No-nonsense jurist cast into spotlight by NBA brawl

Detroit Free Press
Feb 25 2005

CANDID COURTROOM: No-nonsense jurist cast into spotlight by NBA brawl


District Court Judge Lisa Asadoorian had a warning for the rowdy
national media and basketball fans who crowded into her courtroom not
long ago to watch as five Indiana Pacers players were charged with

Age: 40

Residence: Rochester.

Family: Single. Her mother, sister and brother live in the area.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Michigan State
University; University of Detroit Law School.

Background: She is a former Oakland County assistant prosecutor and
magistrate. She is so adamant about the dangers of driving under the
influence that she sends everyone who appears before her on a drug or
alcohol conviction to tour the county morgue.

Hobbies: Likes spending time with her extended family. She keeps
treats in a desk drawer for visiting nieces and nephews.

What she drives: 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“I am a blunt person,” she said.

Then, she showed just how blunt.

Ticking off her fingers, she told spectators what they were allowed
to do in her Rochester Hills courtroom: “Sit, stare and breathe.”

Camera crews quieted. Reporters turned off cell phones. Onlookers
stopped whispering. The diminutive judge with the wild mop of hair
and stern voice was holding court on national television, and there
was no doubt who was in charge.

Asadoorian, who otherwise might have whiled away her years on a
relatively unknown district court bench in a largely peaceful Detroit
suburb, is enjoying her national debut as the get-tough jurist
overseeing the cases of five basketball players and five fans charged
in the Nov. 19 melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The courtroom action could be more fun to watch than the brawl.

Tall players. Short judge. Fabulously wealthy, pampered superstars
facing a firebrand with demanding ways who tends to point her finger
when she lectures. This is a woman who, a few months into her
judgeship, issued a ruling an attorney did not like, prompting him to
storm out of her courtroom. She leaped off the bench, black robe
flying, and chased him down the hall, chastising him and demanding
that he return. He did.

“She is very aggressive, very passionate,” said John Skrzynski, a
senior Oakland County prosecutor who worked with Asadoorian when she
was an Oakland assistant prosecutor in the mid-1990s. “If you were in
a fight with her, you knew it.”

Asadoorian is expected to get lots of airtime as the cases wend their
way through the courts. The Palace brawl, aired around the world, and
the subsequent fallout, including the criminal charges, have garnered
the attention of Court TV, ESPN and the national networks, and the
interest isn’t expected to diminish.

More court action will come today — the first of a series of
deadlines set by Asadoorian — as attorneys for the five players file
motions by the end of the day. Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Anthony
Johnson, David Harrison and Jermaine O’Neal face misdemeanor assault
charges and are due back in court April 6. Trials could begin this

Some of the attorneys will question whether Asadoorian should have
been assigned all of the Palace cases simply because she was assigned
the first one, that of Flint-area fan Bryant Jackson, who is accused
of tossing a chair. In their motions, the attorneys will ask that the
Pacers’ cases be reassigned in a blind draw of all three judges on
the 52-3 District Court bench.

Asadoorian has indicated that she will not consider typical,
first-time offender programs for the defendants, none of whom has a
prior record. Such programs often allow convictions to be expunged or
defendants to plead guilty with the understanding that their
punishment will be limited.

“I happen to like Lisa Asadoorian. She is always attentive and polite
and conscientious, even if I may disagree with her rulings from time
to time,” said attorney James Burdick, who represents Pacer forward
Jackson. Burdick and wants his client’s case reassigned to a blind
draw. “Besides that, my client is innocent.”

Asadoorian, in keeping with court rules, declined to discuss the
cases while they are pending before her.

The attorneys, should Asadoorian deny their requests to reassign the
cases, can take the matter to a higher court.

If Asadoorian is flustered by the national attention and television
cameras, she has not shown it. “I’ve got a face for radio,” she
deadpanned during a recent interview.

And she has not changed her courtroom demeanor one whit.

Sometimes she is so formal as to seem haughty.

“Welcome, citizens,” she might say as she begins her morning session.

Other times, she is so informal, it unnerves the deputies who guard
her. She has left the bench during a hearing, taken off her robe and
perched on the end of the defense table to talk to teens before her
on drug or alcohol problems.

“I want them to know that I believe in them. That I am not their
friend, not their mother, that I’m their judge, and that I believe
they can do what they have to do,” she said.

Off the bench, she can be hilariously funny. During the recent
investiture ceremony of her close friend, newly elected Oakland
County Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews, Asadoorian offered this advice
to the new judge as several hundred people listened:

“You can’t say to an attorney in your courtroom who is arguing
nonsense, ‘Don’t bring that pile of crap in here, sprinkle it with
sugar and try to tell me it’s an Eskimo Pie.’ No, you have to say,
‘The court does not feel inclined to entertain that motion.’ ”

“She is the funniest person I know,” Matthews said. “And she is the
most intensely loyal person I know.”

Asadoorian’s strong temperament — “I can’t think of anything that
scares me” — is what led her to become a prosecutor and then
eventually to challenge incumbent 52-3 District Judge Ralph Nelson in
2000, a move considered ill-mannered in the staid politics of
judicial circles. Incumbents, the unwritten and unspoken rule goes,
have the job for life.

She said her large, extended Armenian family gave her the support she
needed for success in life. She was close to her maternal
grandparents, both Armenian immigrants, and was raised by a single
mother who taught her a sturdy work ethic.

She offers up a simple explanation of how she runs her court:

“No one comes to court because they want to. So somebody has to take
charge and make sure things run efficiently. That’s my job — to let
the people know I’m in charge.”