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Genesee County judge sexually harassed intern, investigation finds. Now he's retiring.

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Michigan 7th Judicial Circuit Court
On Tuesday, Judge Joseph J. Farah of the Genesee County Circuit Court submitted notice to Governor Gretchen Whitmer of his plans to retire in November. The decision comes after an MSU investigation found Farah sexually harassed a former intern.

A Genesee County Circuit Court judge submitted official notice Tuesday of his plans to retire in November, after having been found responsible for sexually harassing a law student while she was interning for him.

In a report completed last month, Michigan State University found Joseph J. Farah made “explicit sexual advances” towards the then-third year student, Grace Ketzner, while she interned for him last summer, and repeatedly retaliated against her professionally after Ketzner rebuffed his requests to socialize privately with him after hours.

Farah did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Michigan Radio, but submitted a written statement to MSU denying all wrongdoing after reviewing the evidence.

A spokesperson for Michigan State University confirmed that Farah had been an adjunct professor at the MSU College of Law until May 15, 2021, but would not say whether Farah resigned or was terminated.

Michigan Radio has obtained a redacted copy of the MSU Title IX office’s findings and decision in the case, and is using Ketzner’s name with permission from her attorney.

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Grace Ketzner
Grace Ketzner interned for Judge Farah last summer. MSU found her claims against Farah credible. "Of note, [Ketzner] noted that she was a law student when she brought this formal complaint, is about to sit for the bar exam, and has nothing to gain and everything to lose from raising these allegations against a sitting judge in her area," the investigation found.

Ketzner has now graduated, but she filed a formal complaint with MSU last November, two months after resigning from her internship with Farah. At the time, she was in her final year of law school. Ketzner told MSU that Farah made sexual comments to her about former students and interns, repeatedly texted her with invitations to travel with him and spend time with him privately, made multiple comments about buying her drinks, and then ignored her at work and complained about her performance to colleagues as retaliation for her refusals.

At one point during her internship, Ketzner said in the complaint, Farah told her a story about another intern who had been alone in the office kitchenette with the lights off. When the intern told Farah he could come in, Farah allegedly said “there are limits to my self-restraint, and I don’t think I could control myself in a dark room with you.” Farah told Ketzner, “That story about the intern … that’s what I would say about you, too, Grace.”

Calls and emails to Farah’s office, staff, and home on Wednesday were not returned. But his repeated sexual harassment of young women who worked under him has been an “open secret,” two legal professionals told Michigan Radio. One was Deborah LaBelle, an civil rights attorney in Ann Arbor. “I have heard the rumors and reports of inappropriate and sexually harassing behavior by this judge in the past,” LaBelle said. “I would hope that other judges and attorneys with firsthand knowledge of this would recognize their obligations under the ethics rules to report this. Because we so need to have a judicial system at this time that we can believe in.”

Two former female interns of Farah reached Wednesday said they had only positive experiences working for him. “I never felt harassed by him,” said Kelly Fantetti, who interned for Farah in 2009 and is now an attorney in Florida. “My dad is an attorney in Flint and has practiced before Judge Farah and has been in that legal community for a long time. If it was an open secret, I don’t think he would have let me intern for him if that were the case.”

Farah was appointed to the Genesee County Circuit Court in 1998. The trials he oversaw include a Flint water crisis criminal case and the case against teens who threw rocks from an I-75 overpass. In 2017, he received the integrity award from Western Michigan University's Cooley School of Law.

MSU finds Farah repeatedly sexually harassed law student

At first, it was just weird, uncomfortable stories, Ketzner said. Like the one about feet.

In the summer of 2021, Farah told Ketzner, then his intern, about a previous student who “had long tan legs and pretty painted toes and feet,” and that “men notice and look at these types of things,” according to the MSU investigation. He also told Farah about attending a country music festival despite disliking country music, because of the “shortage of clothing” on women, most of whom wore “thong bikini bottoms” which Farah said he “liked to investigate.”

