The career of one of East Lansing’s great civil servants almost never got off the runway.
Retiring this year because of the age limit Michigan law puts on judgeships, Judge Richard Ball has sat on the bench of the 54B District Court for 30 years, guiding the city through moments like the student riots in the late 90s and acting as a stable force in a city with constantly rotating leadership.
But, at the start, Ball was an attorney running against an incumbent judge with an outside chance of winning his race.
Incumbent judges rarely lose. Unlike other races where a candidate’s political party is shown on the ballot, judicial races in Michigan are non-partisan. With no party affiliation listed, the ballot does indicate if a candidate is an incumbent—potentially a big advantage that can draw selections from voters who don’t have a strong preference in the race.
Ball won his race in 1992 by 69 votes, a fraction of a percentage of the electorate. It’s easy to wonder how many lives would be different had he lost.
The 54B court usually addresses incidents that don’t draw much media attention but matter greatly to those involved, like misdemeanors, parking infractions and civil disputes. At the Dec. 6 City Council meeting where Ball was honored, Judge Molly Hennessey-Greenwalt contextualized Ball’s impact on the community.
“It is impossible to arrive at a definitive number of cases that Judge Ball has presided over in his tenure, but a reasonable estimate is in the hundreds of thousands,” she said.
Ball says he has taken the same simple approach throughout the past three decades.
“You treat everybody patiently and respectfully,” Ball said in an interview with ELi. “I think that makes it a lot easier for people to accept a decision that they might not really like.”
Ball decided early on in his career that he doesn’t want to be harsh.
“I think of a case that I dealt with in my first year here,” he said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It involved the imposition of a long jail sentence by me. I look back and I really regret what I did.”
Ball has often overseen the cases of young people who have made mistakes. He said sometimes he can tell if someone is in danger of falling into a life of crime, and he may assign a penalty like probation to get them off that path. But usually he isn’t dealing with dangerous individuals.
“Often, our population are young students and they’re first time offenders and they’re one-time offenders,” he said. “I think that normally we can see that.”
Ball emphasized the importance of staying fair in a job that can sometimes be frustrating. He said at times a defendant or their attorney will say something that upsets him. He has worked hard to remain level-headed even in these incidents.
“If I do get ticked off, and this has only happened a few times, I’ll leave the bench and come back,” he said. “You don’t want to sentence someone to jail because you’re ticked off… Jail either fits the circumstances or it doesn’t.”
One of Ball’s great accomplishments on the bench, he said, has been maintaining healthy relationships across sectors of city government. He doesn’t remember having a negative relationship with a City Council or police chief.
Part of Ball’s local renown comes from his commitment to the job. He said he takes calls at all hours to sign off on warrants that police need, often to do blood tests on people suspected of driving under the influence. He smiles when thinking back to his late night interactions with police early in his career.
“You might get a call at three in the morning,” Ball said. “You have to wait for the officer to get to the house, you’d have to read the thing. If there was a problem with it, you have to address the problem, and 30 or 45 minutes later, the officer is out of the way with the warrant but there’s no way to get back to sleep.”
The process is much different than today, when Ball can set up video calls and sign off on a warrant on a tablet. Technological advances aren’t the only change Ball has adapted to; attitudes and laws are constantly evolving in the justice system.
“Minor-in-possession is a good example of a law that has changed, I’m going to say, six or eight times, substantially, over the course of my career,” he said. “The legislature just can’t seem to come to a final conclusion about what the law should be and what sanctions there should be.”
In some senses, Ball has been ahead of his time as a judge.
At the Dec. 6, City Council meeting where Ball was honored, Hennessey-Greenwalt talked about recent changes to the criminal justice system that increase pretrial release and decrease incarceration. Ball, she said, didn’t need these changes put into legislation. He’s been protecting individual’s rights his whole career.
“For Judge Ball, constitutional principles like the presumption of innocence are not just words,” she said.
At the meeting, Hennessey-Greenwalt shared a story told by an attorney at the Ingham County Bar Association’s annual dinner. The attorney was receiving an award for representing clients pro bono.
The attorney said they were helping with record expungements, an area outside of their regular practice, and were nervous about making a mistake. The attorney said Ball quickly made them and their client feel at ease in his courtroom. After the trial, Ball emailed the attorney thanking them for providing pro bono services.
“That is the thoughtfulness that stands apart, and that is Judge Richard Ball,” Hennessey-Greenwalt said.
One of the unique responsibilities that Ball takes on is his work as the judge for the Ingham County Veterans Treatment Court. The court was established in 2020 to help veterans in the criminal justice system find long-term success. The court promotes sobriety, recovery and stability through treatments and services that are tailored to each veterans’ needs.
“With his understanding and unfailing patience, many veterans have graduated from that program substance free, with better jobs, relationships and overall a better quality of life,” Hennessey-Greenwalt told the City Council.
Even after his days as judge are over, Ball will remain an important part of the East Lansing community, where he has lived since 1986. Ball raised his three daughters in East Lansing and served on the East Lansing Public School Board before being elected judge.
Ball isn’t sure what’s next for him. He said he’s looking forward to having more time to visit his daughters, but he does not have a clear plan for retirement yet.
One thing is certain: Ball’s days of service are not over. He said he plans to take on some assignments as a visiting judge and that he would like to find more jobs where his skills and experience could be useful.
“I’ve got to do something because I’m healthy,” he said. “I have a few good years left, so I’ll find something to do.”
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