Judge has witnessed a sea change in tiny municipal court over 25 years

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 8, 2023

 During an Oct. 16 Grosse Pointe City Council meeting in council chambers — which also serve as the municipal courtroom —  Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak presents outgoing City Municipal Court Judge Russell Ethridge with a proclamation in his honor.

During an Oct. 16 Grosse Pointe City Council meeting in council chambers — which also serve as the municipal courtroom — Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak presents outgoing City Municipal Court Judge Russell Ethridge with a proclamation in his honor.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE CITY — Residents, officials and others have been thanking Grosse Pointe City Municipal Court Judge Russell Ethridge a lot lately, as he wraps up his tenure helming the court. It turns out Ethridge is every bit as grateful as they are.

“I owe thanks to this community for the opportunity to define my career (by serving as a judge),” Ethridge said during an Oct. 16 Grosse Pointe City Council meeting. “I never met a soul who didn’t have a rigid moral compass in this community. … I want to thank all of you for an opportunity that really has been the ride of a lifetime.”

Ethridge has been the City’s judge for the last 25 years. Voters this fall will be choosing a new judge to fill his seat from a field of four candidates. The Nov. 9 edition of the Grosse Pointe Times went to press before election results were available.

Ethridge turned 70 in February, and Michigan law prevents him from running for another term as a result. He isn’t angry about it, though, saying it’s time for someone new to take over.

“I think it’s time to change it up,” Ethridge said. “Twenty-five years is enough.”

Becoming a judge wasn’t even on Ethridge’s radar when his predecessor, City Municipal Court Judge Stanley Kazul, decided to retire in 1998. Ethridge, who started his career as a newspaper reporter — following in the footsteps of his father, a Detroit newspaper editor — had become an attorney and started to practice law in 1980. He said he was separately approached by late former Grosse Pointe City Councilman Peter Waldmeir — a fellow attorney — and late former City Mayor John “Jack” King about applying to fill the vacancy left by Kazul’s departure. Both told Ethridge he’d be a “great candidate” for the judgeship.

“It was not anything I sought — it sought me,” Ethridge said of applying to serve the remainder of Kazul’s term, about a year. After that, Ethridge — who has lived in Grosse Pointe City for more than 40 years — ran for reelection.

“In your career (as an attorney), it’s a defining moment to be a judge,” Ethridge said. “Your only (duty) is to try to do the right thing and do it correctly and try to be fair to everyone. As a judge, you’re all about the integrity of the process, not necessarily who wins or loses.”

The municipal court of 1998 is a far cry from the municipal court of today.

“Things have really changed,” Ethridge said. “We (formerly) had a cash box to take your fines and costs … like we were running a garage sale.”

The court has had to adapt to new technology, from computerized records to Zoom hearings, Ethridge said.

“It’s become a much more sophisticated process,” Ethridge said. “And the level of professionalism is just as (high) with small courts as it is with big courts. It’s much higher profile … (and) the cases that we handle are much more sophisticated. It’s a real different court than the sleepy, small court it was when I started.”

All state courts also now have to report quarterly to the State Court Administrative Office.

“Really, back then (when I started), nobody was keeping an eye on municipal courts,” Ethridge recalled. “I think it’s all, frankly, much better.”

The five Grosse Pointes are the only cities in Michigan that still have municipal courts. Other communities have switched to having district courts.

One of the distinctions of being a municipal court judge is that the courts are considered part-time and the judges can continue their regular legal practice. Ethridge maintained his own practice until 2021.

However, the “part-time” label is a bit of a misnomer. Ethridge needed to be available to sign arrest and other time-sensitive warrants around the clock, as well as to oversee arraignments within 48 hours of a suspect’s arrest.

“It might be a part-time court, but it’s close to a full-time job,” Ethridge said.

He recalled how City public safety officers would sometimes come to his home at 2 a.m. to get a warrant to have a motorist’s blood drawn after the driver was pulled over for operating while intoxicated and refused to take a breath test. Ethridge said he’d be “sitting at the kitchen table in my bathrobe” while filling out the paperwork.

“Now, we do it by email,” Ethridge said. “I have done search warrants from all over the world — including (while) on a sailboat awaiting transit through the Panama Canal.”

His wife, an obstetrician, also frequently got calls in the middle of the night when a patient went into labor, so both understood the unusual schedule they had.

Technology has changed some of the ways police fight crime. Because crimes like credit card fraud and stalking often involve the use of smartphones or computers, Ethridge said he now finds himself approving search warrants aimed at data providers like AT&T and Verizon. Social media posts also often figure in cases.

“A lot of times people take photos of the bad stuff that they do,” Ethridge said.

Law enforcement and city officials alike said Ethridge was always someone who could be counted on.

During an Oct. 16 Grosse Pointe City Council meeting, Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak read and presented Ethridge with a proclamation acknowledging his “outstanding service.” The proclamation notes that Ethridge’s cases “are adjudicated in a timely manner within the confines of Michigan Court Rules, surpassing other courts in neighboring areas.” It also reads, in part, that Ethridge “upholds the highest of standards for public servants. His knowledge, work ethic and proficiency in managing a docket are a model for others to emulate. He inspires others to work for the greater good of the community.”

City leaders expressed their gratitude to Ethridge.

City Councilwoman Maureen Juip said she wanted to thank him “for his years of dedicated service.”

“He was an excellent judge for the City for years,” Juip continued.

In 25 years, Ethridge never missed a court date — until now. His last date presiding over the court was supposed to be Nov. 9, but Ethridge and his wife will still be on vacation in Egypt that day. Grosse Pointe Farms Municipal Court Judge Charles “Chip” Berschback will be on the bench instead.

As a result, Ethridge’s actual last court date was Oct. 26. After legal activity had wrapped up for the day, he said his court staff surprised him with a party attended by court personnel from all of the Pointes, as well as current and former Grosse Pointe City law enforcement personnel, attorneys and others.

“It’s been fun,” Ethridge said. “We’ve got a really great court staff.”

Ethridge and his wife have three adult children. Their middle child is expecting her first child by the end of February 2024, which will be their first grandchild. The couple is looking forward to spending time with their new grandchild after Ethridge’s wife retires in March 2024.

Ethridge said he plans to continue serving as a visiting judge at courts around metro Detroit — something he’s already been doing. In retirement, he hopes to spend more time playing the guitar — something he’s done his whole life — as well as playing more golf and traveling. In the last 18 months alone, Ethridge and his wife have been to Iceland, France, Turkey and the Galapagos Islands, to name a few of their international journeys. But he’s not moving.

“I’m certainly not leaving Grosse Pointe,” Ethridge said. “We love it here. … I got to be a judge in a community that gave me a great life and a great place to raise kids.”