But then it became more explicit. Ketzner said Farah asked her to be a “typist” for a novel he wanted to write about a woman from a small town, who moves to the city and meets an older man who becomes her boss and “teaches her how to explore herself” sexually, according to the report. Ketzner said Farah read her a “very sexually suggestive” line from the prospective book that “was basically saying the boss wanted to ‘f’ the young woman without explicitly saying it.”

Ketzner also told MSU that Farah would repeatedly invite her on work trips with him. While Farah was in Kalamazoo for a weekend conference last summer, he sent her multiple texts Friday evening, including comments about how on the “next trip” Ketzner would dine with him and have “a glass of red wine … or 2!” After a joint presentation on Saturday, Farah invited Ketzner to lunch, but she told him she had to go to her nephew’s birthday instead.

The next day at work, Farah didn’t speak to her, Ketzner said, which she believed was “punishment for not responding” to his texts about wine or agreeing to have lunch with him. MSU’s investigation found Farah “did negatively react to [Ketzner’s] not responding to his requests to communication and socialized outside of work with him, despite his denials to the contrary.”

Farah also invited Ketzner to a conference in Grand Rapids in August 2021, but Ketzner backed out “because she did not want to put herself in the position of being with [Farah] at night with alcohol.” Afterwards, Farah “immediately retaliated against her by spreading negative feedback about her” to colleagues, according to the investigation.

Then Ketzner learned that she and Farah would both be in the Nashville area over the same November weekend Ketzner for a friend’s bachelorette party, and Farah for a work conference. Ketzner said Farah asked for her flight information, then booked himself on the same flight, sent her a picture of his flight itinerary, and asked if she was still going. When she said she was, Farah told her “well maybe I will see you and your friends,” then added, “that is, if you want free drinks.”

On September 2, 2021, Ketzner resigned her position and reported harassment, according to the MSU investigation. But Farah continued to contact her, she said, including offering her tickets to an MSU vs. Michigan football game. On September 7, Ketzner learned that Farah planned on observing her trial class at MSU College of Law.

‘No one’s telling me where to go’

After Ketzner rebuffed Farah’s invitation to the Grand Rapids conference, she approached a professor for guidance. It was the same professor who taught the trial class that Farah planned to observe — Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina
Jodi Westrick
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Michigan Radio
Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said Ketzner told her she was being harassed by a judge. "She said, ‘No one’s telling me where to go, everyone’s giving me confusing and mixed messages. They’re saying don’t report it, it’s going to ruin my career.’”

Aquilina told Michigan Radio she remembers it clearly. Ketzner first told her in August that she was dealing with harassment from a judge, and she didn’t know what to do. “She said, ‘No one’s telling me where to go, everyone’s giving me confusing and mixed messages. They’re saying don’t report it, it’s going to ruin my career.’”

Aquilina said she told Ketzner to report it to the state Judicial Tenure Commission, which investigates judicial misconduct.

That was an option Ketzner said no one else had mentioned. Aquilina thought that was unsettling. “First of all, we’re in law school. Second, we’re in a legal field. Any number of people [Ketzner talked to] have an obligation to tell her to go to the JTC.”

Ketzner thanked her. “The posture, the body language she’s relieved.” Aquilina said. “She was credible. Her pain and fear were credible.”

Then Ketzner came back to Aquilina after she learned Farah was going to observe her class. “She comes to me and says, ‘He’s going to be coming to my class. I’m afraid.’” Aquilina said she excused Ketzner from that session of class and filed a formal complaint with her supervisor about the report she’d received from Ketzner.

Later, Ketzner told Aquilina she was “being bullied” for reporting Farah to the JTC. “And she says to me, ‘I’ve been told my legal career is ruined before it’s even started.’ I said ‘Grace, you’re the kind of attorney everyone wants to be represented by.’”

