Spotlight On: Rudolph “Rudy” Serra

Please tell us about your background, where you practice, your areas of practice, and how you came to be involved in criminal defense.

I am a former Judge on the 36th District Court of Detroit (the 3rd busiest trial court in the country).  I was the first openly gay judge in Michigan history and am a long-time advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people and other minorities. I regularly accept public defender (or “House Counsel”) assignments in the 36th and 43rd Districts. I have been active in the practice of criminal defense and other litigation for three decades.    

After a year serving as assistant editor of The Michigan Appellate Digest, I was a research attorney with the Michigan Court of Appeals. This required learning a large volume of law and reviewing the work of hundreds of other attorneys.  

My first job in private practice was as a trial attorney with Sommers Schwartz. I have successful jury trial experience in both civil and criminal courts. I have experience in large firms and small, including working as trial attorney for a small corporate and real estate litigation firm in Farmington Hills. My practice is concentrated in Southeast Michigan, but occasionally includes other parts of the state.

As an experienced judge and an experienced criminal defense lawyer, I take the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof more seriously than some judges. One of the most important duties of a judge is to diligently enforce these principles. I also served on the Michigan Supreme Court’s Standard Criminal Jury Instructions Committee, helping to write instructions about the law for non-lawyers. Currently, my case load includes every area of law involved in District Court. My work also includes felony assignments, retained cases, family law, and probate matters.

Please tell us about an interesting case in which you were involved. What were the theories and issues?

Every case is interesting, and no two clients alike.

In People v. JM, I represented an 18-year-old from Kentwood, Michigan, accused of accosting and soliciting a minor for immoral purposes. The jury acquitted JM in about a half hour. 15-year-old TJ fell in love with JM. He sent love letters to my client. When discovered by his fundamentalist parents, they first invited JM on family outings, and events. Soon they decided it was JM’s fault that their son was gay. They demanded criminal charges. A pandering anti-gay prosecutor was happy to accommodate.

The letter between the 2 boys included an explicit promise to one another to refrain from sex until both were 21 years old. I argued to the jury that “being in love is not an immoral purpose.” TJ testified that he did not want to testify against JM, that he loved JM, and that the two had never engaged in any physical or sexual activity.

This experience proved to me that jury voir dire is one of the most important parts of a trial. It is counsel’s job to conduct voir dire. A judge who refuses to allow it demonstrates disrespect for counsel and denies the defendant a fair trial.  

What trends have you noticed in Michigan criminal jurisprudence?

Perhaps the most significant and distressing trend is the increasing number of highly vulnerable people (the mentally ill, the addicted, domestic violence, trafficking victims, and the homeless especially) who are entangled in the system.

The “war on drugs” and the routine use of incarceration have not reduced the problem. I represent mentally ill individuals in the Probate Court, and as a former Judge, saw many people whose root problem would not be addressed by jail time. I served on a court that has a “drug court,” and I am a strong supporter of specialty courts.

Another troubling trend is “assembly line justice” and a tendency for judges to place compliance with artificial deadlines above the constitutional rights of the accused and individual requirements of a case. The fabricated need for speed causes some judges to interfere with counsel’s ability to voir dire.

What are some ways in which our criminal justice system can be improved?

The criminal justice system needs to focus on root causes, rather than punishment and retribution.  Many in court have mental health or substance abuse issues. The 36th District Court, where I served, had a special Drug Court. Mental Health Courts are also being established around the country. I support such creative alternatives to incarceration.

Do you have any advice for lawyers new to the practice of criminal defense?

Every client is unique, with challenges that counsel should learn about, and address.  Communication skills are paramount. The practice of law is not as just a job. It is a vocation. This means that the duty to remain up-to-date about the law is continuing. Lawyers customarily deal with troubled people. It is important to develop communication skills and insight to do so successfully. Have your own support system and other ways to deal with the stress. Having a “mentor” is very helpful. I still do pro bono litigation, and earlier in my career this “unpaid” work had a huge pay-off in both experience and referrals.  

Mr. Serra’s website:  or https/

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor