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Detroit Judge Dalton Roberson Sr., known to 'require excellence,' dies at 83

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Judge Dalton Roberson Sr. served more than a quarter-century in Detroit and Wayne County with an unwavering dedication to justice.

“He was known as really being able to grasp any issue in the case and require excellence from the lawyers, whichever role you served in his courtroom,” said Dawn Ison, an assistant U.S. attorney who appeared before him as a criminal defense lawyer.

“He would make sure you were representing your clients appropriately and the evidence was sufficient. He just really challenged you to be your absolute best.”

Judge Roberson

Judge Roberson died Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. He was 83 and had recently been diagnosed with COVID-19, relatives said.

The jurist was most well-known for his tenure at the Detroit Recorder’s Court, which later merged with Wayne County Circuit Court.

Working in what was considered the state’s busiest criminal court, Judge Roberson, who retired more than 20 years ago but recently returned there as a visiting judge, earned a reputation as a sharp, orderly professional.

“He was smart as a whip and could move a docket like no one else,” Ison said.

The judge tackled a variety of cases, including some as high profile as a police sergeant charged in connection with the 1992 controversial beating death of Malice Green, an African American Detroit resident.

Judge Roberson approached proceedings with a singular focus, recalled Rita White, president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Michigan. 

“He just really knew how to keep everything balanced in the courtroom,” said White, who first met him as an assistant prosecutor. “He made sure everyone was properly and effectively treated. He was a fair, honest, direct judge.”

His decisions were not always welcomed. Some critics and colleagues argued the sentences he gave were not severe enough to match the crimes committed, The Detroit News reported in the 1990s.

“That didn’t change his approach to how he handled cases and dispensed justice," Ison said. "He maintained his positions and his convictions.”

Overall, he was driven by fairness, said his daughter, Portia Roberson, who also became a lawyer. “His conviction about treating people fairly and getting a shot at second chances was a commitment.”

Born May 11, 1937, Judge Roberson grew up in rural Alabama..

“There was nothing past the eighth grade where I lived,” he once told The News. “My daddy had to pay a local farmer $2 a week so I could ride in the back of his truck to the town high school every day.”

Judge Roberson moved to Detroit after high school to seek work.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, where he was active in the Delta Pi Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., relatives said.

He also spent a stint with the Michigan Department of Social Services before graduating from the Detroit College of Law in 1967.

Judge Roberson also was an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and an assistant U.S. attorney, and formed a law firm with two colleagues, according to his biography.

Former Michigan Lt. Gov. James Brickley named him to head the state Civil Rights Commission in 1972. In 1974, Gov. William Milliken appointed Judge Roberson to Detroit Recorder’s Court.

He was elected chief judge in the 1980s, his biography said. 

In 1992, the National Conference of Black Lawyers named him Judge of the Year, relatives and colleagues said.

Between his caseloads, Judge Roberson was remembered for mentoring others. “Newer lawyers he would take notice of and take under his wing,” White said. “He’s definitely a torch bearer. He’s going to leave an extreme legacy.”

Retiring in 1999, Judge Roberson and his wife, Pearl, relocated to Mississippi, where he indulged his passion for golf.

After the couple returned to Detroit in 2013, he became a visiting judge for Wayne County Circuit Court. 

Judge Roberson was still working through early this year, his daughter said. “He loved the law.”

Besides his daughter, other survivors include his son, Dalton Jr.; a daughter-in-law, Jakeema Roberson; and two grandchildren, Avery and Harper. His wife died in 2018.

Services are pending.