Berman: The state's most tenacious judge

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

You may think this story is about survival, once you know that Administrative Judge Carroll Little is the state's longest serving employee. But that would be underestimating Judge Little.

Little racked up so many years on the job — 58 years, including 41 as a judge ruling on unemployment compensation cases — that the state computer system crashed trying to calculate his years of service.

"That's how we found out he's the longest serving employee," says Jason Moon, a spokesman for LARA, the department that includes Little in its bureaucratic umbrella. "They had to roll it back to zero."

Survival and longevity are admirable enough: But Little's tenure, which includes outlasting eight governors (he started in 1956, under Gov. G. Mennen Williams), and nearly as many name-changes in the department now called LARA, has required tenacity, determination, a keen and political intelligence and more toughness than you might expect.

"He can be a little intimidating," says Mike Zimmer, the director of LARA, who is Little's boss.

If interrupted, he can pause and glare in a disconcerting way.

While younger people tend to subtly demean nonagerians as "cute" (Little will be 93 on June 4), Little's professional competence, demeanor and ability to project fierceness when necessary, cut against such stereotyping.

Roger Winkelman, a federal administrative law judge in California and a former colleague of Little's, describes him as "a trove of institutional knowledge who treats everyone with respect." Few of Little's professional contemporaries, including four of the governors he served under, are still alive.

"I shouldn't be here now but I am," says Little, who is meticulously dressed for an interview, in a dark suit, crisp white shirt, striped tie with a silver tie bar, his shoes freshly shined.

His work ethic was deeply ingrained from the start: Raised in Chicago by his mother (his father died when he was a baby), Little was the first person in his family to attend college, graduating from the University of Michigan. To get his law degree, he worked at Ford's Willow Run plant on the morning shift, attending Wayne State University Law School at night.

Before graduating, he took a state job as a tax collector, fighting naysayers, and waging a political battle to get the job. "There had never been a black tax collector," he said, in his capacious hearing room in the state office building on West Grand Boulevard. Racial discrimination and mistrust were constants in the early years of his career.

He remembers an adversary as "one of those people who didn't like Little," and recalls that when he bought a 1960 Thunderbird, the whispers were "he must be stealing." He outwitted, outlasted or outlived those who challenged his rise in the bureaucracy, but he has never forgotten what it took.

"People think it's all peaches and cream," he says of his tenure, including the administrative law judge position which he's held since 1974. At one point, he filed a lawsuit to win his job. At another point, he scored higher on an official exam than another candidate who had been touted for the job.

"They didn't give me a job. I fought for it. And after I won it, they wanted to get rid of me," he says of a clash that led to his dismissal, a public hearing and his triumphant rehiring in 1962. But Little is more realistic than bitter: He knows the determination and work that's been required of him to reach his status as the state's longest serving employee.

After the human resources computer was reset, Little began his 59th year of state service on April 2. He remains grateful to have work that he still finds intellectually challenging and compelling. He gets up at 4 a.m. to run through an exercise routine that includes stints of weight-lifting, treadmill walking and time on an exercise bike. His wife, Rose, packs him a healthy lunch every day — soup, sandwich, fruit — and coordinates his doctor's appointments.

LARA's Mike Zimmer, who has known Little since 2002, says the judge treats all parties fairly, is "incredibly dedicated" and invariably well-prepared. He is one of 40 state administrative law judges, a job that pays between $50,000 and $118,000 a year.

"I think of him as the dean of the ALJ corps," he says. "I love Judge Little."

Although Rose, his wife of 56 years, "would have liked me to retire 10 years ago," Little still works every day and, often, on the weekends, preparing for cases. He has no intention of retiring, or cutting back his full-time schedule. "This job keeps me alive," he says.