Interview, Michigan — October 15, 2012 at 7:02 am

INTERVIEW: Michigan Supreme Court candidate Connie Marie Kelley – Empathy, compassion, and experience on the bench


Another superb candidate for the State Supreme Court in Michigan

Connie Marie Kelley is currently a judge in the Wayne County Circuit Court. She was endorsed and nominated by the Michigan Democratic Party for the Michigan Supreme Court along with Bridget Mary McCormack (interview HERE) and Shelia Johnson (interview HERE.)

Like the other two MDP-endorsed candidates for the state’s highest court, Judge Kelley comes from a background that makes her uniquely suited and qualified to be a state Supreme Court justice. A remarkably down-to-earth person, she has spent her career advocating for clients as an attorney and, as a judge, making the justice system more accessible for those who use it. She has represented a wide variety of clients including victims of domestic violence, those who have experienced discrimination, and workers who have been treated unfairly by their employers. In her personal life, she has seen the impact that drug abuse can have on families and has used that experience to help young people find other paths, serving as a mentor and teacher to young people from urban areas.

I sat down with Judge Kelley last week to talk about her candidacy. I started out asking a bit about her background and whether she’s from Michigan.

“I am, I grew up in Royal Oak. I lived there before it was cool! I went to high school at Bishop Foley and then I went to the University of Michigan.

“I was one of six children. My father was a high school football coach. He’s in the Michigan High School Athletics Hall of Fame, in fact, so he’s pretty well-known in the high school sports world. My mom did the hard work of staying home and raising six kids. I was number two and the first one to go to college.

“I actually paid my own way through college and law school. I waitressed and I law clerked when I was in law school because, you know, my dad was a teacher. I think he made about $35,000 at his peak and, with six kids, that didn’t go very far.”

“You went to U of M law school?” I asked.

“Actually, I did my undergraduate work at the U of M and went to Wayne State law school. After that, I was a lawyer for 27 years. I know I don’t look that old, but…” she said with a grin.

“Did you have your own personal practice?”

“I started out clerking. When I was clerking in law school, I stayed with that firm. It was a small firm with two guys that was a general practice so I got a lot of experience there. I went on my own with a partner for awhile. And then my mentor, the guy that I worked with as a clerk, recruited me back and I was a partner in a firm in Troy, Michigan when I was elected in 2008. There were 43 lawyers and I was a partner and only the second woman to be named a partner since the firm was founded in 1929. So, we’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go!

“So that’s where I was when I was elected and I practiced in a variety of courts for 27 years before I was elected to the Wayne County Circuit Court.”

I asked her about the types of cases she handled as a lawyer.

“I did a variety of different kinds of civil cases. I did a LOT of employment and labor law, which I really loved, and I represented people who had been wrongfully fired from their jobs, fired without cause, and people who were victims of discrimination. Age discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, race discrimination — all kinds of different cases. I practiced in courts all throughout Michigan, the Michigan Court of Appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. I also personal injury work, no-fault work, workers comp. I also did complex contract cases and I did family law. Quite a wide variety in a lot of different areas.”

“It seems like you’ve got a good perspective of the people that are using the justice system,” I commented.

“Exactly,” replied Judge Kelley. “I have.”

We went on to discuss the endorsing of candidates by the state-level political parties.

“One of the things that I have found interesting is the endorsement of Supreme Court candidates by the Michigan Democratic Party or the Republicans for that matter. I think, in some ways, that has dragged down the level of discussion about the candidates for Supreme Court, at least it has in the past. What’s your take on the endorsement of Supreme Court candidates by the political parties?” I asked.

“I think it really makes the whole Supreme Court election process too partisan,” replied Judge Kelley. “But, you know, that’s the way it’s set up right now and I do applaud efforts for judicial reform to make it less partisan. I think we all do. But, that’s a legislative function. We can support it but it really takes the legislature to put those things in place.

“The problem is that, not only does it make the court seem more partisan, but it’s also confusing to voters because you’re nominated by a political party and then you’re placed on the nonpartisan section of the ballot.”

“That IS really confusing,” I agreed.

“It’s is, it is,” she said. “A lot of people, when they’re voting straight ticket, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, if they’ve identified a candidate by party affiliation, by voting straight ticket, they might think they are voting for that candidate. That’s really a big part of our education piece, to make sure voters understand that ALL judges, not just the Supreme Court, but ALL judges are listed on the nonpartisan section of the ballot.

I asked about the efforts on her behalf by the Michigan Democratic Party. “I assume they’re helping you out, sending out mailings, etc. on your behalf?”

“Well,” Judge Kelley responded, “We don’t communicate or coordinate with the party but, obviously there are television ads on TV with disclaimers by the Michigan Democratic Party.”

“They’ve actually been pretty positive, so I’ve been happy about that,” I commented.

“They’ve been very positive,” she said. “And, I think, the places I go, people have been really refreshed by that. Those ads went up the day after Labor Day so they’ve been on the air for quite awhile. I was pumping gas the other day and two guys asked me if I had a lawn sign and then a lady came over and wanted to talk about my work. So, it’s been a bit of a weird experience, I usually operate pretty anonymously! So, I think they ads are resonating.

“You know, I spend a lot of Sundays at churches in Detroit talking to people. When I say I’m one of the women nominated by the Democratic Party, you might have seen the ads on TV, you can see them nodding. The ads have been such a positive message that people are remembering them. Crime is such a big problem these days and people want to know that children and families are being protected so it’s a great message and people like it.”

I asked her about the case of Rebecca Williams Jackson who was denied justice because she could not afford to pay for it. “How do we deal with those kinds of situations?,” I asked.

“That’s not right,” she answered. “That’s not right. You know, one of the things that’s a common theme for the three of us — Judge Johnson, Professor McCormack, and me — is that, even though we came from different backgrounds, we all feel like we were cut from the same cloth. We believe that justice should be for everybody and the justice system should be accessible to everybody. Those are just unnecessary roadblocks, unnecessary roadblocks that have been put in the way of people that have legitimate claims.

“In the court where I am, in the Family Division, we have a LOT of self-represented people. We have people who can’t afford attorneys going through Family Law. For people going through the legal system, I see that the most basic things like proof of service — you know, when you serve the other side with legal papers — you have to file an affidavit saying that you’ve served them somehow. Even concepts like proof of service are really difficult for people without a legal background.

“What I’ve done is created packets in my court room to help people to understand how to get through the process. So, when we have self-represented people, my judicial attorney meets with them before I call the case and gives them the packet and explains it to them. Then I bring them up and reinforce what they have to do to make sure that they understand what they need to do. A lot of judges think, ‘You’re charged with the same responsibilities as a lawyer so figure it out.’

“But, then, after I was a judge for about year, and I was really proud of myself that I had these packets for all sorts of different situations and we were really working to demystify and simplify the whole process, I learned that a large percentage of people in Detroit actually cannot read. I had just been assuming that everyone that came into my court room can read. So, I had to start learning about the illiteracy rate. You never want to embarrass anyone but, sometimes I’ll ask several times to make sure they get the process.

“So, I know there are a lot of things we can do to make the criminal justice process more accessible to people. But, a lot of times it depends on the person who is sitting on the bench, too. There are simple things we can do that don’t cost a lot. You just have to be committed to it and come up with creative ways to help people through the process. Like PPOs, personal protection orders. I’m on the Domestic Violence Court that I helped to create in Wayne County in addition to my family law duties.”

“Do you think it’s working?” I asked. “Is it paying off?”

“You know, I’m convinced we’ve saved lives, Chris,” Judge Kelley answered. “It was really fascinating. I mean, I see the worst of the worst in domestic violence cases in Wayne County. What got me involved in this, what made me start thinking as a judge was that I would give a PPO to someone, and about 98% of the petitions in these case are women, and, you know, there are usually children involved. And I felt like we were just saying, ‘Goodbye and good luck’ and I wasn’t really helping them. So, three judges, we got together and we applied for a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women and now we call it the “Solutions-Oriented Domestic Violence Court” because we want to help come up with solutions so that these people don’t ever have to come back.

“We partnered with about 30 different agencies in Wayne County — law enforcement, First Step, shelters, cash assistance agencies. We like for them to finish school so Schoolcraft College is one of our partners, they have a transitions program. So, we’re actually trying to help people move out of the cycle of domestic violence instead of just giving them this piece of paper and hoping that nothing bad happens. I’m really committed to that cause.”

“I’ll bet you have saved lives,” I commented.

“I think we have,” she said.

We talked for a while about what is distinctive about her background compared to the other two Democratic Party-endorsed women.

“One of the things that’s become apparent to me in talking to you, Bridget McCormack and Shelia Johnson is that, while you all came from very different places, you all ended up in a very similar place in terms of the things you are doing to try to improve the justice system and to help out groups of people that struggle with it. My question to you is, what’s different in your background, how would you characterize yourself as different from the other two?”

“Well,” she responded, “I think one thing that sets me apart from the others is my family. I raised two sons that were only 15 months apart and I also raised my niece who is only 4 months older than my youngest son. I had a brother who was a heroin addict. He went to Michigan State and graduated, had a great job but he just couldn’t battle the demons. He married someone who also had the demons and they had a daughter, my niece Angela. I raised her from the time she was one. So, I had three in cribs at the same time, three on bottles, three car seats in my car, I used to go to Toys R Us and buy small, medium, and large diapers, and three learning how to drive at the same time!

“So, this year, besides working full time and running for the Supreme Court, I planned a wedding! Angela got married at my cousin’s place up north on a lake at the end of July. It’s the first wedding I ever performed as a judge and my two sons walked her down the aisle. Everybody asks, ‘Did you cry?’ but I didn’t! But, I was so proud of her, when you consider all the problems she could have had. It made me a big believer in ‘nurture over nature’.

“So, I think that experience of raising the child of a drug-addicted sibling gives me a broad perspective of what the world is like because I’ve lived through that, you know?”

