Interview with Judge Sam Salamey First Arab American and Muslim Chief Judge of the 19th District Court

Photo of Chief Judge Sam Salamey 19th District Court in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo courtesy

Photo of Chief Judge Sam Salamey 19th District Court in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo courtesy

In January, Sam Salamey was appointed Chief Judge of the 19th District Court in Dearborn by the Michigan Supreme Court.

Judge Salamey began practicing law in 1985 as an associate attorney at one of Detroit’s top legal firms: Berry, Hobson, Francis, Mack, and Seifman. In only three short years, he was elevated to full partner.

In 1993, Salamey was appointed to the 19th District Court while he was still practicing law privately.

Salamey established Salamey & Associates in 1999, which subsequently changed its name to Salamey and Farhat when he welcomed Helal Farhat, an attorney who is now also a judge.

In 2012, Salamey campaigned to be elected judge of the 19th District Court in Dearborn and won the election with 55 percent of the vote, defeating the incumbent Chief Judge Richard Wygonik. In 2018, Salamey was re-elected to the 19th District Court.

KD: What is the jurisdiction of the Dearborn 19th District Court? What cases can you hear? What kinds of cases don’t you hear and why?

Judge Salamey: The Dearborn District Court jurisdiction covers the entire city of Dearborn. All matters that take place or occur within the boundaries of the city of Dearborn from a traffic citation, to probable cause hearings and preliminary examinations in murder cases are conducted by the Dearborn District Court. The District Court does not hear family law matters or probate matters, or civil cases where the amount of damages exceed $25,000, exclusive of court costs and attorney fees.

KD: How many cases does the Dearborn 19th District Court handle per year? What are the majority of cases?

Judge Salamey: The Dearborn District Court is the second busiest court in Wayne County after the 36th District Court in Detroit. The volume of cases heard by the Dearborn District Court vary from one year to another, but on average the Court handles upwards of 75,000 cases a year. The majority of cases heard by the district court are traffic misdemeanors, ordinance misdemeanors, civil disputes, landlord tenant cases, and traffic violations.

KD: What, if any, role does the 19th District Court have in addressing the opioid epidemic?

Judge Salamey: The opioid epidemic presents a national challenge to us as a nation. Every state of our country suffers from it. District Courts hear and adjudicate drug use and drug possession misdemeanor cases. The Court’s primary goal and objective is to assist drug dependent individuals to be rehabilitated and to receive the help they need through referrals to treatment centers and other deterrence, i.e., placing defendants on probation and requiring them to submit to random drug and alcohol screens, to pay fines and costs, and to participate in treatment and rehabilitative programs. Outside of the court, the judges and judicial magistrates are active with many social and nonprofit organizations to educate the public on the available resources to assist people with drug dependency and to educate the public about the tremendous legal and life consequences of possessing and/or use of drugs and/or controlled substances.

KD: What challenges, if any, face the Court in dealing with the opioid epidemic specifically in Dearborn and especially in the Muslim community?

Judge Salamey: The court has definitely seen a dramatic rise in the use of drugs, drug paraphernalia cases in recent years. The opioid crisis is real. The Arab American and Muslim American communities are no different than other ethnic communities in America when it comes to drugs and controlled substances, possession and use. However, one particular aspect that I can point out which may be more noticeable in the Arab American community than in other communities is that the fact when a family member falls or becomes victim to drug use or becomes drug dependent and the family attempts to conceal the matter and fails to properly address it, because it feels shamed and embarrassed. Drug dependency is an illness and it must be treated as such. Early treatment can be the difference between full and quick recovery or total deterioration. There are many community centers and organizations that are ready to help with drug dependency issues. LAHC, Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities (formerly known as the Lebanese American Heritage Club), ACCESS and HYPE to mention a few; these centers are available to help with drug usage and rehabilitation in addition to many other centers and institutions throughout Wayne County. Acknowledging the existence of drug dependency and proceeding to treat it at an early stage often yields much better rates of recovery, on the other hand, concealing it and leaving it untreated can often lead to deadly results.

KD: Given the significant Arab and Arab American population in Dearborn, what, if any, cultural differences play a role in the cases you see?

Judge Salamey: The Dearborn community is a diversified community. Arab Americans, by some accounts, make up little over one-third of Dearborn’s population. However, that does not necessarily mean that the percentage of the cases heard by the court, corresponds or reflects the make-up of the population, because a good number of cases are cases that occur within the boundaries of the city of Dearborn but involve individuals who do not live in Dearborn or are simply transient persons. The Dearborn District Court hears all of the cases occurring within the boundaries of the city, regardless of whether the parties involved in the case are or aren’t Dearborn residents. In some categories of cases the Arab American population assumes a greater number or a greater percentage of the cases that are heard by the court such as ordinance misdemeanors involving property violations relative to property ownership, domestic violence, traffic matters, landlord/tenant, etc. The culture does not in a pure context play a role in adjudicating cases. Everyone regardless of race, background, ethnicity, sexual preference, and gender is treated equally under the law. Equal treatment under the laws is the rule of law and it is the guiding principle that the Court upholds in its impartial administration of justice.

