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2 Wayne County judges to be honored as retirement nears

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Two Wayne County judges will be honored Monday for their combined decades of service as they prepare to retire at year's end.

Circuit Court judges Ulysses Boykin and Craig Strong will be recognized by the National Bar Association and their judicial colleagues for their lengthy careers as jurists and contributions to the community.

Judge Ulysses Boykin presided over many high-profile criminal trials, notably a police officer’s retrial in the Malice Green death.

Boykin, 74, a Harvard Law School graduate, has served on the Wayne County Circuit Court since 1999, when he was appointed by then-Gov. John Engler. Boykin, a native Detroiter and graduate of Cass Tech High School, was last reelected in 2014 to a six-year term. 

State law prevents Boykin, a Detroit resident, from running for reelection to the bench past the age of 70. But he said he hopes to come back to the court as a visiting judge, which is allowed by law.

His judicial philosophy is succinct: "I believe in equal justice under the law." 

Boykin has presided over many high-profile criminal trials, notably the retrial of Detroit police officer Larry Nevers in 2000. Nevers and fellow officer Walter Budzyn both won retrials after being convicted in the 1992 beating death of African American motorist Malice Green, a case that received national attention.

The trial required due diligence in all aspects, he said, recalling that jurors had to park in a secret location and were not allowed to leave Frank Murphy Hall of Justice for lunch. Instead, food was brought in for the jury from some of the area's finest dining spots.

"It had a lot of notoriety in the press and the community," said Boykin, who sentenced Nevers to 7-15 years for involuntary manslaughter.

Boykin said as is his practice, he met with the Nevers jury after they were released to thank them and ask them their thoughts on their service.

Boykin said the law has been a rewarding career. Starting off in private practice, he became a judge after more than two decades as an attorney, which included practicing at the prestigious Lewis, White & Clay law firm in Detroit.

Boykin, who served in the U.S. Army, comes from a long line of military veterans, including his great-grandfather, Johnson Whittaker, one of the first African American cadets to graduate from West Point.

Strong has been a Wayne County judge since 1978, first in Detroit Recorder's Court and then in the county Circuit Court after Recorder's Court merged with the Circuit Court. He said he will leave the bench, but could also come back as a visiting judge.

Judge Craig Strong served in Detroit Recorder’s Court, the county Circuit Court and later the court’s civil division.

"I'm exploring options," said Strong. "I want to relax. I've been on the bench since I was 30. I'm getting offers right now like teaching."

As with Boykin, Strong has had many memorable cases, including a 2007 murder involving self-professed Detroit hitman Vincent Smothers and the civil trial in the fatal shooting of 7-year-old Aiyanna Stanley-Jones by Detroit police Officer Joseph Weekley. Aiyanna's family received a $8.25 millsettlement last year in a lawsuit against the city of Detroit.

Strong said those who entered his courtroom as a defendant or were involved in litigation were given justice.

"I'm not a hard judge. I'm not an easy judge," said Strong. "I'm a fair judge. It's about being fair."

A Detroit resident and like Boykin, a graduate of Cass Tech, Strong graduated from the Detroit College of Law. He also is a graduate of Howard University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts.

Strong, Wayne County's longest tenured judge, was a referee in the traffic and ordinance division of the Detroit Recorder's Court before joining the county court. He presided over high-profile cases before he recently being appointed to the civil division of the court.

Strong is a member of various community organizations, having served as president of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan.

He is a retired commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, where he presided over court martial proceedings.

Strong has served as president of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan; the Wolverine Bar; and National Chair of the National Bar Association’s Judicial Council, which represents judges of color in the United States, Canada and Caribbean Islands. He was slated to be honored by National Bar Association with a special award.

Monday's event is being sponsored by the Detroit Bar Association, Wolverine Bar Association, Black Women Lawyers Association of Michigan and the Third Judicial Circuit Court.

High-profile local attorney Arnold Reed, who was a clerk for Boykin when the judge was at Lewis, White & Clay, said both judges are revered and bring historical family backgrounds to the bench.

"This man is respected all over the globe," said Reed, also noting that Strong is a "by the book" jurist.

Of Boykin's departure, Reed said: "That is a piece of history that we're losing as well. Judge Boykin is the kind of no-nonsense judge that comes with the credentials (where) he could have been on the (Michigan) Court of Appeals if he wanted to.

"He could have the bench on the (Michigan) Supreme Court. He's got the academic credentials to do whatever he wanted to do, but he was on Recorder's Court because that's where he felt he could serve the people and be close to the people."