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Pontiac Proud: Judge Kwamé Rowe—Oakland County Circuit Court

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do; don’t let your circumstances define who you are.”

Judge Kwamé Rose photo

When Judge Kwamé Rowe transferred to Pontiac Northern High School, it was Miss Lois Williams that helped define the path that he would follow as an adult. “I was in Miss Harper’s class and I was being a knucklehead with some of the other kids in the class, and so she sent me out of the class to see Miss Williams. When I got there, she said to me, ‘I’m going to tutor you, I’m going to mentor you, and I’m going to get you back on track.’ And I said, ‘Miss Williams, I don’t need to be tutored, I have a 4.0 GPA,’” he recalls. “Since I was a transfer student, they didn’t really know me, so I showed her and she said, ‘well, okay, then you’re going to tutor other students.’ That was my first taste of public service, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Judge Rowe had the desire to be an active member of the community since he was a child, so Miss Williams helped grow a seed that had already been planted. “I originally wanted to be in law enforcement, to be a police officer. When we lived in Detroit, I would pay attention to the people that I saw, the houses that we went to, where there were drugs or violence, and I would make note of it. I would tell my mother and my grandmother, ‘someday, I’m going to be a police officer, and I’m going to arrest all these people who are hurting our community.’ But my grandfather was a fireman and he said, ‘I work with the police every day, and nothing against them, but you’re too smart for that.’ He encouraged me to dream bigger, so I started researching and found that if I became a lawyer, I could fulfill my passion for making my community a better place.”

After graduating Pontiac Northern in 2007, Judge Rowe studied at James Madison College at Michigan State University, receiving his degrees in Social Relations and Policy as well as Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, before attending Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills. “When I was doing my research about becoming a lawyer, I learned that the prosecutor is the one that holds all the keys in our criminal justice system. They decide who to prosecute, what kind of charges, the severity of the charges, or if charges should be reduced in certain cases. I realized that I could have a larger impact if I became a prosecutor versus a defense attorney.”

Along the way, Judge Rowe has held a variety of jobs—from working at Wendy’s and the Rainforest Cafe in high school to help support his family to working as an intern and legislative aide for the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and Representative Tim Milton. While in law school, he had the opportunity to clerk for Judge Leo Bowman, who’s judicial seat he now holds. “It has kind of come full circle. A month before I graduated from law school, I began working at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office, and I worked as a prosecutor for six years before applying for Judge Bowman’s seat when he retired. In July 2021, Governor Whitmer appointed me to the seat, making me the youngest judge ever to serve on our circuit court. I’m the 78th judge to serve on the circuit court, only the second Black male to ever hold a seat on the bench, and just the fourth African American judge on the circuit. I am the only circuit court judge who still lives in Pontiac.”

Judge Rowe’s experiences working in the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office reflect how rare it is to see a Black man in the role of prosecutor. “When I joined the prosecutors, I was told that I was the first Black male at the office in over a decade. So people really weren’t used to seeing a Black man in the prosecutor’s seat. So much so that they would walk by me and talk to my White colleagues, assuming that I wasn’t who they needed to speak with. And sometimes they were just disrespectful. I had an attorney argue that I was only there to prosecute his client because I was Black. I also had an attorney state that I could not identify with their client because I grew up ‘with a silver spoon’ in my mouth, which is furthest from the truth. I dealt with it by using my intelligence and my integrity to just demand respect and I continue to do so.”

With his experiences growing up in neighborhoods impacted by drugs and violence, Judge Rowe wanted to make sure that he was fairly assessing every situation. “Now, if  you come before me and I see you’re here for stealing, but it’s for diapers or formula, I am likely  going to talk to you about other options you might have, but clearly you’re just trying to survive and jail may not be the appropriate option. But if you come before me because you tried to steal a Gucci bag or some Jordan’s, I will take that into consideration as well. I might sentence a person to a more firm sentence, longer probation, that kind of thing.”

In addition to his work as a judge, he’s also actively engaged in the community, serving on several nonprofits such as the Identify Your Dream Foundation, which helps children who have lost a parent to violence. He also wants to help establish a Street Law clinic at Pontiac High to help students better understand the law and their options, so that they don’t end up standing before him in court. “As I mentioned earlier, I grew up with a family that had felons, that have been victims of violence, that have addiction issues, that have been in prison, and so you can go through all of those things and still be successful. Don’t let who raised you or where you’re from stop you from being great because you absolutely can, so long as you work hard and try. That’s the biggest thing: Trying. Work hard and do the right thing, even when you think no one’s looking—because, really, there’s always someone looking at what you’re doing.”