Dearborn Chief Judge Mark Somers threw a Quran-burning Florida preacher in jail, sparking a free-speech uproar.
He refused to dismiss marijuana charges against a man who was prescribed the drug, asserting that the state law permitting it is unconstitutional.
And now, lawsuits filed against him after his administrative shake-up at the 19th District Court could cost Dearborn about $2 million. Somers said the decisions were based solely on principles — principles he said he refuses to compromise, regardless of how unpopular the decisions may be.
But one action he’s now second-guessing is his decision to use the court’s letterhead when writing three letters that included Bible verses. The letters were entered as evidence in the lawsuits. “It was one of those, ‘What was I thinking?’ moments,” Somers said.
But Somers, 53, said he has no regrets about eliminating former Dearborn deputy court administrator Julie Pucci’s position and firing former probation officer Simone Calvas, although both women won civil rights lawsuits against him. A third lawsuit, filed by the court clerk, is pending.
Somers said he thinks he should remain on the bench, despite some residents’ call for his resignation. “I acted with integrity, not self-interest.”
Some in Dearborn want Judge Mark Somers off the bench
Diverse belief systems and a multicultural upbringing are two things Dearborn Chief Judge Mark Somers said he learned to appreciate after spending most of his youth in India when his parents — both missionaries — moved the family from St. Johns in central Michigan to south Asia.
“Being exposed to so many different languages, belief systems, religions and then finding myself in Dearborn, was like to me, a natural fit,” said Somers, who practiced law 19 years before becoming a judge.
But as Somers points out, his background adds irony to the fact that he has been sued in three civil rights cases alleging he discriminated and retaliated against women who worked for him at the 19th District Court.
“It feels terrible,” he said. “It’s just not me.”
Learning from experience
Somers moved to Dearborn in 1980, shortly after he was accepted to Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. He later joined a general practice law firm where he handled mostly criminal and family cases. Eventually, he had his own practice.
But the allure of sitting on the bench was something Somers could not resist, so in 2000, he decided to run for judge in the 19th District Court.
“It’s cliché I know, but I was sitting around the dining room table with my wife and sons, and it’s that thing that every lawyer has in the back of their mind,” Somers recalled, smiling. “We all have it ingrained in us somewhere.”
Somers’ 2000 campaign against incumbent Judge Virginia Sobotka failed, but he said the experience prepared him for the campaign process.
In 2002, Somers ran for judge again, defeating Judge William Runco.
“He had some issues with the Judicial Tenure Commission. He had been censured,” Somers said. “I believed at the time — and I still believe today — that that was worthy of a challenge, and we won.”
Responding to critics
A complaint about Somers also went before the commission, only to be dismissed.
Dearborn resident Nancy Siwik said she wrote the panel in 2006 after seeing Somers go off the record to ask defendants whether they went to church or used “Satan’s surge” — a name she said he used to describe marijuana.
“At some point, if you closed your eyes, you might think you were in church,” Siwik testified during former Dearborn deputy court administrator Julie Pucci’s civil trial. “I didn’t think it was proper for the courtroom.”
Somers denies Siwik’s claim. “I have been listening to five hours of tape from those proceedings and never did I go off the record,” he said.
He also denied referring to marijuana as “Satan’s surge.”
“It’s the wildest thing I’ve heard,” Somers said.
Somers has been accused of proselytizing from the bench, which he said goes against his parents’ advice to lead by example. “I am not rigidly dogmatic in my beliefs, and my church is not close to what people describe as ‘fundamentalist,’ ” he said.
Somers gained national attention in April after he remanded to jail two preachers who tried to protest outside a Dearborn mosque. They had refused to a pay a $1 bond.
“It didn’t matter if I set bond at $500, $5,000 or $5 million. If they wanted to protest, they would go ahead and do it anyway,” he said. “I didn’t want it to become a money issue. One dollar was sufficient.”
Somers also ordered Florida preachers Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp to steer clear of the Islamic Center of America for three years.
Next month, Somers’ views on marijuana may be questioned again when a trial gets under way for Robert Brandon, who was charged in 2010 with illegal possession of a controlled substance, despite documentation that he uses marijuana for medical purposes.
Brandon tried to have the case dismissed based on the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, but Somers issued an order stating the act was unconstitutional.
Calculating the costs
The verdict awarding $463,820 to former Dearborn probation officer Simone Calvas was disappointing, Somers said, but it was the result in the Pucci case that surprised him.
Pucci was awarded $434,361 for economic losses, $100,000 for emotional distress and $200,000 in punitive damages after the jury agreed she was denied due process when her job was eliminated in 2006.
“I thought the fundamentals were obvious,” Somers said of the case.
Somers also said he appreciated the jury, despite the verdict. “In a strange way, having judges as (witnesses) is a disadvantage because we try to analyze everything. … There is a danger you don’t come off as personable or genuine.”
Somers’ decision to eliminate Pucci’s position was not personal, he said, but driven by a need for a more effective court administration. It also led to cost savings, he said.
“I wondered why we had been paying a deputy court administrator more than an executive secretary salary since 1995,” Somers said. “If you plot it out over those 12 years, just based on salary without looking at benefits, I calculated that we had overspent somewhere over $170,000 to $230,000 in base salary.”
The Calvas lawsuit named Somers and the 19th District Court and will likely cost the city more than $500,000 after attorney fees and court costs.
City officials said Pucci’s judgment is not their responsibility because Somers was sued individually. Legal experts disagree and say the city is still on the hook. The Pucci judgment could cost more than $1.2 million after fees and costs.
The special attorneys general representing Somers filed a motion July 8, seeking to have the judgment thrown out.
Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly would not comment about the cases because of ongoing litigation.
Candyce Ewing Abbatt, who also ran against Somers in 2008 for his seat, and other residents said they are worried the judgments may cost the city at a time when drastic budget cuts are being made.
“We are almost closing all of the branch libraries in the city,” said Abbatt, a member of the city’s library commission. “How do you justify that against writing checks?”
Some residents said they plan to attend tonight’s City Council meeting to seek Somers’ resignation.
Helping the community
Brigitte Fawaz-Anouti, director of social services for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, said Somers is an active part of the community and supports many ACCESS programs, especially the Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“He is very ethical,” Fawaz-Anouti said. “I’ve been in court with him, and he separates who you are from the incident.”
Somers also leads the drug court program at the 19th District Court and has a strong interest in the probation department. His predecessor in the drug court, former Dearborn Judge Virginia Sobotka, said she never had a problem with Somers.
“He was very cooperative, and we both shared an interest in rehabilitation,” Sobotka said.
Somers hopes to keep the drug court program active by applying for more specialized grants.
“We went from operating in the red, to black,” Somers said. “It’s so fulfilling. I feel sorry for judges not involved in a specialty court program.”