Judge Debra Nance Finds Inspiration on the Way to the Bench
(Wayne State University Press Release, Dec. 1, 2015)
Southfield, MI – The legal career of Debra Nance has been touched by synchronicity – seemingly small, unrelated events that resonate and become meaningful.
A 1999 alumna of Wayne State University Law School, today she’s a judge of the 46th District Court, which serves the communities of Southfield, Lathrup Village, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms and Franklin Village. But Nance spent a large portion of her professional life in human resources after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Detroit.
“I originally planned to specialize in employment law, utilize my human resources background and remain with my employer in the automotive industry,” Nance said. “I enjoyed the fast pace of the company’s multicultural work environment in which I could continue to contribute after obtaining my law degree. When I was accepted into three law schools, I chose Wayne because of its successful bar passage history, tuition cost and location. From my vantage point, it appeared to be the best education in town for the money.”
However, her legal career goals began to change. At a reception for law students during her first semester in 1996, Nance heard Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris speak.
“She said, ‘I’m sure all of you are going to be excellent lawyers, but it’s lonely on the bench. Consider a career as a judge,’ ’’ Nance said. “And a little light bulb went off in my head.”
Nance found her law curriculum exciting.
“I remember leaving work in suburban Farmington Hills and driving down the Lodge Freeway into the city every Monday through Thursday night to get to class,” Nance said. “I couldn’t wait to get there. It was interesting, rewarding and intellectually stimulating. Time flew by very quickly.”
One evening Nance saw a notice advertising Wayne Law’s Mock Trial program (then called the Student Trial Advocacy Program). She decided to sign up to gain experience.
“The competitions were held at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice on Saturdays. I was really nervous before my first trial, but there was something that happened the very first time I was in the courtroom. It was almost magical. From the moment I opened my mouth to give my opening statement, I was completely comfortable. I was relaxed, yet charged with excitement. It felt like I belonged. Completely absorbed in the hypothetical case, I fell in love with the drama of the courtroom. That year I won the fall semester criminal trial competition and the winter semester civil trial competition.”
Nance knew then that working in a courtroom was going to be her career.
7 questions with Judge Debra Nance
“In my third year of law school, I left my full-time job in the auto industry and interned in both the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Domestic Violence Unit and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Child and Family Abuse Bureau. I also sought and obtained special permission to take additional credit hours in order to complete my degree requirements. I was really driven. Law was going to be my second career, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I felt I needed to catch up, quickly, so that I could enter the litigation arena as soon as possible.”
A Southfield resident and homeowner, Nance was a student in Wayne Law’s evening program. She had a husband, two small children, a full-time job and completed two internships, yet she finished law school in three years instead of the usual five or six for evening students.
After graduation, Nance worked on assignment to the Office of the General Counsel at Ford Motor Co. In 2001, she went into private practice at the Kemp Klein Law Firm, where she developed a successful litigation practice.
“Whether it was a motion, a trial or an argument before the Court of Appeals, I loved every opportunity to go to court on my cases,” Nance said. “In fact, I even volunteered to stand in for other attorneys in my office whenever possible.”
One day she was watching a local cable TV broadcast of Judge Greg Mathis giving a presentation at the Southfield Library. She had never met him but knew Mathis, a former Detroit-area district judge, as the star of the nationally syndicated, reality-based TV show “Judge Mathis.” He had written a book about his troubled past as a juvenile delinquent and high school dropout who turned his life around.
“He said to the kids at the library that one of the events that changed the trajectory of his life was when a district court judge sentenced him to getting his GED,” Nance said. “I thought about that, and it made so much sense. Sentencing a person to finish their education would help to reduce recidivism and put them on the right path. I decided, in that moment, that if I ever got a chance I was going to do the same. What a difference that judge made in the life of a young Greg Mathis and scores of others. That’s what I wanted to do also; I wanted to have a positive and profound impact upon the lives of others. I wanted to use the law to make a difference.”
Another flash of inspiration came for her Nov. 4, 2008, as she watched Barack Obama take the stage the night that he was elected president.
“It seemed like this man came, virtually, out of nowhere,” she said. “He wasn’t a Kennedy, nor was he a Bush or an Eisenhower; he did not have a famous political name. No matter what your political persuasion happens to be, you have to admire the level of this man’s achievement. His election was a testament to the fact that anything is possible if you believed in yourself, and others believe in you, as well. Also, I was struck by the element of public service in his accomplishment. It occurred to me that if he could step up and give of himself to serve the country, I could certainly do more to be of service to my small community. But what could I do? I was never interested in being a politician on any level, but I do love the law and courtroom. As I watched the continued coverage on election night, I thought back to the law student reception I attended years before and the words of Judge Langford Morris. The bench was my call to service. If Barack Obama could become president, I could become a judge. It was that very night that I decided to research the process to run in the next judicial election on my local bench.”
Nance got her name on the ballot in the very next district court race in 2010, running against an incumbent judge. Nance lost the race, but she gained valuable experience and was encouraged by obtaining 44 percent of the vote in her first run for public office.
“I continued to meet as many people as possible to stay connected; I loved talking to citizens about their experiences in court and what they expect from the judicial system,” she said. “So, when a seat opened in 2012 due to a retirement on the bench, I ran again.”
Nance started the election as one in a field of seven local attorneys. She finished first in the August primary and advanced to the general election. She won the general election Nov. 6, 2012.
“I was inspired to run by Barack Obama’s victory on Nov. 4, 2008. His vision created my vision, and now four years later my name was on the same ballot with President Barack Obama. To win, and win on the same night as his Nov. 6, 2012, re-election, was awesome! I felt that I had come full circle.”
Nance officially started her six-year term as a judge Jan. 1, 2013. She took the bench and heard her first case a day later.
“When I took the bench for the first time, I felt just as excited and comfortable as I was on the first day I gave my opening statement in the Student Trial Advocacy Program at Wayne Law,” Nance said. “It felt like home. It still does.”
She investigates programs and practices “creative sentencing,” including sentencing offenders to classes, treatment programs or mental health counseling.
“The sentence shouldn’t be the same for everyone charged with the same offense. Each case has to be viewed and considered individually,” Nance said. “For me, it’s about getting people back on track and keeping the community safe. I look at every case individually without preconceived notions. In some cases I have a pre-sentence investigation report that gives me plenty of background information on that person to help ensure that the sentence is appropriate, but in all cases I ask a lot of questions and listen closely to the responses before I sentence.”
Also, like the district court judge who sentenced Mathis, she often uses the opportunity to order high school dropouts who are criminal offenders to get a GED. Nance believes in second chances.
“I estimate that 80 percent of my criminal defendants have not finished high school,” Nance said. “If appropriate, I sentence them to complete their GED and then enroll in college classes or certificate programs. I’ve had parents thank me afterward for ordering their adult son or daughter to earn a GED. Hopefully, that’s another young person I’ll never see in court again on a criminal matter. Every day I am thankful and appreciate the opportunity I now have to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Nance stays active in the community and speaks often to elementary and high school students, as well as seniors. She finds her work as a district court judge inspiring and meaningful on all levels.
“District court is the people’s court, whether it’s criminal, civil, small claims, traffic, landlord-tenant cases or neighbor disputes,” she said. “These are issues that affect people’s everyday lives. It’s important to them; therefore, it’s important to me. People come to court because they have a problem they have been unable to solve on their own, and they need a resolution. My role is to assess the facts, then apply the appropriate law in order to determine a thoughtful and legal outcome. In this way I help the individual find closure, while serving the community at large.
“My advice to my legal colleagues is you never know who is watching and listening. I’ve been inspired by national figures and local leaders I’ve never met. We all make an impact on others every day. We are all role models.”
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Judge Debra Nance Finds Inspiration on the Way to the Bench