Wayne Co. judge suspended by state Supreme Court for misconduct
The Michigan Supreme Court on Thursday suspended Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Morrow for six months without pay for judicial misconduct.
The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission last year found that Morrow committed judicial misconduct by abusing his power and position as a judge when he used sexually graphic language during conversations with two female prosecutors during a 2019 murder trial.
The commission had urged the state’s highest court to suspend Morrow, who has been on the bench since 1992, without pay for a year. The commission brought the misconduct complaint against Morrow in August 2020 after the women lodged complaints.
Reached Thursday, Morrow told The Detroit News he wasn't aware of the court's ruling and would not comment yet until he had reviewed it.
Morrow's attorney, Trent Collier, told justices during oral arguments in October of last year that 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 court.
He asked the court to vacate the commission's decision and fix the state's rules that he said allow the JTC to serve as both prosecutor and judge in judicial misconduct cases.
Morrow has remained on the bench in the time since the complaint. The suspension takes effect 21 days from Thursday. Wayne County circuit judges earn $156,410, according to a State Court Administrative Office spokesman.
Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and justices David Viviano, Richard Bernstein, Elizabeth Clement, Megan Cavanagh and Elizabeth Welch concurred with the ruling and a seventh, Brian Zahra dissented.
Zahra wrote that while the commission came to the right conclusion when it determined Morrow committed misconduct and his challenges to their determination were without merit, he strongly disagreed a six-month suspension was appropriate.
“The Court makes clear this is not the first disciplinary proceeding in which respondent’s inappropriate courtroom behavior has been the subject of discipline,” Zahra wrote. “Respondent is a frequent flyer before the JTC and has failed to demonstrate that he has learned anything from his previous encounters. And as his judicial career winds to a close respondent appears to be all the more determined to thumb his nose at the criminal justice system he purports to serve, defying with impunity the commands of the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
Morrow in 2014 faced 10 counts of judicial misconduct stemming from unrelated criminal cases in his courtroom.
The JTC ultimately determined he committed misconduct in eight of the 10 cases and he was suspended for two months, 30 days less than what the JTC asked the justices to impose.
In one of the cases, Morrow closed the courtroom to the public and the victim’s family during a post-conviction hearing without giving a reason and ordered his court reporter not to prepare transcripts of the hearing. Additionally, the court found he failed to sentence a defendant in a third offense drunken driving case to the mandatory 30 days in jail, once subpoenaed a defendant’s medical records without getting consent and in a rape case denied a prosecutor’s request to jail without bail a defendant convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person under the age of 13 until sentencing.
Morrow was also accused of removing a prisoner from the court’s lockup himself and bringing him to a courtroom, sentencing the defendant to lengthy prison terms for armed robbery, carjacking and felony firearm, and then returning the man to the lockup. The man was not restrained and there was no security in Morrow’s courtroom. The justices wrote that Morrow “recklessly placed himself and others in his courtroom at risk of serious harm by personally bringing a defendant convicted of several violent crimes from lockup and sentencing him without restraints or courtroom security present."
In the most recent complaint, one of the female assistant prosecutors in the 2020 sexual assault and murder trial 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.
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," he added, 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."
During oral arguments, Bernstein and Viviano questioned whether Morrow was at a "disadvantage" because hearings held by the commission were virtual and did not allow him to confront his accuser in person.
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.
In the ruling, Viviano wrote that he agreed in full with the majority opinion but would have held that the master appointed to conduct the hearings into the allegations against Morrow should have held the hearings in-person. Bernstein expressed continuing concern with virtual hearings and said he hoped vaccines would lead to the opportunity for defendants to have in-person hearings if they choose.
Staff Writer Oralandar Brand-Williams contributed.