Ex-magistrate sues judge, court administrator over firing

A former 36th District Court magistrate judge filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit Wednesday against the court's chief judge and acting administrator, claiming she was fired in retaliation for raising concerns over alleged civil and constitutional violations of some defendants' rights. 

36th District Court Judge William McConico hears the case of Mark Bessner, who waived his preliminary hearing on second-degree murder charges on Feb. 1, 2018.

Bari Blake Wood, who arraigned defendants in some of Metro Detroit's most high-profile criminal cases, said she was wrongfully terminated in January for speaking up about concerns she had over the handling of felony and misdemeanor arraignments.

Chief 36th District Court Judge William McConico, who is named as a defendant along with acting court administrator LaWanda Crosby, said Wednesday Wood did not bring her concerns to him. He said Wood, in fact, sent him a text congratulating him shortly after he was appointed as chief judge in November.

But Wood's attorney, Deborah Gordon, said McConico "had to have known" because the court's counsel was told about the magistrate's concerns. "She was flat-out terminated for no reason ever given," Gordon said. "I find it very outrageous. She was fired for bringing the issue (about civil and constitutional violations) to the fore."

Crosby declined comment. 

 "We are aware of the lawsuit," Attorney Solon Phillips, general counsel for the 36th District Court, said Wednesday. "We are in the process of evaluating the lawsuit and we have no comment."

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, Wood said she notified then 36th District Court Chief Judge Nancy Blount in 2018 of several issues that she felt "fell short of legal requirements," including approving search warrants at the court. 

Wood, who was appointed to the court in 2016 by Blount and promoted to chief magistrate in November 2017, trained other magistrates on court procedures.

Wood alleges that during her own initial training, she was "instructed" to approve warrants on behalf of "certain" police officers. Wood said she advised magistrate judges and Blount about her concerns regarding the warrants because she believed the court's practices violated laws and jeopardized defendants' civil rights.

Wood's suit alleges that police officers and prosecutors who came through the court regularly were "extremely upset" over the changes she advocated because they "resulted in a significantly higher volume" of rejected arrest warrants. 

Also among her concerns were arraignments conducted during weekend and holidays at the Romulus district court, which Wood alleges violated federal and state laws. The former magistrate said in her lawsuit that she took her concerns to Blount in January 2019, and that the chief judge told her it “was not the Court’s problem” and not to raise the concerns any further. 

Efforts to reach Blount Wednesday were not successful. 

Wood said her problems worsened in March 2019 when she was told that the ACLU of Michigan planned to file a lawsuit over the setting of bonds for some defendants during felony arraignments.

The ACLU filed a federal class-action lawsuit in April 2019 against the 36th District Court, alleging that the court's cash bail system "punishes poor people in Detroit" and violates their constitutional rights by confining them to jail when they are presumed innocent because they cannot afford to pay bail following their arrest.  

The federal lawsuit seeks "an overhaul of an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against poor people, locking them up because they cannot afford to pay while allowing those who have money to go free"

 Blount and other magistrate judges, including Wood, are named in the ACLU lawsuit.

Wood said she advised the court's in-house counsel of the potential legal violation concerning felony arraignments and that she asked for a legal opinion on how the court set bond.  Wood said she also met with Blount and notified her of the impending ACLU lawsuit.

In May, Wood met with the other magistrate judges, Blount and other court officials about the ACLU lawsuit. She alleges she was "questioned at length" about her conversation with her acquaintance regarding the lawsuit.

In a meeting last August, Wood said she with with an outside lawyer representing court officials named in the ACLU's lawsuit. Wood said she told the lawyer that not only did she advise court officials of the legal basis for a potential lawsuit "before the facts giving rise to it occurred" but she also advised the court of similar legal issues with regard to warrants and felony arraignments on multiple occasions. 

Wood was demoted in December and fired in early January.