Charles Kaufman (judge)

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Charles Kaufman (1920–2004) was a judge for the Third Circuit Court of Michigan, with jurisdiction over Southeast Michigan and its largest city, Detroit, MI.

Early Biography[edit]

Born in 1920,[1] Kaufman served as a navigator for the Army Air Force during World War II. He became a POW (prisoner of war) in Japanese prison camp when his plane was shot down after 27 missions.[2][3]

After the war, Kaufman graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 1948, and joined his father's firm before winning the election for Common Pleas Court Judge in 1959, and Wayne County Third Circuit Court of Michigan in 1964 where he served for 30 years.[3] He also was a candidate for the First District of the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1968 and 1982,[1] and a Michigan State Supreme Court candidate in 1976.[1]

Third Circuit Court[edit]

During his tenure as Third Circuit Court, Kaufman was known for leniency towards first time offenders. In 1977, when a 17-year-old African American male, Greg Mathis, was arrested on a concealed-weapons charge, Kaufman handed a sentence of probation, provided that Mathis enrolled and passed a G.E.D. course in six months.[4] Mathis turned away from gang behavior, and in 1994, he went on to become the youngest judge elected to the 36th District Court in Detroit, eventually becoming a popular television personality as Judge Mathis.[4]

Vincent Chin ruling[edit]

Kaufman is the judge who sentenced former Chrysler plant superintendent Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz on March 16, 1983 to three years probation and $3,780 in fines and court costs after they were convicted of manslaughter for the killing of Vincent Chin.[5] Asian American advocacy groups were outraged. Ebens had gone with Nitz to hunt down Chin and the only other Asian in his group of four friends and had Nitz hold Chin down as Ebens used a baseball bat to viciously beat Chin in the head. Though Ebens was still employed by Chrysler at the time of the attack, the act was a hate crime of an American autoworker taking out his frustration about the Japanese automobile industry on an innocent person.[6]

Citing the judge's POW record as one of several reasons to invalidate the lenient sentence in favor of a more stringent punishment, advocacy groups unsuccessfully tried to vacate the original sentence. Kaufman cited the defendants' clean prior criminal records and that there was no minimum sentence for a manslaughter plea as he responded, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal." [5] Kaufman's sentence was upheld as valid and final, due to the Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy, and the advocacy groups shifted their efforts toward a Federal prosecution for the violation of Vincent Chin's civil rights. This would also prove ultimately unsuccessful after an appeal and retrial of Ebens' original 1984 Federal conviction resulted in acquittal.[5]

Kaufman never showed remorse for the sentences he issued in the Vincent Chin case, stating that such sentencing was something that "happens regularly in Recorder’s Court and here (circuit court)." In a 2009 documentary called "Vincent Who?" his biological daughter, who is now 59 years old, admitted the decision was "definitely wrong and definitely immoral," but went on further to state that "this does not mean he valued the life of an Asian person less than the life of a white person." In response, James Chow, the interviewer, made a rebuttal to her comment by saying, "But that was precisely what was implied by his decision. That an Asian man's life was worth only probation and a small fine, in stark contrast to a white man's life. It is a stark contrast to what would have happened if a group of Asian men had beat a white man to death." [7] The interview takes place approximately 37 minutes into the film.[8]

Other rulings[edit]

Judge Kaufman issued a number of notable decisions jailing other individuals for committing less heinous offenses.

Kaufman jailed an entire town board for failing to approve a sewer line in December 1978 (stating, when asked how long the town board would remain in jail, "Well, what is their life expectancy?")[9] and again in March 1979. Members were eventually released in 1979 after two members (one of whom was concerned about her medical condition) finally agreed to approve the sewer line.[10]

In November 1974, Judge Kaufman sentenced 11 teachers to jail after they refused to return to work. Kaufman sentenced the chief negotiator in a strike to 30 days in jail and 10 other teachers to 5 days in jail.[11]

Kaufman later retired from the Third Circuit Court, and died in 2004.[2]


  1. ^ a b c The Political Graveyard: Index to Politicians: Kaufman
  2. ^ a b Asian American Empowerment - Asian Americans Nationwide Remember Vincent Chin Archived May 9, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-07. Retrieved 2007-09-08.  Memoriam of Charles Kaufman
  4. ^ a b Greg Mathis: Biography and Much More from
  5. ^ a b c Helen Zia (2000). Asian American Dreams. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0-374-14774-4. 
  6. ^ Ronald Ebens vs. Chrysler Corporation, 88-810078 CZ (Mich 3rd Cir 1988).
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Judge Stunned by Outcry". Argus Press. May 11, 1983. 
  9. ^ "Judge Jails Entire Town Board". The Evening Independent. December 29, 1978. 
  10. ^ "Board is Jailed Again". The Toledo Blade. March 3, 1979. 
  11. ^ "Garden City Teachers are Ordered Jailed". The Argus Press. November 16, 1974. 

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