News Story

Octogenarian Bailiffs Finally Get Dismissed From Detroit Court

‘One of my favorite stories of government run amok’

Two city of Detroit court bailiffs in their 80s were dismissed from their jobs in 2016 because serious health issues prevented them from performing the necessary tasks. One of them used a wheelchair and supplemental oxygen, due to cardiovascular problems. The other had trouble climbing stairs.

The bailiffs sued the 36th District Court, formerly known as the Detroit Recorders Court. But their attempt to hold on to a position that had been eliminated decades earlier in the rest of the state ended this week.

The Michigan Court of Appeals found that Thornton Jackson Jr. and Jeremiah Weatherly had not shown that their 2016 dismissals were the result of age discrimination. Instead, the court ruled, they lost their jobs because their employer determined they were no longer capable of performing their duties.

According to court records, Thornton Jr. (now deceased) had emphysema and congestive heart failure, used a wheelchair, and was on oxygen by the time he was dismissed. Weatherly had poor balance and vision, struggled to climb stairs and demonstrated cognitive impairment in tests ordered by the district court.

Thornton delegated physical exertion related to the job — serving court papers, evicting unlawful tenants and repossessing property - to an informal crew recruited from a neighborhood soup kitchen. Weatherly’s crew included his son, who also served as his driver. (Being able to drive a car was one requirement of the job and Weatherly had been told he should not drive.)

The remarkable thing is not the two men were finally let go, but that they held on for so long. And therein lies a tale, according to Mike Talbot, a former Wayne County and Court of Appeals judge who was appointed in 2013 to overhaul the 36th District Court.

“It’s one of my favorite stories of government run amok,” Talbot said.

Statewide reforms in the 1960s and 70s replaced bailiffs, many of whom were patronage appointees and significant cogs in urban political machines, with court officers. Everywhere except Detroit, that is, where their political influence in the Legislature was sufficient to earn them grandfathered status that carried over to the creation of the 36th District in 1981. The reform legislation carved out a special employment status for those employees, allowing a Detroit bailiff to hold office “until death, retirement, resignation or removal from office ... for misfeasance or malfeasance.”

“We basically had a bunch of guys with lifetime appointments,” Talbot said, “and the court had no control over their conduct or the quality of their work.”

Bruce Timmons, who worked as a top judicial committee aide in the Legislature for 50 years, recalled an occasion in the 1970s. A last- minute objection from Detroit’s bailiffs to a piece of legislation on landlord/tenant relations prompted then-Gov. William Milliken to cancel a scheduled bill signing and have it rewritten.

According to the records of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, in 1981, there were 42 bailiffs grandfathered into service at the 36th District. Along with enjoying job security, they were entitled by statute to receive $20,000 salaries and pensions funded by the court. (Most of their compensation came from fees paid by plaintiffs for carrying out court orders). By 1998, only 9 remained; 33 had retired or resigned. And when Talbot returned to Detroit in 2013, only three were left.

One of them, said Talbot, “greeted me from his wheelchair.” Talbot had served as a judge on the 36th District’s predecessor, the Detroit Common Pleas Court, in the 1970s.

“I wondered how he was doing the work ... before realizing they were turning it over to their families,” he said of a kind of lifetime appointment with hereditary succession.

Reforming the court’s cumbersome and expensive bailiff/court officer system for process serving, eviction and repossession became one of his priorities, Talbot said. The court officers eventually were transitioned, after prolonged legal wrangling with their union, into contract employees.

Then Talbot went to the Legislature and asked for amendments to the bailiff’s authorizing statute, to allow bailiffs to be dismissed “for inability to perform essential functions.” It passed in 2015 with little fanfare.

That provision allowed the court to order evaluations of Jackson, Weatherly, and the third elderly bailiff, Robert Rhue, who was deemed capable of performing his duties and stayed on the job. Rhue, however, died within a year.

Weatherly and his attorney, AFSCME’s Herbert Sanders, were not available for comment.