Attorney for Wayne Co. judge asks justices to dismiss misconduct complaint

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Morrow abused his power and position as a judge when he used sexually-graphic language during conversations with two female prosecutors during a 2019 trial, a Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission attorney argued before Michigan Supreme Court justices Wednesday.

Attorney William Murphy told the justices during a virtual hearing that Morrow treated the women differently because of their gender when he used graphic sexual language during a conversation with them during a 2019 murder trial.

Murphy told the justices Morrow, who has been on the bench since 1992, should be suspended from the bench for a year without pay.

The commission brought a misconduct complaint against Morrow in August 2020 after the two women lodged complaints. 

Murphy said Morrow has not shown remorse and even "double-downed" by blaming the women.

Judge William Murphy spoke to the Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 on behalf of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission and recommended the suspend Wayne County Circuit Judge Bruce Morrow for 12 months without pay for judicial misconduct.

"We're dealing with a power situation here, power of the position, power of the robe and abuse of that power," said Murphy, in an apparent reference to a 2014 misconduct complaint in which the Michigan Supreme Court suspended Morrow for 60 days for . In the first case, Morrow was sanctioned for missteps in eight criminal cases he presided over.

Morrow's attorney, Trent Collier, told justices Morrow used the alleged offensive language in the context of the murder case Morrow was presiding over.

"They were talking about sex because of the case," Collier argued. "The JTC takes that entirely out of context. I think that leads that to a very skewed view of this case." 

Collier also argued that, "It is dramatically out of step for the JTC to argue for 12 months (of suspension) here," he told the justices Wednesday.

He argued the court should vacate the commission's decision and fix the state's rules that he says allow the JTC to serve as both prosecutor and judge in judicial misconduct cases. He added that Morrow should have been able to have evidentiary hearings in the case held last fall conducted in-person instead of virtually.

Morrow has remained on the bench in the time since the complaint.

Two complaints

In the first complaint, one of the female assistant prosecutors in the sexual assault and murder sought Morrow's opinion about her questioning of a medical examiner on the witness stand, according to the complaint.

Morrow came down from the bench and had a conversation at the prosecutor's table, noting beforehand that his remarks would likely make the female prosecutor "blush," according to the complaint.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Morrow listens to attorneys before sentencing.

He sat close and at one point asked: “Would you want foreplay before or after sex?" according to the complaint.

"You start with all the information from the report, all the testimony crescendos to the cause and manner of death, which is the sex of the testimony," according to the complaint.

"You want to tease the jury with the details of the examination," the judge continued. "You want to lead them to the climax of the manner and cause of death."

In the second incident, according to the complaint, he asked a different female assistant prosecutor why she presented evidence the suspect's DNA was found during a vaginal swab of an alleged victim, then said, “all you did was show they (f-----)!”

That day, after the jury had been excused, the complaint alleges Morrow approached the two assistant prosecutors and asked their weight while "overtly eyeing both of their bodies." 

Virtual hearing questioned

Collier argued that the judge appointed to hold hearings for the JTC did not find that Morrow sexually harassed either of the women, a point Chief Justice Bridget McCormack made while questioning Murphy.

Attorney Trent Collier spoke to the Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 on behalf of Wayne County Circuit Judge Bruce Morrow and said the justices should dismiss a judicial misconduct complaint brought by the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission.

Murphy countered that the commission concluded that Morrow treated the women in a "disrespectful and discourteous way" because of their gender.

Both Justices Richard Bernstein and David Viviano questioned whether Morrow was at a "disadvantage" because the virtual hearings did not allow him to confront his accuser in person.

"Is it something that needs to be significantly addressed?" asked Bernstein.

Vivano said in-person hearings are "really important" because the body language of defendants can be observed.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, the Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether Wayne County Circuit Judge Bruce Morrow should be suspended for judicial misconduct.

Collier argued that the JTC didn't follow court rules by holding the hearing virtually. Murphy told the justices Morrow and his attorney had a chance to present their case and Morrow could have testified but did not.

The justices are weighing whether to accept the commission's recommendation, reject or alter it or send the case back to the commission for further consideration.

The justices did not indicate when they will issue a ruling. But they have until July of 2022 to announce their decision.