Thompson: Benchmarking new chief judge

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Denise Page Hood, the new chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Detroit, recalls first learning how to argue a case at her family church — an African Methodist Episcopal church in Columbus, Ohio — where the need to fairly treat people, including the poor, was emphasized.

Those teachings framed her cultural reference and identity as she proceeded to Columbia Law School that “you not only have an obligation as a Christian, you had an obligation to social justice and the welfare of the poor.”

Hood, who has been on the federal bench for 21 years, said she also followed this advice from her grandparents: When you go out, represent our family well.

That advice is not lost on Hood, who on Jan. 1 officially took over as chief judge for the Eastern District of Michigan from the 64-year-old Gerald Rosen, who remains on the bench after his tenure as chief judge ended. Hood, 63, described the court as a family unit that works together.

“Judges really only have administrative duties relating to their staff and their committees. This would be the first time I have responsibility for all of the court,” she said during an interview in her office.

Hood, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, said her new duties include overseeing the appointment of judicial committees and their chairs, most notably the judicial merit selection committee, a citizen panel which recommends candidates to be federal magistrates. She also will oversee the finances of the Theodore Levin Courthouse, which has initiated paid renovations of the Fort Street building.

She said one of her priorities for the court will be adopting technology that would help to make it easier for potential jurors to respond to jury duty requests.

“We want to be able to know about the technology being used and how we can use it to help us better do our job. Not only for judges and their staff, but also how jurors can participate in jury duty by signing up without having to come down to court or having to pay for copy. They can do it right from their phone or their computer,” Hood said.

That would mean possibly sending jury notices through text messages.

“I know that I get text from people that I didn’t sign up to get text from,” Hood said. “You could get information to people right on their device because more and more people are using it. Even people who don’t have a permanent device have a temporary device that they use and that would be a good way to not only get information to people but give them a reminder that this is your day to come to court.”

Hood cited jury diversity as another issue facing the court and said she would like to see more community forums throughout the metro area, as held in previous years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, to explain the importance of jury service and diversity.

“I think when we do a conference or some kind of community setting (engagement) people get more attuned to it,” Hood said. “But we need to always be vigilant that we are getting racial and ethnic minorities into the system to be jurors to encourage them in ways that they feel confident to come to court and prepared to be jurors and to make sure that they don’t have road blocks.”

She added, “It makes me feel better if I’m picking a jury if there are some African-Americans out there.”

Hood said she is open to a test allowing cameras into federal courtrooms.

“I think people are interested in seeing the whole context not just the clip that the media said this is what was important,” she said. “People are interested in hearing or seeing the whole trial.”

The decision ultimately rests with the Judicial Conference of the United States, which in 1972 banned cameras and electronic recording devices during court proceedings. The conference tried a three-year pilot program in 1991 to reassess that prohibition, and decided to extend the ban.

“I think we are still debating about how we are going to handle that. It would have to be something that protects the jury and defendant and judges are comfortable with,” Hood said.

Hood also addressed how the growing number of police encounters with blacks is affecting the nation’s racial climate.

“We all think about every single part of it. I think the judge’s part is not as big as the prosecution and defense, and is not as big as the police and the community. All of those groups have to be the best that they can be. And so we are seeing things like technology,” Hood said.

“It makes a difference in how people view things if somebody took a video of it and has it on their camera phones. You see something different than just people remembering about it. So I think we are going to see some more use of technology in policing the police and policing the community.”

Underrepresentation of women in all facets including the law is also a concern for Hood.

“I think the issue is we ought to have the right to choose (a career) and know that we could still be successful so that if I want to be the managing partner or the president of the law firm I can still get there.”

The federal court will hold a passing of the gavel ceremony at 3 p.m. Jan. 28, marking the beginning of her tenure as chief judge.


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.

U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood

Age: 63

Appointment: President Bill Clinton, 1994

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Yale University; Juris doctor degree, Columbia University

Experience: Former judge, 36th District Court, Recorder’s Court and Wayne County Circuit Court

Family: Married to the Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood III, senior pastor, Plymouth United Church of Christ, Detroit