Three judges allege unchecked abuse from former Judge Collette

Collette denies accusations, says he may sue Baird

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Three judges are speaking out against former Chief 30th Circuit Judge William “Wild Bill” Collette after he admitted to pulling a woman’s hair in an Okemos restaurant this summer.

Three of Collette’s former benchmates — Judges Laura Baird, Rosemarie Aquilina and Beverly Nettles — said that Collette repeatedly harassed and bullied them behind the scenes in the courtroom. Nettles also said that she filed complaints involving other allegations of abusive, sexist and racist behavior against Collette with the State Court Administrator’s Office.

Collette, 76, was charged this month with misdemeanor assault after authorities said he pulled a female employee’s hair in May at Dusty’s Cellar. The woman alleged that the retired judge pulled her hair “hard” and said something inappropriate, according to her attorney. Collette admitted to pulling the woman’s hair — but without any nefarious intent. He has since said that he only tugged at her hair to “get her attention” while picking up carryout.

Collette is due back in court this month as the criminal case continues. But in the meantime, his former colleagues on the bench are coming forward with stories of harassment and bullying perpetrated by “Wild Bill” — a nickname that Collette earned during his feistier days as a criminal defense attorney — during the years the three of them worked together.

Each judge said that her concerns (despite being reported) had only been swept under the rug.

Baird said she was harassed to the point of feeling unsafe around Collette, which she reported to both state and federal judicial authorities. But because state courts are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, a paper trail to document those complaints has not been released.

“My first year on the bench, he was angry at me for something I said at a judge’s meeting, and he pulled his fist back at me,” Baird explained. “I hadn’t been there for long at the time that it happened. No one said anything. None of the other judges said anything, but three of them later said: ‘You better watch out. You better be careful around him. He’s going to hurt you.’” 

Aquilina told City Pulse that she watched Collette shove a stack of papers at Baird during a staff meeting. She also said that routine meetings of judges often devolved into loud arguments behind the scenes, where at times she thought “the judges were about to get into fistacuffs.”

She said she also saw Collette cock back his fist in anger during meetings, specifically at Baird.

“That’s bullying,” Aquilina said, noting that she and Baird later made a “pact” to only attend meetings with Collette together. “You can’t go to meetings with that kind of fear and physical aggression.”

Aquilina said that Collette would also “storm” into her office and demand changes to her docket. She also alleged that Collette had called her demanding to know how much time she would be taking off after the birth of her children, or if she would need time off during her pregnancy. Aquilina also said that she never told Collette that she was pregnant. 

“I was in law school during my first pregnancy,” she said. “I was arguing before the Appeals Court two days after I got out of the hospital for the birth of my second child. I didn’t take time off. I don’t need to take time off.”

Nettles also said that Collette had subjected her to racial and sexual comments. A State Supreme Court special review of her complaints, however, determined them to be unfounded.

Collette said that his issues with Nettles were based on her poor management skills and “erratic behavior.” Nettles was also removed from the bench by the Judicial Tenure Commission in 2008 after finding, among other things, that she lied under oath on two occasions during her disciplinary proceedings. Collette added: “If you want to use her word over mine, that is up to you.” Nettles was recently reinstated to the bar.

In an interview, he also “categorically” denied all of the other allegations against him and declined to discuss altogether the pending assault and battery charge in 55th District Court.

Instead, he discussed his displeasure with each of the three female judges, noting what he perceived as their failures. He said he stopped meeting with Baird alone because she “twisted” discussions. The two of them clashed so much that Collette banned her from meetings, he said.

Collette also said that he’s considering filing a lawsuit against Baird for impugning his character. 

As for Aquilina? Collette said that she doesn’t spend enough time in court. He also noted that he was rankled by her book-signing events while she also oversaw the sentencing of Larry Nassar.

The State Court Administrator’s Office has also pushed back on the recent allegations from the current and former judges. A spokesperson noted that the office takes bullying “very seriously.”

Just don’t ask administrators to open up their files on judges.

“With respect to your questions about complaints SCAO has received, these are private and exempted from disclosure in order to protect the individuals making the complaints,” a spokesman told City Pulse. “Without such protections, they might be afraid or unwilling to come forward. Conversely, those who seek to game the system might file spurious complaints.”

Another former trial judge in a different jurisdiction in mid-Michigan (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) said that abusive behavior from a former colleague had also led to her being “siloed” or “shunned” while serving as a judge. At one point, she even sought private counseling services to help address workplace hostility.

“It was difficult to walk in there, day after day, knowing you were going to be ignored,” she said.

All four judges said that they attempted to get the attention and support of the State Court Administrator’s Office, but to no avail. Collette also said that the office maintains a “very thick file” on Baird. Those documents, however, cannot be released to the public under court rules. 

All of the judges indicated that more transparency is necessary to allow voters to know more about allegations of improper conduct against judges. Collette, however, said those concerns should not be made public without some vetting to prevent the release of frivolous complaints.

Any formal changes to those rules would need to come from the Michigan Supreme Court — something that the former judges and advocates for judicial transparency think would be helpful.

“All governmental bodies should be transparent to the taxpayers who fund them,” remarked Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager at the Michigan Press Association. 

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