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Change Agent in a Black Robe

How does Judge Michael Martone fight drunk driving and youth crime? By thinking outside the box and getting outside the courtroom: “We can use the prestige of this office to make change.”

Conservative politicians love to campaign against “judicial activists” — judges who use legal opinions to impose personal opinions on society. Michael Martone is a different kind of judicial activist — a judge who thinks outside the box, gets off the bench, and tries to prevent problems before they wind up in his courtroom. He’s a change agent in a black robe.

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“We can use the prestige of this office to make change,” says Martone, 51, a district judge in Oakland County, Michigan. “By design, the judiciary is a reactive institution. But society is changing so rapidly that judges can have an impact by getting out of the courtroom.”

The origins of Martone’s work as a change agent trace back to a spring night 15 years ago, when he was a young assistant state attorney in Florida. A drunk driver had run over a 14-year-old girl who was crossing a highway in Sarasota. Martone had asked police to call him to the scene of any fatal accident involving alcohol, so he could build a stronger legal case against the drunk driver who might have caused it. But the prosecutor was not prepared for the human tragedy that he witnessed.

“I’ll never forget that night,” Martone says. “Ten years later, when I became a judge, I thought I had to do more than just hand out sentences. Every drunk driver was once a teenager. I wanted a chance to talk kids out of doing something stupid and ending up in my courtroom — or in the morgue.”

And the best way to get that chance, Martone figured, was to create it himself. Thus began “Court in the Schools/Critical Life Choices.” Martone’s goal is to make an impression on students by bringing real-life sentencing hearings into their schools. His logic: If you want to encourage kids not to make bad decisions, then make them see the consequences of such decisions.

From the moment Martone pounds the gavel in his “courtroom,” kids know that this presentation is more than a show. “This isn’t your cafeteria or your auditorium anymore,” he tells them. “This is my court. If you get out of line, you don’t see the principal — you see me. And I’ll hold you in contempt.” Kids watch wide-eyed as, for example, a second-offense drunk driver is cuffed and carted away to a 45-day jail term.

The second half of the program consists of a conversation with the kids, during which Martone screens news clips about drunk-driving accidents. The judge rolls up his sleeves and addresses the kids as equals. “I don’t tell them what to do,” he says. “I ask them to think and to have courage. Kids know how to make good choices.”

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Martone’s sessions can be disturbing. “Would you expect a ‘nice guy’ to shoot and kill somebody?” he asks the kids. Then he shows a clip of a drunk driver who killed a mother and her three daughters. “He tore up two families,” he tells the students, “his own and the one whose mother and children he killed. How is getting behind the wheel when you’re drunk different from shooting someone?”

Martone began conducting his sessions when he became a district-court judge, in 1993. But like most change agents, he is not content to be a solo innovator. He set out to persuade other judges to join the program — no small feat, given his profession’s tradition of staying aloof from society.

Martone put together a “startup kit” for his fellow judges. It has an organizational checklist, sample letters to send to school districts, advice on how to structure chats with students, and a sample press release to help spread the word. It also provides lots of evidence that the program works — not hard statistics, which would be impossible to track, but handwritten thank-you letters that students have sent to Martone.

The result: “Court in the Schools” has attracted participating judges in Michigan, Arkansas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Missouri, Florida, and Oklahoma. “This is truly ‘good government,’ ” says Martone. “It’s low-cost and high-impact. More and more judges are stepping off the bench and into the schools.”

Contact Judge Michael Martone via email (martonem@co.oakland.mi.us).

Sidebar: Get Off The Bench!

Judge Michael Martone is not the only activist on the bench who is eager to spend more time in the community. “The role of judges in our society is evolving,” says Vic Fleming, 46, a municipal judge in Little Rock, Arkansas, who has embraced the “Court in the Schools” program. “We have a different kind of public servant today from what we had 20 years ago. Part of the change reflects a new generation. And part of it can be credited to people like Judge Martone, who has shown both how important and how easy it is to get involved.”

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Stepping off the bench isn’t just good for society. It’s good for judges too. Indeed, Judge Julie Nicholson, 37, who presides over the district courthouse in Rochester Hills, Michigan, credits part of her election victory in 1996 to a pledge to bring Martone’s program to the schools in her district. “Most of my opponents were against adopting the program,” she says. “But the community sent a message that it wants judges to become more involved.” Nicholson has held hearings at 15 schools since she took office.

For Michael Martone, though, the real reward isn’t reelection. It’s averting a tragedy down the road. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get a phone call that says, ‘You know, judge, if it weren’t for your program, I would have been in that car.’ But you’ve got to figure that out of the thousands of kids whom I’ve been able to reach, some of them have altered their behavior.”

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