William McConico, 36th District Court chief judge, has been in his role over the historic court system since last January.
Photo provided by the 36th District Court
36th District Court Chief Judge William McConico didn’t know that last March — two months into his prestigious position — that a worldwide pandemic would unfold and impact the historic court system he was appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2019 to lead.
With the worldwide crisis underway, McConico drew from his reservoir of deep-rooted love for justice for the people and the approachable, unflappable chief judge did what he knew best — pivot through the uncertainty with clarity and compassion. Because after all, lady justice still had and has work to do in the city of Detroit.
“It’s still kind of new because of the pandemic,” McConico said recently of his position about 14 months in. “Everything has been a whirlwind. I had exactly two-and-a-half months on the job before I had to basically shut the court down on March 13, 2020. My goals are still the same but we had to change.”
McConico, who has been a judge at the 36th District Court since 2010, told The Michigan Chronicle that the 36th District Court has a “very, very, very unique bench” as it is 100% Black-led with 27 Black judges and five magistrates. McConico is the ninth chief judge; the eight prior chief judges were Black, too.
“That is why I tell people it’s a true honor to lead this court and lead this bench,” McConico said. “I don’t believe there is a court like that anywhere in the country.”
McConico wants the bustling court system to lead in other ways, too, and about a year into making changes he’s seeing the fruit of his labor positively impact residents. One of his top priorities was tackling the high home eviction rate in the city.
“In comparison to cities of our same size, ethnic makeup, poverty rate — when you compare Detroit to Baltimore, Cleveland, the Bronx, New Jersey, we still have eviction rates three times of those cities,” McConico said. “One of the reasons I believe we evict so many people is the lack of counsel. One of the major priorities is to work to get more counsel, more resources for our tenants in the city of Detroit so it is a fair process for the landlord and tenant.”
McConico said that with Zoom hearings now being the norm, legal counsel is readily available for any defendant in a landlord-tenant case — similar to how criminal cases provide defendants with guaranteed legal representation.
“This great service is going to help bring down our eviction rate and (provide) stable housing for our residents,” he said.
McConico added that it was important to him to make the 36th District Court a “true people’s court” because more people are impacted at the 36th Court than in the state of Michigan.
“I want this to be a place more people have true access to it,” he said.
So, naturally, McConico got to work and last year he rescinded bans that didn’t allow people to bring in pens, pencils and cellphones into the court building.
McConico said that getting rid of those bans increases access to people coming down to the 36th, especially if they are taking a bus or other mode of transportation. There are also kiosks downtown, and a mobile app, that allows people to make payments and take care of other court-related business without stepping foot into the courthouse.
“We’re the first place in the state of Michigan where people can now pay bonds using a kiosk,” McConico said, which makes things easier for the public.
The bond payment kiosks are in the lobby of the Detroit Detention Center located at 17601 Mound Road. People can make a bond payment by searching a case number or entering the name and date of birth of the person to be released. Individuals can also pay a bond even when a case number has not yet been assigned, which often happens on the weekends. The bond payment kiosk accepts cash only and has a $5 service fee. When the payment has been made two receipts are printed, one for you to keep and the second for Detention Center records.
Not only is he interested in helping those outside the courthouse, but those inside, too. Just after being voted into his position, McConico spoke to court employees, built relationships and lifted morale.
“I walked this entire building and tried to speak to every single employee to let them know they are valued. I appreciate the work they are doing at the 36th District Court,” McConico said, adding that when the time came to make a 5 percent budget cut last year due to the city being in financial straits, it took only six days to come to an agreement on what to cut because of those genuine connections he made. “That paid dividends later on.”
McConico last year also started a Specialty Court division that deals with mental health, which Judge Shannon A. Holmes presides over.
“She is over our drug courts where she is doing a phenomenal job and we are recognized nationally,” he said adding that one of the major issues in the city of Detroit is a lack of resources. “We are incarcerating people who need mental health services.”
Holmes told The Michigan Chronicle that said that the Specialty Court is a part of the restorative justice initiative that has swept this country — instead of placing people in jail, the underlying issues (ranging from drug addiction, mental health issues, lack of shelter and beyond) needs to be addressed, which she does.
Holmes said that before McConico became chief judge, everybody was “working in a vacuum” and didn’t know what services were available beyond criminal activity.
“McConico said, ‘Let’s bring all the problem-solving courts under one umbrella. Let’s pull all the resources together,’” she said of addressing the needs of vulnerable populations locally. “I thought it was a great idea. We weren’t using all of our resources. … He has totally embraced the concept of you break the law, yes there is punishment — but let’s dig deeper to find out why you are breaking the law. … Who is your support system? What are some issues you have?”
She added that she appreciates the fact that McConico gets things done and is “community-minded” and doesn’t just “give lip service.”
“I am truly appreciative of his leadership with the Specialty Court,” she added.
McConico’s also proud of the court’s judges overall as they are understaffed and working to fill in the gaps. They are short judges after Judge Beatrice (Pennie) Millender passed earlier this year and Judge Nancy Blount retired. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plans to appoint two judges as replacements, a court official confirmed.
“Our bench is pitching in — we’re doing more with less still and giving proper justice to the city of Detroit with no interruption of services — still doing in-person court for those who request it. The Zoom hearings are working well,” McConico said, adding that access to justice has really expanded and he is looking forward to leading the way for what’s next. “It is an honor to serve the citizens of Detroit as chief judge of the largest district court in the state of Michigan. [We are] working hard to provide fair, equitable justice. … 36th District isn’t perfect but we are moving to be an accessible, progressive court and there is still a lot planned.”
For more information visit https://www.36thdistrictcourt.org/.