Colleagues of former judge charged with assault say the system failed to protect them

Leaders allege Collete’s history of bullying from the bench, he denies

By: - August 29, 2021 4:22 am

From left to right: Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and former Judge Laura Baird

An assault charge against retired Ingham County Circuit Court Chief Judge William Collette earlier this month didn’t surprise some of his former judicial colleagues, who say their reports of his threatening behavior toward them while on the bench were ignored.

They contend the problem of bullying and harassment in the court is bigger than Collette, charging that the system that handles complaints about judicial conduct is broken and operates in total secrecy. 

“This isn’t just an Ingham County problem … this is a systemic problem,” said Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who is nationally known for sentencing former Michigan State University Dr. Larry Nassar for sexually abusing hundreds of women and girls.

“And it needs to happen before a judge dies at the hands of another judge,” Aquilina said.

According to a study done by the International Bar Association in 2019, 63% of U.S. women working in the legal field have experienced bullying in the workplace. On an international scale, it was 71% of the female judges who responded to the survey.

“The courts are not exempt from these issues,” said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Wayland, Mass.-based Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of, “The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.”

“They are no different than any other workplace in terms of what it takes to stop these behaviors,’’ Rikleen said. “The fact that it is happening in the courts should not be allowed to be a shield that protects the perpetrators.”

The judicial system does not seem equipped to handle really bad behavior, so it inadvertently rewards bullying.

– Former Judge Laura Baird

In interviews with the Advance, Colette’s former colleagues detailed his alleged threatening workplace behavior and the inaction of the Michigan judicial system to intervene. 

However, Collette denies any claims of bullying from the bench. 

Anyone calling me a bully is lying. Envy is a real monster. No one ever accused me of wrongdoing on the bench or as chief judge,” Collette told the Advance in an email last week. 

And John Nevin, Michigan Supreme Court Public Information Office communications director, said the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO), which oversees state courts operations, has policies to address charges of harassment.

“Be assured that SCAO takes the issue of bullying and harassment by judges very seriously and responds when complaints are made. The public, litigants and their colleagues on the bench must all be treated with dignity and respect,” Nevin said. 

Collette retired from the Circuit Court in 2018 after nearly 30 years on the bench. He first served as a district judge in Ingham County for 11 years.

On Aug. 9, Collette, 75, was charged with assault and battery after allegedly  pulling the hair of a 21-year-old employee at Dusty’s Cellar, an upscale restaurant in Okemos, in May. 

Collette told WLNS-TV that when he tried to walk into the restaurant he was inadvertently blocked by an employee, so he tugged on her hair to get her attention. 

“I regret it fully because I have to go to court now,” Collette told WLNS.

Dusty’s Cellar in Okemos, where the alleged incident occurred with former Judge William Collette | Susan J. Demas

‘It’s always easier to dismiss the whistleblower’

Retired Ingham County Circuit Judge Laura Baird worked closely with Collette for years. 

Baird, who served on the bench from 2001 until retiring in 2020 and was a Democratic state House representative from 1995 until 2000, has received accolades from the Michigan Judges Association, the Ingham County Bar Association and the Michigan Supreme Court.

She claimed Collete bullied her throughout her career on the bench to the point where she was concerned for her physical safety. 

“Within the first year I was on the bench, at a judges’ meeting, I said something Collette didn’t like. And he pulled his fist back at me, threatening to hit me,” Baird said. “I was confused when he did that because he was in a room full of judges … and nobody said anything.”

Aquilina, who has served on the Circuit Court since 2009, said she saw Collette raise his fist at Baird. And Aquilina said she, too, experienced his “heavy handedness” multiple times. 

After feeling like her safety was at risk, Baird said she applied in 2016 for a concealed pistol license (CPL). “I was going to get a gun or a taser or something. I was going to do something to protect myself,” she said. 

Collette, who was known by other judges to carry a gun, said that whether he carried a weapon is his “private business.”

Baird and Aquilina first reported Collette to the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) in 2010, the women told the Advance.

Baird said she submitted some “very nasty” emails from Collette and a transcript from a recusal hearing where she says he falsely accused her of breaking court policy. The packet of 15 documents were given to SCAO and the Judicial Tenure Commission (JTC), which is in charge of holding state judges and court staff accountable for their misconduct based on the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct or Rules of Professional Conduct.

