Judge Shelia Johnson and Judge Debra Nance discuss their jobs Aug. 21 during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Michigan district court system at the 46th District Court, 26000 Evergreen Road in Southfield.

Judge Shelia Johnson and Judge Debra Nance discuss their jobs Aug. 21 during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Michigan district court system at the 46th District Court, 26000 Evergreen Road in Southfield.

Photo by Deb Jacques


District court celebrates 50 years serving community

By: Kayla Dimick, Sherri Kolade | Southfield Sun | Published August 29, 2018

 Dorothy Hall, of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, reads over a sign Aug. 21 about the history of the court during the event.

Dorothy Hall, of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, reads over a sign Aug. 21 about the history of the court during the event.

Photo by Deb Jacques

SOUTHFIELD — It’s known as “the people’s court,” and to celebrate a milestone anniversary, the 46th District Court invited the people to celebrate along with it. 

On Aug. 21, employees and residents celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the district court system in Michigan. 

The 46th District Court, located in the Southfield Municipal Complex, 26000 Evergreen Road, serves Southfield, Lathrup Village, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, Franklin and Southfield Township. 

The court is served by three elected judges and three appointed magistrates. District judges are elected on nonpartisan ballots for terms of six years. Magistrates’ duties include conducting arraignments, setting bail, conducting small claims trials and informal traffic hearings, and performing marriages. 

Currently, the judges of the 46th District Court include Judge Cynthia Arvant, Judge Shelia Johnson and Judge Debra Nance. 

At the celebration, the public was invited to view memorabilia from the court’s history and enjoy refreshments from food trucks. 

Residents were also able to interact with the judges during a question-and-answer segment in one of the courtrooms. 

“Our court has a lot of history,” Magistrate Robin Dillard-Russaw said. “We invited past judges of the 46th District Court and invited the public to talk to the judges, ask questions about the history of the court. It was kind of a meeting of bringing these judges that have a history of this court back into the fold.”

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper is a former judge of the court, according to Dillard-Russaw. 

“She was the first female judge of the court,” she said. 

Michigan’s district court system was created in 1968, according to the state’s court website, courts.mi.gov. 

According to the website, the effective date was June 17, 1968, and most courts began their operations on Jan. 1, 1969. 

District courts are known as “the people’s court” because the public has more contact with district court than with any other court in the state, and because many people go to district court without an attorney, the website states. 

Johnson, who is the president of the Michigan District Judges Association and chief judge at the court, spoke about the changes she has seen throughout the history of the court. 

“I think there were two female district court judges at the time of the creation of the district court, so a lot has changed since then,” Johnson said. 

Johnson was elected in November 2002 and is the first African-American to serve as a judge in the 46th District Court. In November 2014, she was re-elected for an unopposed third term.

“We have really evolved into a well-oiled machine,” Johnson said. “The court has changed from being more male-dominant, to we have an all-female bench now, including all of our magistrates are female. It just so happened — we just didn’t get a lot of male applicants. It’s interesting to see the evolution. When you think about it, women were not judges. African-American judges were almost unheard of.”

The influence of technology on society has changed the kinds of cases that Johnson sees in her courtroom, she said. 

“As society has gotten more complex, the people have started doing different kinds of crimes. The docket has changed a little bit,” she said. “We still do landlord/tenant cases, and when the economy went bad we had an increase of those because people’s jobs were affected and they couldn’t pay their mortgages, so they were foreclosed upon.”

Dave Walsh, court administrator for the 47th District Court in Farmington, said in a previous report that, unlike other courts that were created by the Michigan Constitution, district courts are statutorily based. 

“At the same time, the (Michigan) Constitution gives authority to (the state) Legislature to create other courts as they saw fit,” Walsh said.

He said that before district courts, there was a municipal court system, and before that, a justice of the peace system presided in many local communities.

Walsh said that there are still a few municipal courts, all of them located in the Grosse Pointe area in Wayne County, and they have more limited jurisdictions than district courts.

Walsh said federal law now dictates that all judges must be attorneys.