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James P. Churchill, longtime federal judge, dead at 96

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

U.S. District Judge James P. Churchill, a longtime federal judge who presided over a litany of cases that made state and national headlines, died Monday, June 29, 2020 after a brief illness in Harbor Springs. He was 96.

Mr. Churchill, who once served as chief for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1989, was on inactive service from the bench.

Judge James P. Churchill

One of his more memorable cases occurred in 1975, when he ordered three mob-connected New Jersey Teamsters — prime suspects in the disappearance of Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa — to appear for a police lineup at the Oakland County Jail.

In February 1976, he ruled that the city of Detroit under then-Mayor Coleman A. Young discriminated against white firefighters by promoting less-senior black firefighters during the mayor's effort to integrate the city’s overwhelmingly white Fire Department. Mr. Churchill at the time said he was sympathetic to the city’s arguments but had to follow the law.

He was nominated to the bench in 1974 by then-President Gerald Ford.

In 1981, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sent Mr. Churchill to Nashville, Tenn., to preside over the criminal case of six aides of Gov. Ray Blanton who were accused of selling pardons, paroles and commutations to prisoners serving time for crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. The case resulted in multiple convictions and prison terms.

Mr. Churchill was born April 10, 1924, in Imlay City, the youngest child of a bank cashier turned prosperous insurance and real estate broker. His mother was a school teacher.

Upon graduating from high school in 1941, Mr. Churchill attended the University of Michigan to study business. In March 1943, he volunteered for the Army, which was preparing for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. He was placed in a specialized training program at Oklahoma A&M University and later assigned to an artillery unit of the 103rd Infantry Division.

"In theory, I was a clerk, but I never saw a typewriter again after we landed in Europe," Mr. Churchill once recalled in a historical society interview. He said he spent the rest of the war in combat firing 105-millimeter howitzers.

Initially planning to become an accountant, Mr. Churchill once said he took a vocational test that showed he would make a better lawyer.

In 1965, Mr. Churchill was elected circuit judge for Tuscola and Lapeer counties.

Then in 1974, he ran for Michigan Court of Appeals, but lost in the primary. Four days later, Mr. Churchill’s longtime friend, U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin, asked Mr. Churchill if he would be open to being appointed federal district judge in Detroit.

Mr. Churchill is survived by his wife, Ann; children Nancy Ann Nyquist (Michael Blohm) of Menominee; David (Kathy) Churchill of Lapeer; and Sally Jo Churchill (Edward Kulka) of Ann Arbor; six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Interment will take place at the Readmond Township Cemetery on a date to be determined. Memorial contributions may be made to the Readmond Friendship, Cross Village Fire Department, 6043 Wormwood Lane, Harbor Springs, MI, 49740, or the

University of Michigan Law School Fund, 4000 Jeffries Hall, 701 State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming