Change of pace: Former chief judge readies herself for retirement world

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

It was a sun-drenched day in late summer 2009 and Elizabeth Pezzetti, then chief judge of the Oakland County Probate Court, was chosen to preside over the rededication ceremony for the “Lady Justice” statue near the south entrance of the courthouse complex in Pontiac.

Scores of bench and bar members were on hand for the occasion, which was highlighted by the unveiling of the “new” Lady Justice, who had received a makeover after years of weathering the sometimes unjust Michigan meteorological climate.

As a symbol of impartiality, representative of the ideal of meting out justice without fear or favor, the statue had served its purpose for decades, but was beginning to show its age around the edges. In particular, Judge Pezzetti noted that day, Lady Justice needed some modern-day style befitting a woman of such stature.

“So, as part of this new look, it was decided that Lady Justice should show a more defined figure, particularly on her backside,” Pezzetti told the well-attired audience of lawyers, judges, and county personnel.

“In the law, we call that a re-butt-al,” Pezzetti said, provoking a roar of laughter.

Such quips are part of the Pezzetti persona, which will be missed on the Oakland County bench beginning in January when she journeys into the world of retirement after nearly 16 years as a probate judge.

Her judicial career came about in 2000 when “I was approached by several judges who suggested I might like to apply for an appointment to the seat vacated by the Honorable Sandra Silver,” Pezzetti recalled. Later that year, she was appointed to the bench by then Governor John Engler for a term beginning in 2001.

Six years later, Pezzetti assumed the duties of chief probate judge of the so-called “court of last resort.” In fact, she declared, the “probate court provides essential relief to our community’s most vulnerable citizens, and it is a vital component of our state’s legal system.”

She said as much to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners during her annual “State of the Court” addresses to the governing panel.

“On any given day, we may hear such diverse cases as a trust dispute involving millions of dollars, multiple businesses with angry litigants and a flock of lawyers; and thereafter, a case in which a grandmother is seeking guardianships of her grandchildren who have been abandoned by their parents,” she explained. “The next day we might preside over a jury trial involving hospitalization of a person alleged to be mentally ill.”

When directed during the onset of the Great Recession to trim department expenses, Chief Judge Pezzetti chose to approach the unpleasant task with the following adage in mind: “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”

The “glass is half-full” attitude has been one of her endearing qualities, particularly in a profession that was slow to embrace the concept of gender equality. After graduating from Wayne State University in 1964 with a degree in biology and education, Pezzetti took on the major responsibility of raising three children with her husband, Tom.

“While my children were growing up, I had several part-time jobs teaching adult education and G.E.D. preparation classes,” she said. “I was active as a member of our subdivision and swim club boards and volunteered in my children’s schools. I even taught a ‘Displaced Homemaker’ course, a federally sponsored program designed to find employment for divorced women.”

It was then, nearly 20 years after graduating from college, that Pezzetti decided to attend law school at Wayne State “as a (somewhat) mature student,” she quipped. In 1986, she graduated with various honors and landed a plum job with Dickinson Wright, where she would spend the next 15 years practicing employment, school and media law, as well as commercial litigation.

Her decision to leave private practice for a seat on the bench was “made all the more difficult” by a series of legal triumphs that she enjoyed during her final year with Dickinson Wright.

“Within the span of a few months that year, I won cases before the Michigan Supreme Court, the state Court of Appeals, and MERC (Michigan Employment Relations Commission),” she related. “It certainly was good to leave on a high note, even though I began to wonder if leaving on such a streak was such a good idea.”

A native of Wilmington, N.C., where her father was stationed in the U.S. Army during World War II, Pezzetti grew up in Huron, South Dakota, then affectionately known as the “Pheasant Capital of the World.”

“My father was an engineer and my mother a housewife,” Pezzetti said. “My two younger brothers and I enjoyed fishing for bullheads with a cane fishing pole from a wooden rowboat; biking; and joining in pheasant hunts.”

Her love for science and the outdoors took her to Drake University in Des Moines, Ia., where she planned to get a degree in biology en route to medical school. Then her plan intersected with a “dashing figure with a red Ford convertible.” His name was Tom Pezzetti, a Drake alum who was carving out a career at Ford Motor Co.

“He introduced me to Italian food, Chinese food, and lobster dinners, although at the end of his pay period it was beans and hot dogs,” she said with a laugh.

The couple has three children, Tom, Mike, and Annie, two of whom have followed their mother into the legal profession. Tom, a resident of Traverse City with his wife Stacey and their two children, is an attorney specializing in commercial law. Mike, who lives in Northville with his wife Stephanie and their three children, is an attorney and CPA with Deloitte. Daughter Annie, who “gave up a globe-trotting career in consulting with Deloitte to be a full time mom,” has a husband, Christian, and two children.

“We have seven grandchildren in all,” Pezzetti said proudly. “They are our treasures.”

Now, as she eases into retirement next month, Pezzetti hopes there will be more time for visiting with her children and grandchildren, travel, volunteer work, and some occasional visiting judge assignments.

“In March 2014, along with members of the (Oakland County) Inn of Court, I was sworn as a member of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Pezzetti related. “The trip to Washington, D.C. and the swearing in ceremony was a thrilling experience. Maybe I’ll get a case before the Supreme Court after I retire.”