Past Imperfect

updated 10/02/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The 17-year-old defendant tried to wheedle out of responsibility for smacking up a stolen car, and Judge Mathis listened attentively. Then he'd had enough. "If you continue the way you're going," he thundered, "the closest you'll come to a car is making license plates." Or, Mathis instructed, the kid could find his talent and become a success. After assessing $3,000 in damages, Mathis told the boy his own story as an object lesson: He'd been a gang member; he'd been in jail. When he was 17 and his mother was dying of cancer, she made him promise to turn his life around. "I felt I had to," he said, "to keep her alive."

Greg Mathis, now 40, couldn't save his mother, but he did keep his promise, in spectacular fashion. In a remarkable transformation, he earned a high school diploma and college and law degrees and eventually became the youngest judge elected to Michigan's 36th district court. With his gang-to-gavel life, "people see him as a folk hero," says Lovester Wilson Jr., a Detroit attorney. "He's an inspiration." Now he's a TV judge with his own syndicated courtroom show on which litigants agree to binding arbitration. While no threat to unseat top-rated Judge Judy, Mathis has picked up a second year. "What differentiates me," he says, "is that I'm streetwise and give tough love."

The youngest of four sons born to Alice Mathis and a man he says he hasn't seen in 25 years, he grew up in Herman Gardens, one of Detroit's nastier housing projects. His mother's sacrifice and devotion were "the only things that distinguished me from the other kids," he says. She worked the night shift as a nurse's aide and a day job cleaning houses but was still always home to greet her sons from school, cook dinner and oversee homework and prayers. But the nap she took before her night job left unsupervised time that led to trouble. "I didn't want my shoes taken, my clothes taken. That's what happened to boys who weren't involved in gang life," says Mathis. "So I succumbed."

As a gang member he was well known to juvenile authorities for his involvement in larceny, purse snatching and car theft. At 17, Mathis was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and charged for the first time as an adult. His mother, deeply offended, refused to bail him out and let him stew in the Wayne County Jail for nearly three months. One day his mom visited and told him, says Mathis, "how I humiliated her and now she was going to die of cancer. The doctor had given her 12 months to live. She came and asked me to turn my life around."

Moved, Mathis agreed. Fortunately, after his jailhouse vow to his mother, she was able to persuade his trial judge to give her son a second chance. As a condition of Mathis's one-year probation, the judge ordered him to get a high school equivalency diploma. By the next fall Mathis had entered Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. His mother died three months later.

Still, it took three years and another woman to get Mathis to finally relinquish his street mentality. Linda Reese, from Oak Park, Mich., was new to EMU's campus when she spotted Mathis running what she recognized to be a game of three-card monte. She plucked up the winning card and revealed the con. Mathis cursed her but tracked her down the next day to apologize. The couple married in 1985 and have four children—Jade, 15, Camara, 13, Gregory Jr., 11, and Amir, 10. Linda, 37, who runs three nonprofit daycare centers, isn't surprised by her husband's success. "He always had a lot of drive and ambition," she says.

He'd need both to continue his metamorphosis from juvenile delinquent to jurist. In 1987, after he had graduated from the University of Detroit Mercy law school and passed his bar exam, the state bar denied Mathis a license to practice law, citing his juvenile record. "It was the most stressful period of my life," says Mathis, who was $100,000 in debt from school loans. "I did everything society expected, and they told me I couldn't practice my profession." After five years of appeals he prevailed. Two years later, in a bitter campaign, he unseated a district court judge. Four years on the bench brought him a reputation for fairness. "Mathis is a people's judge," says Wilson. "His justice was tempered with mercy."

Success has allowed Mathis to buy a new seven-bedroom home in upscale Bloomfield Hills, Mich., prompting some back in Detroit, he says, to suggest that he has sold out. Typically blunt, Mathis refutes the charge. "Going from the inner city to one of the top communities in the U.S. in 15 years should be everyone's goal," he says. "I'm not going to limit myself or prohibit my children from experiencing the highest quality of life the world has to offer."

Bruce Frankel
Amy Mindell in Detroit

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