Marriage case judge Childs known as hard worker

Lyn Riddle
Michelle Childs.
  • Judge in same-sex marriage lawsuit is described as analytical and caring

Her caseload is full of prisoners claiming wrongful treatment, taxpayers complaining about the IRS and workers alleging discrimination on the job.

Hundreds of cases are pending before U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs.

And then there's the one that will make history, no matter which way she rules.

Will she strike out alone and disagree with federal judges who have ruled laws banning marriage between people of the same sex are unconstitutional? Or will she do what many in South Carolina once considered unimaginable and find in favor of two women from Lexington – a trooper and an Air Force veteran – who say their marriage in Washington, D.C., should be recognized in their home state?

Her answer could come as early as this week.

The judge at the center of this decision has been described as a hard worker, consensus builder, a logical, methodical thinker, yet someone who retains the human touch.

"She has a wonderful mix of caring for others but she's also pretty analytical. That's a rare combination," said Hayne Hipp, the founder of Liberty Fellows, which selected Childs to take part in the intensive two-year learning program when she was a state court judge.

She was in the class of 2010, which meant that in April of that year she appeared before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for a confirmation hearing for the federal judgeship. In June, she completed her final seminar for Liberty Fellows. And in August, she was sworn in as a federal judge.

She was 44, the mother of a 16-month-old daughter, wife of a Sumter gastroenterologist, a board member of a Columbia Catholic school, a trustee with the ETV Endowment, the third woman to become a federal judge in South Carolina and the third African-American.

"She is very dedicated, very gracious with her time and talent," said Sister Roberta Fulton, the principal at St. Martin de Porres Catholic School, a K-3 to 6th grade school that specializes in teaching students from low-income families.

Childs joined the board 11 years ago and Fulton said, "We've grandfathered her."

Detroit to Columbia

Julianna Michelle Childs was born in 1966 in Detroit. Her mother, Shandra Childs-Thomas, was a personnel manager for Michigan Bell.

Childs-Thomas said they moved to Columbia after her children's father died. She saw the rising crime in Detroit and after visiting friends in Columbia during the winter decided it would be a good place for her family. She transferred to Southern Bell.

Michelle Childs thought for a time she'd be a psychologist, but Moot Trial competition during high school and Moot Court competition in college pushed her toward the law.

"She would thoroughly research all the facts before presenting cases," her mother said. "When she won her Mock Trial case in high school she knew that she was on the right track."

Mrs. Childs-Thomas said her daughter used her research skills even as a child.

"Michelle would research her facts and come to me with her proposal as to why I should do something for her," she said.

Childs attended University of South Florida. On scholarship. Then it was back to Columbia, to the University of South Carolina, where she enrolled in law school and in the business school. On scholarship. When she graduated in 1991 she had a law degree and a masters in personnel and employment. She was 25.

Childs went to work as a summer associate for Nexsen Pruitt, one of Columbia's largest law firms. In the early 1990s, she was one of a few African American lawyers working for a major law firm in South Carolina. Within nine years, she had made partner, specializing in employment law.

But then in 2000 Gov. Jim Hodges came calling. He wanted her as deputy director of the Division of Labor. That August, she married Floyd Angus, a doctor whose practice is in Sumter. The couple lives outside Columbia with their now 5-year-old daughter, Julianna, who Childs described in her confirmation hearing as "my heart."

Childs later went to work as a commissioner with the state Workers Compensation Commission. Her days as a private attorney were truly over.

Becoming a judge

The General Assembly elected her a circuit court judge in 2006. Among the major cases she handled involved one of the largest armored car robberies in the United States.

She had been on the bench a year when six men robbed an armored vehicle at a Columbia gas station. It was carrying an unusually large amount of money - $18 million – and it was highly unconventional for a vehicle carrying that much money to stop for gas.

That was a sign to law enforcement that it was an inside job. Two of the men arrested were employees of Express Teller. They made off with $9.8 million.

When law enforcement arrested them about a week after the robbery, $2.7 million was recovered. All but one, who was charged with a lesser crime than assault and battery and kidnapping, pleaded guilty and were sentenced by Childs to between 25 and 30 years in prison.

