Q & A with Judge Julia B. Owdziej Washtenaw County Probate Court

By Jeanne E. Murphy posted 03-07-2019 14:37


Judge Julia B. Owdziej was appointed to the Washtenaw County Probate Court in 2014. She currently serves as Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Division. She holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University and a Juris Doctor from the Detroit College of Law. Judge Owdziej began her legal career as an Assistant Michigan Attorney General. She began serving the citizens of Washtenaw County in 1991 as an Assistant Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney. In 1999 she was appointed a Washtenaw County Trial Court Referee and later added the duties of Washtenaw County Juvenile Drug Court Referee and Deputy Probate Register.

When is your motion call? Is there a maximum number of motions heard during motion call?

My probate motion call is Thursday mornings with a usual limit of 24 motions.

Do you have any particular briefing requirements? What sort of arguments in a brief do you find compelling?

I don’t have any requirements other than what the court rules require. The most compelling brief is one that contains a simple statement of facts laying out who the partiesare    and their relationship to each other. Attorneys will sometimes just start talking about someone, and I have no idea what that person’s relationship is to the case. Also, lay out the legal basis that allows me to do what you are asking me to do.

 I do not need superfluous words telling me how much the attorney/party hates the other attorney/party. I had an attorney recently say in a motion, “thoughtfully deferred,” “breezily disregarded,” “sheer arrogance,” “blithely disregarding,” “arrogant and presumptuous.” This kind of writing is a distraction from what may be a very legitimate point.

 What do you think is the most commonly misinterpreted court rule or rule of evidence?

Too many lawyers fail to understand that a document needs to be admitted at the trial or evidentiary hearing if you want me to consider it in my ruling. Attorneys, when met with an objection while trying to admit a document, will say, “Well it’s attached to my brief,” as if that makes it admissible. Before the trial, go through each piece of evidence you want admitted and think about

  • how it is admitted,
  • the likely objections, and
  • how you are going to respond to those objections.

Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom?

Lawyers will come in to the courtroom without having served the correct parties, and the matter will have to be adjourned. It is then embarrassing for the attorney to explain to his or her client why the matter is postponed.

Who makes up your judicial staff, and what roles do they play?

My judicial attorney prepares a summary of my probate cases for me, which reduces my preparation time and gives me a cheat sheet to reference in the courtroom. She works with attorneys on scheduling orders and to narrow down the issues before hearing. My judicial coordinator answers the telephone, runs the office, and prepares files for my delinquency docket.

When and how do attorneys request an adjournment?

If there is an opposing side, get their agreement and enter a stipulation. And in probate cases, when there is not an opposing party, you may call the probate clerks.

What types of pretrial conferences do you hold and what happens at them?

For probate cases there is a motion docket on Thursday mornings. Juvenile delinquency cases have a preliminary inquiry/preliminary hearing and then are set for a pretrial. For the few domestic cases that are assigned to me due to their relation to a probate case, the pretrials are held with my judicial attorney in her office and off the record.

When should my client come to court? Do you allow telephonic appearances? 

I liberally allow telephonic appearances. For juvenile delinquency cases, the client should always be present. In probate cases, the client obviously needs to be present for evidentiary hearings and any other hearing in which testimony is taken, such as a hearing to admit a will copy or the initial hearing on a guardianship/conservatorship petition. Even if the proposed ward agrees to the relief, his or her testimony must still be taken on the record about the need for a guardian/conservator.

How are trial dates scheduled?  

In the courtroom at a pretrial or motion hearing.

Do you have any advice for new lawyers?

Go to the courtroom before your case is scheduled and watch how cases are handled. Ask to shadow another attorney when he or she goes to court.

 What is an example of a time a lawyer impressed you?

 I am impressed when a lawyer has properly pled a case, laid out the law in a straightforward manner, and submitted a proposed order that will withstand appellate review. I am also impressed by court-appointed lawyers representing clients objecting to the appointment of a guardian/conservator who do so in a respectful and appropriately zealous fashion despite the fact that the great weight of the evidence shows that the client does need a guardian/conservator.

 What is something interesting you do off the bench? 

 I spend most of my weekends traveling to horse shows with my daughter.