Michigan judges are taking publicly funded luxury trips to foreign countries for “continuing judicial education,” despite the availability of free online courses.

A recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press exposes several downstate judges who have used their courthouse budgets to finance expensive trips across the U.S. and other countries to attend professional conferences.

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While the judges are required to obtain at least 24 hours of continuing education every two years, some are costing taxpayers much more than others.

Among those spending the most is Southfield District Court Judge Debra Nance, who most recently attended a 10-day professional conference in Ghana, Africa in January. That trip cost more than $4,800 and was funded by the 46th District Court, which collects two-thirds of its budget from fines and court costs and the rest from taxpayers, the Free Press reports.

Southfield Mayor Ken Siver told the news site it’s an issue that he’s complained about for years.

“The taxpayers of Southfield are not only paying for the court’s expenses. We’re paying for Nance’s trips,” he said. “I’ve made a stink about this every year at budget time. Our city administrator has talked to the court administrator and the chief judge on it, but as long as the money flows, they don’t care.”

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The city’s fiscal director told the Free Press Southfield taxpayers contribute $1.6 million to the courthouse each year. The city, Siver said, has no choice but to cover the costs of the luxury judicial trips.

Nance’s other recent trips include a $4,600 for a conference last year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as well as conferences in Panama, the South Dominican Republic, and South Africa that costed thousands of dollars each.

Documents obtained by the news site show the Ghana conference featured two seminars: “Comparative Law: Commonalities & Differences between U.S. & Ghanaian Law” and “Domestic Violence at Home and Abroad.”

Other judges who have attended conventions on the backs of taxpayers include retired Oakland Circuit Judge Denise Langford-Morris, Macomb County Circuit Judge Joseph Toia, and others, though Nance’s expenses stand out from the rest.

Southfield Chief Judge Shelia Johnson, who must approve Nance’s trips, defended the travel “under the category of judicial education” when contacted by the Free Press.

“There is no rule that says this has to be in the state of Michigan,” she said. “As long as you’re taking conferences that relate to judicial education, it’s justified and I would encourage that.”

The news site noted Johnson attended a conference in New Orleans in 2018 that cost $1,788.36, though she couldn’t remember what it was about.

“It sounds like people want to embarrass judges for traveling to these conferences,” she said. “These things keep you engaged as a judge.”

Many of the foreign trips are organized by the National Bar Association, which supports black attorneys and judges. But there’s also plenty of in-state conferences, as well.

“A third judge at 46th District Court in Southfield, Cynthia Arvant, expensed a bill for $1,291.74 in late 2022 for a conference held in Detroit,” the Free Press reports. “Arvant, who by law must live in Oakland County to serve as a judge in the county, charged her courthouse for a two-night stay at Detroit’s Westin Book Cadillac so that she could attend a weekend conference of the National Association of Women Judges without needing to drive home each night.”

At another annual conference for judges at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel in 2019, an altercation resulted in the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission investigating Nance for misconduct.

Nance was accused of making false statements to investigators on two occasions, in July 2020 and September 2021, about speaking with police and alleging a bike shop owner assaulted 36th District Court Judge Demetria Brue when they asked for a partial refund, The Detroit News reports.