Childs also presided over murder trials, criminal sexual conduct and child abuse in General Sessions Court and civil actions such as a case against the South Carolina Department of Transportation involving fallen trees in roadways.

Four years later she was chosen by President Barack Obama for a seat on the U.S. District Court, a lifetime appointment.

She filled the seat previously held by G. Ross Anderson Jr., who took senior status. Four federal district judges have been appointed to the South Carolina District but Childs remains the youngest, at 48.

"She risen really far in a short time and that's not by chance," said Naki Richardson-Bax, who worked as Childs' law clerk in the first year of her state judgeship.

"She worked hard and did it well and was always willing to learn something."

Bax said frequently Childs was the last one in the office.

"Some law clerks get coffee. I never had that option," she said.

Regularly she saw Childs remain pleasant on the bench where other judges would have been otherwise. One case she recalls was known as the 3 Hebrew boys, who claimed their ministry would bring investors huge rewards.

The case began in Childs' state courtroom, but was moved to federal court because investors came from dozens of states. In the end the Ponzi scheme brought in $80 million.

During a hearing a man purporting to represent the defendants became overbearing, Bax said, and Childs firmly but politely told him he had no standing in the case because he was not licensed to practice in South Carolina.

"I've never seen her lose her temper," Bax said.

Childs has been praised for deftness in getting a resolution quickly in a federal court case against GAF Materials. The plaintiffs claimed the company made defective roofing materials. A settlement was reached in three years, lightning speed in court time, especially for a case involved numerous jurisdictions.

Mrs. Childs-Thomas said her daughter has always been driven. She recalls her daughter studying during a family reunion but still being part of what was going on.

"Her work ethic is a cut above everyone. She can always be counted on to get the job done," she said.

The case

Commonly referred to as Bradacs, the same-sex lawsuit in South Carolina was originally to be handled by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Anderson. But several weeks after he was assigned, Anderson recused himself because as a member of the board of the Boy Scout Council in the Midlands region he voted to allow gay members but not gay scoutmasters.

He said one of the plaintiffs was a scoutmaster and had to be removed. Although he said he could have been fair in the case, his association with the Boy Scouts could give the appearance that he could not be impartial.

The case was assigned to Childs last October. Attorneys have until Oct. 23 to file motions asking for the case to be set aside. There's a 14-day deadline for responses and then another week for the response to the response.

Childs issued the schedule Tuesday morning. Earlier this year, Childs put a hold on the case while the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was considering a similar case in Virginia. In July, the Appeals Court ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and last week the Supreme Court declined to review the ruling.

At that point Childs lifted the stay to get the South Carolina case under way.

Katherine Bradacs and Tracie Goodwin, a Lexington couple who were married in Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit last year. They claim they are being irreparably harmed, financially and emotionally, by the state's ban on same-sex marriage. South Carolina does not recognize marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

South Carolina's marriage law was amended in 1996 to prohibit marriage between same-sex couples and the ban was added to the state constitution in 2007 after a referendum.

In their lawsuit, Bradacs, a South Carolina state trooper, and Goodwin, a U.S. Air Force veteran who is 80 percent disabled, say they are harmed financially because some 1,000 federal benefits, privileges and responsibilities are based on marital status. In addition, their family is stigmatized by the ban, the lawsuit says.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and Gov. Nikki Haley, the defendants in the case, denied all assertions. Wilson's answer also says the couple's marriage was not performed in a state and that they lack standing to make claims for other same-sex couples.

Childs' order on Tuesday noted that the court may rule on any motion without holding a hearing.

Thoughts on rulings

Earlier this year, Childs told Law360, a website that covers federal courts and lawsuits against major companies, among other legal news, that when she writes rulings she is aware that she is writing for the world, not for the lawyers or people involved in the case.

That harkens back to her confirmation hearing when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told her and the other three people seeking federal appointments that she sees the federal court system as the best in the world.

"It's where the rubber meets the road," Feinstein said. She said since it is a lifetime position – a judge can only be impeached – that brings with it enormous responsibility.

Childs told Law360 her goal is to convince the public the court is open and staffed by public servants.

"In many ways, I've looked at my job as trying to bring some truth to that old joke: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," she said.