Farah denies allegations, but MSU finds him “not credible” 

While Farah declined to participate in interviews or hearings with MSU’s investigators, the report notes Farah did submit a written statement after he reviewed the evidence, denying all allegations against him. “Generally, [Farah] noted the length he has served as a judge relative to [the law student’s] length of time as his intern,’” the report said.

Farah’s statement said, in part:

“Never in that time did I make sexual overtures. I never intended to make her uncomfortable. I was not told by her or her supervisor or anyone else that anything I said made her uncomfortable. Had I been aware I would have apologized, rectified the situation and not repeated any offensive statements. I deny that anything I said was sexually motivated.”

Farah also denied telling Ketzner that he “couldn’t control myself in a dark room with [her].” He said he did read her a short excerpt from a novel he had been working on for years, to “highlight descriptive language and the impact descriptive language can have,” but denied the passage was sexual. “I commented to [Ketzner] that she could be a ‘typist’ for the novel when it goes to print (because I cannot type well) and she said ‘yes.’ She also indicated that she was impressed and said ‘you just put that together?’”

But MSU’s investigation repeatedly notes in the report that they find “several of [Farah’s] explanations inconsistent, unbelievable, and less credible than [Ketzner’s].”

“Of note, [Ketzner] noted that she was a law student when she brought this formal complaint, is about to sit for the bar exam, and has nothing to gain and everything to lose from raising these allegations against a sitting judge in her area.”

Meanwhile, Farah’s written accounts of events contained “some problematic information” and were “not credible, especially on several key allegations,” MSU found. Farah also acknowledged that some of his communications with Ketzner were “unprofessional in content,” according to the report.

While MSU found Farah’s conduct met the school’s definition of sexual harassment, it did not agree with Ketzner’s additional claim that Farah’s behavior constituted “stalking.” “The conduct at issue would not cause a reasonable person to fear for the safety of themselves or others or suffer substantial emotional distress,” the investigation concluded, referring to the school’s definition of stalking in its internal policies. Nor did the school find Farah’s behavior met the threshold of “discrimination on the basis of sex,” as Ketzner claimed, because there was no mention of male interns who received different, better treatment.

A second, unnamed witness makes similar allegations 

While MSU was investigating, a second woman also spoke with the school’s Title IX office and asked to file a Witness Information Form in Ketzner’s case. The woman, who does not wish to be publicly identified, was also an intern for Farah before becoming his law clerk.

In an interview with MSU on March 23, the woman told investigators she initially “witnessed behavior toward other employees that made her uncomfortable.”

Farah told one intern (not Ketzner) that she “needed to be with an older man who would ‘treat her right,’” according to the witness. But when that intern began applying for other jobs, “behind the scenes, Farah interfered with the intern’s job opportunities. She stated she heard Farah tell other judges negative things about the intern, such as she had confidence issues and was unsure of herself. [The witness] thought it was odd Farah was attempting to deter other people from hiring her, as he kept her on his staff and obviously believed she was competent.”

This witness also said Farah would invite her and female interns on work trips with him, including one occasion when he asked them to come to his hotel room. The witness said she declined.

After that, Farah was “very cold” to her at work and even attempted to cancel her swearing-in ceremony after she passed the bar. When the witness left Farah’s court for a different job, he began sending her “messages with sexual innuendos” that were “very aggressive.” One of the messages “states that his girlfriend was out of town and he ‘wished she was there to help him.’”

The witness said people in the Genesee Circuit Court knew “Farah often said inappropriate things” and “excused it as just Farah being Farah” or brushing it off as just “creepy.” It was “well known” that Farah had a “type of employee, pretty women” and a “level of obsession with people, a possessiveness, that lead[s] to badmouthing and retaliation.” She also told MSU she decided to come forward after Ketzner reached out to her on LinkedIn, “looking for other women who had interned for Farah, and inquiring on their experience.”

Farah allowed to retire after November election

On Tuesday, Farah submitted a letter to Governor Whitmer retiring from his position, effective November 9, the day after the general election.

