliminated and the 44th district Court will serve the cities of Royal Oak and Berkley with two judges, rather than three."
Agency to probe claims
Gillam informed city officials in one email he has also asked the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority to "investigate potential claims" the woman may have against the court and "if appropriate, to attempt to negotiate a voluntary separation with her attorney."
The meetings with the employee's attorney are reportedly ongoing, Gillam's e-mail said.
"I hadn't intended to run but there are some unusual circumstances and I want Royal Oak voters to be properly represented on the court," said Poulton, an attorney for 15 years who is in his second term as a city commissioner.
There is recent precedent regarding a district judge dodging an official investigation into misconduct.
The Judicial Tenure Commission spent several months earlier this year investigating multiple allegations of absenteeism on the bench and questions about expenses filed by veteran Novi District Judge Dennis Powers. After initially contesting the allegations in court filings, Powers retired in early September "to spend more time with his family" before there were any public hearings on issues or findings.
Two weeks later, the Judicial Tenure Commission dismissed its probe against Powers.