KD: You ran two successful election campaigns before being appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court to be the chief judge of the 19th District Court. How is running an election campaign for a judge different from other elected positions?

Judge Salamey: I was first elected in 2012, for a six (6) year term that commenced on January 1, 2013. Upon the commencement of my term, I was chosen and appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court to serve as the Chief Judge of the court. I served in that capacity for six consecutive years. I have once again been appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court to serve as Chief Judge starting January 1, 2023. In Michigan, judges are elected by the people in nonpartisan elections. Judicial campaigns are run pursuant to the laws governing judicial elections. A judicial candidate must meet certain qualifications to run for judicial office i.e., the candidate must be a licensed attorney in good standing with the State Bar of Michigan, must have practiced law no less than 5 years and must be a resident of the district where the candidate seeks a judicial seat.

KD: What does it mean for you to be the first Arab American and the first Muslim to be appointed the Chief Judge of the Dearborn 19th District Court?

Judge Salamey: Dearborn is a diversified community, but when it comes to holding a judicial office, ethnicity is totally irrelevant. Judges are entrusted by the people to fairly and impartially administer justice, within the bounds of the law, impartiality without bias, prejudice or favor to one party over another. However, being a Muslim and from an Arab American descent, gives me a better insight into certain customs, traditions and community practices to understand why at times certain Arab Americans and Muslim Americans act or conduct themselves in a certain way. Notwithstanding, the laws are the laws and are applied equally to everyone. But judges do have discretion to consider mitigating factors when sentencing defendants and take extenuating circumstances into consideration if the case warrants it. Judges do not make laws or legislate from the bench, but are charged with determining whether or not the laws have been violated based on the evidence. Being the first Muslim Arab American Judge elected in Dearborn and to have also been immediately chosen and appointed as the Chief Judge of the Court reinforces the premise that diversity enriches our culture and our nation and defeats the narrative that diversity weakens the fabric of society. It further proves that diversity tempers our views, enhances our ability to coexist and to progress, advance and to complete and complement each other where race, ethnic background, national origin become miscellaneous distractions.

KD: There was a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. What impact has the moratorium had on eviction cases?

Judge Salamey: The COVID-19 pandemic definitely has had its impact on the way we do business and on our way of life all the way around. One of the consequences of the pandemic was to rely more on Virtual Court and to suspend the business-as-usual practices. One category of cases that was significantly impacted by COVID is the landlord/tenant category. The several eviction moratoriums mandated by the State of Michigan suspended the normal time frame that governed eviction cases and maintained the status quo during the several amnesty periods granted by the State. These moratoriums are credited with keeping people’s movements and life orderly during a chaotic period and a time filled with uncertainty and confusion, but at the same time they created delays, backlog of cases and caused some societal confusion. Matters have since returned to normal and are orderly again.

KD: What is your view on recent decisions by the Michigan Supreme Court to consider youth as a factor in sentencing criminals who are under the age of 19? What is your view on sentencing youth for capital crimes?

Judge Salamey: When sentencing defendants, courts have historically relied on guidelines that take several factors into consideration, i.e., nature and severity of the crime, the defendant’s history, age, health and totality of the circumstances. The purpose of the sentence is to deter the defendant from going back to commit a similar or different crime. Age consideration is not a new concept. It has historically been given worthy consideration in sentencing both younger and elderly defendants. As far as serious crimes are concerned, Michigan is not a capital punishment state, but Michigan does allow for trying younger defendants as adults if a capital crime is committed and the attendant circumstances warrant it. Age, maturity, health conditions, criminal history and surrounding circumstances are taken into consideration as mitigating factors when warranted.

KD: What are the options for young and first-time criminal defendants?

Judge Salamey: First time offenders, especially younger first-time offenders are provided opportunities at rehabilitation or a dismissal of a criminal case after successful completion of a probationary term when warranted. The Home Youthful Training Act, which is more commonly referred to as HYTA, criminal diversion, or under advisement placement are options made available to younger defendants to rehabilitate themselves and to have their criminal convictions or pleas set aside after successful completion of a probationary term by fully completing and performing all of the terms and provisions ordered by the court.

KD: If a student were to want to pursue a career in law, what would be your recommendation or advice?

Judge Salamey: The United States is known to be a nation of laws and not of men. Law practice is an honorable profession and has social justice, equal treatment under the laws, and advocating justice for all at its core mission. When you subscribe to these values and feel the drive, passion and love of advocacy to make these values universal values, then pursuing a career in law will be extremely satisfying and rewarding to you. While the vast majority of law graduates plan on practicing law, and end up doing so, a law degree opens many other alternate opportunities and qualifies graduates to explore a vast array of life learning experiences. Many law graduates pursue careers in government, politics, management positions, law enforcement and public service and other related professions.