What's not clear is what, if any, role the Judicial Tenure Commission played in Farah's retirement. Ketzner said she filed an official grievance with the commission in October of last year, and said commission staff told her in January 2022 that they were opening an investigation. Ketzner's attorney, Sarah Prescott, confirmed these dates.

But these investigations aren't public until the commission determines the misconduct is serious enough to merit a public complaint with the Michigan Supreme Court. If so, it first sends the judge a letter informing them of the charges the commission will bring publicly in 28 days. Until that public complaint is issued at the end of the 28-day period, all details about the commission's investigation are confidential, even if they result in a "private action" (like a letter of admonition) or if a grievance is considered "dismissed" because the judge in question retires or resigns.

That confidential investigation is what Ketzner said she was told was happening with Farah. A few days ago, a staff attorney with the commission called to tell her an agreement had been reached with Judge Farah, she said. “They officially had his resignation — she said resignation, not retirement — and that we would not have to move forward with the public hearing," Ketzner said. "And she was happy that none of us would have to testify."

For Ketzner, this was a big moment. “I was elated that we had gotten to this point,” she said. ”They had officially removed him in their own way from the bench, which was our ultimate goal.”

“The wording might not be exactly how I was hoping it would come out, but I'm also really grateful … that we’re able to do this now,” she said, “and let the public know why he is stepping down. And it's not on his own terms.”

If Farah did agree to retire as a condition of keeping the commission's investigation from moving forward and becoming public, it wouldn't be the first time. In 2021, 5% of commission grievances were "resolved by dismissal, including those against judges who resigned or retired while under investigation," according to the commission's most recent annual report. 

On Wednesday, Lynn Helland, the executive director and general counsel of the Judicial Tenure Commission, said the commission is prohibited by court rule from commenting, and could neither confirm nor deny whether the commission had received Ketzner's complaint or investigated Farah.

Ketzner said she asked the commission's staff attorney if they could provide any more details about Farah's decision to step away from the bench: was he being allowed to leave with full pay and benefits? "And she said that she could not tell me. That all she could tell me was that he would stay publicly appearing on the bench until the end of this month. And then it was her understanding from the end of August until November 9th, he would be working on writing opinions and orders, but would not be appearing in court."

But Prescott, Ketzner's attorney, said allowing a judge to retire isn't the same thing as holding a judge accountable. She said it appears the commission’s preference “is to get these people to retire, so that nobody has to testify, yes. But also so the dignity and integrity of the judicial system can be protected.”

Prescott said that only protects judges. "If Grace hadn't gone to MSU and they hadn't written a 50-page, single-spaced report finding severe and pervasive sex harassment, all you would have is 'a judge retired' and the word of Grace Ketzner. Because nobody else would be doing anything."

Update: Friday, August 12, 5:53 p.m.

On Friday, the acting chief judge of Michigan's Seventh Judicial Circuit, Elizabeth Kelly, said Farah would no longer hear cases in person, and she acknowledged that the court had received a complaint from Ketzner about Farah's conduct last September.

"The Court immediately began an investigation and in November 2021, the results were provided to the State Court Administrative Office," Kelly said in an emailed statement. "The matter was later referred by [the administrative office] to the Judicial Tenure Commission."

Effective Friday at noon, Kelly wrote, "Judge Joseph J. Farah has been relieved of his in-person docket. Between now and his retirement in November, he will remotely complete any pending matters that were taken under advisement. Until a new judge is appointed, the court will continue its efforts to provide judicial resources for all other matters that are pending before Judge Farah."

Corrected: August 11, 2022 at 1:01 PM EDT
The original version of this story said Judge Joseph Farah was an MSU employee until May 2022. The correct date is May 2021.

The original version of this story identified Deborah LaBelle as an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. While LaBelle often does cooperating work with the ACLU of Michigan, she is not employed by the organization.

The original version of this story stated Farah was appointed to the Oakland County Circuit Court bench in 1998. It was Genesee County, not Oakland.
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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