“How has that impacted you as a judge?” I asked.

“Well, one of the ways is that I started a girls mentoring program which, I think, is an offshoot of that experience,” Judge Kelley replied. “I just never wanted Angela to feel like she was alone in the world, you know? And, so, I met a lot of these girls in my court who maybe only had one parent or, sometimes, no parents. They stay with neighbors, aunties, you know, wherever they can. So, I started this program with another woman. We have speakers come in on Friday afternoons to talk to these 9th and 10th grade girls at Cody High School about good decision-making, healthy living, things like that. It’s called ‘Cody Girls Make It Happen!’. We’ve had people come in from Planned Parenthood and all sorts of different places.

“It was so amazing to me. These girls have lived in Detroit all their lives but they’ve never been downtown. They’ve never been to Comerica Park, never seen the Renaissance Center. They just live in a neighborhood where they have drug dealers, prostitutes, gangs … there’s a gang called ‘Brothers With Different Mothers’. I said to the principal of the school, ‘Really?’ and he said, ‘There is. They’re brothers that all of have the same dad but different mothers and they formed a gang.’ That’s the type of environment they live in.

“So, we brought the girls down for a field trip one day. I let them sit in the jury box in my court room while the lawyers were arguing their cases and then I took them over for a tour of the Renaissance Center, I took them to lunch at Andiamo’s, we took them to the Detroit Repertory Theater. It was a huge deal! Because they’ve never gotten to do anything like that before. So, my goal is the let them know that the world is bigger than the world they live in and that they have so many choices if they’re willing to work hard. I’m just hoping I can do my little piece to make a difference in the lives of others.”

This video by the Michigan Democratic Party shows Judge Kelley with some of the girls from the “Cody Girls Make It Happen!” program:

“So, you’ve done all these amazing things at the level you’re at now,” I said. “What would you see yourself as a champion of if you are elected to the Supreme Court?”

“All of those things that I care about so much. I have a passion for making sure that everyone is treated fairly, that everyone has access to justice, that all lives are valued the same, and everyone should have the same opportunity. I think it’s really important for judges to hear both sides of the case, to have a good understanding of the law, and to apply the law to the facts that they hear. I think my life experience is different than some of the other people that sit on the court. I paid my own way through college and law school. I raised someone who wasn’t my own child. I lived in a different world than a lot of people lived in. I was a lawyer for 27 years. I know what litigants are going through when they go to court. I understand their anxiety. They have serious problems and they don’t understand the system. Now, as a judge, I understand the whole court process and how it works from both sides of the bench so I think I bring a wide range of experience to the Court.

“I think we all have a lot to bring. We all have these different experiences, we have all been student of the law — between the three of us we have 78 years of experience — so, I think we would bring, as the Detroit Free Press said, “a fresh start for the Supreme Court.”

“Right now there seems to be this really massive partisan divide on the Supreme Court, I don’t think anyone would deny that. Is it possible for the Michigan Supreme Court to not be that divided?” I asked her.

“I think it is, with the right people there. I think that everybody is just so weary of the partisan divide in our country. You know, you look at Washington and you look at Lansing… people are worn out about it, people are tired of hearing about it on TV. They want people to find solutions in the legislative branch but I certainly think they expect the judiciary to be above the politics of the day. I believe that’s true and most people want that to be true.

“You know, when I went for the Free Press interview, they asked, ‘Well, if you all get elected, how are you going to fix all the mistakes that they’ve made?’ and I said, well, that’s not really our job! It’s not a situation with the court where, if we have enough Democrats we can pass health care reform and if we have enough Republicans we can repeal health care reform. I think there are some people who feel that’s the way it is or should be but that’s not the way I think it should be. I think the courts should be above the politics of the day. We have to do what’s right. We have to follow the law and do what’s right. But, yeah, I do think that we can get away from the partisan divide. It just takes the right people to be there.”

We finished up by talking about her passion for making sure children are taken care above all else.

“What’s it like working as a judge in Wayne County?” I asked her. “You must see some pretty horrific cases.”

“I do, I do. I’m very happy there, I love my world. But it’s tough, you know? I listen to some hard cases. I listen to cases about people choking someone, rape, sexual assault, really terrible things. I try to do my best to help people. And I sleep pretty well at night because I feel like I make decisions in the best interests of the children first. Always the children first. Sometimes I have to tell people, ‘I’m not worried about YOU. I’m worried about HIM and HER.'”

To find out more about Judge Connie Marie Kelley, make a donation or volunteer for her campaign, visit her webpage and her Facebook page.

Finally, not to belabor the point TOO much, but it is imperative that people realize that voting a straight ticket does not register a vote in the Supreme Court races. In order to vote for Judge Shelia Johnson, Professor Bridget Mary McCormack, and Judge Connie Marie Kelley, you must turn the ballot over and vote in the nonpartisan section. McCormack and Kelley are two of seven candidates running for two open full-term seats on the Supreme Court and Johnson is one of three running for a partial-term seat. Write their names down to make sure you vote correctly!