One of the ways in which you guarantee that you will increase workplace misconduct is to ignore concerns of victims that are raised.

– Lauren Stiller Rikleen

According to the documents reviewed by the Advance, James Hughes, the regional state board administrator at the time, told Baird that he had discussed the issue with Collette. 

“Judge Collette advised that he will no longer discuss confidential court policy matters if you are in attendance at a judges’ meeting. He has taken this step because you have seen fit to discuss such matters with commissioners and union officials, thereby undermining the authority of the Chief Judge. I believe he has full authority to take this position as director of administration of the court,” Hughes wrote. 

Baird said she has never divulged confidential information to unauthorized people. 

“When I began to really feel frightened at work was when it became evident no entity was going to intervene,” Baird said. “The judicial system does not seem equipped to handle really bad behavior, so it inadvertently rewards bullying. It’s always easier to dismiss the whistleblower.”

Nevin, the Supreme Court communications director, said that complaints and investigations into judges’ conduct are not made public unless the commission files a formal complaint and provides the respondent an opportunity to reply.  

“SCAO’s goal is to document the problem, determine the cause and design a path forward that addresses the bad behavior,” Nevin said. “Those with complaints always have the alternative of communicating their concerns to the public, as is happening in this case.”

For a period, Baird said she was banned from judges’ meetings. When Baird was allowed to attend meetings, Aquilina said they had a pact to only attend if the other was there to keep each other safe. 

Veterans Memorial Courthouse in Lansing | Susan J. Demas

‘Inaction is action’

Baird said she had reported her safety concerns to both SCAO and JTC multiple times “so there’s no credible ability for any of them to say they didn’t know.’’

To investigate a complaint, Nevin said that SCAO administrators interview judges, court staff, or other relevant parties, and then work within their authority to resolve the issue. 

But Aquilina said the steps taken by SCAO were “so minor and so meaningless,” like removing the victims from committees, that the bullying continued and has been perpetuated by other judges who saw there are no real consequences.

When she was elected to the Circuit Court, Aquilina pushed for the court’s security measures to be improved and wanted to start a group to revamp security plans. 

Collette put Aquilina — who served 20 years in the military and was the first female judge advocate general (JAG) for the Michigan Army National Guard — in charge of the group. 

However, Aquilina said after Collette caught wind that she missed one of the security meetings because she was in a hearing, he kicked her off the committee. Once there was a security plan in place, Aquilina said Collette made the plan confidential and wouldn’t share it with her or Baird. 

Said Rickleen: “One of the ways in which you guarantee that you will increase workplace misconduct is to ignore concerns of victims that are raised, to take away their opportunities and remove them from committees or otherwise deny them of other kinds of opportunities.” 

Nevin said that SCAO has offered an optional “Civil Treatment for Leaders” training for six years that “includes specific, detailed instruction regarding harassment, abuse in the workplace and bullying.”

Anyone calling me a bully is lying. Envy is a real monster. No one ever accused me of wrongdoing on the bench or as chief judge.

– Former Judge William Collette

According to Nevin, 775 judges and court staff have completed the day-long, in-person training from October 2014 to March 2020.

However, the fact that there is no mandatory anti-harassment training in Michigan’s court system “tells you that this issue has been abandoned for purposes of any kind of accountability,” Rikleen said. 

During one of Baird’s last years on the bench, she went to SCAO Senior Director of Administration Jodi Latuszek to again discuss being bullied.

Baird said Latuszek mentioned the civil treatment training, but said it was limited to court leadership.

Baird, who was serving as chief judge pro tem at the time, attended the training, but said the course was “disappointing.”

‘Without accountability, there will be no change’

A number of colleagues whom Baird and Aquilina said witnessed the abuse declined to comment. 

Baird said that former Michigan Supreme Court Attorney Tom Clement took her reports seriously and found through investigation that what she reported was likely what happened. 

Clement, who is married to Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement and currently is a vice president with the Michigan Retailers Association, declined to comment. 

Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo, who was present for many of the fiery instances in the judges’ meetings, also declined to comment.

“If your role model is somebody who can behave badly and get away with that, then the next person in similar leadership roles has no boundaries,’’ Rikleen said. “Without any accountability, without any process in place, there will be no change.” 

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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