An Irish saying: State appellate judge stays true to his roots


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

A former high school English teacher, state Court of Appeals Judge Michael Riordan is mindful of the importance of expressing oneself clearly, particularly in a profession where words can serve as an instrument of change.

“They, in a manner of speaking, are the tools of our trade, and I have always placed great value on using words wisely,” said Riordan, now in his sixth year on the appellate bench.

Which is why Riordan, a former federal prosecutor, prefers that litigants “write clearly and concisely” when filing appeals before the court.

“Verbosity and volume get you nowhere,” Riordan stated in a Q & A with the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel several years ago.

It was a message he drove home again during a recent interview with The Legal News, emphasizing the need to “stay on point” when formulating an argument, particularly in cases where the legal stakes are high.

“We all can get lost in the language – the legalese – of the profession, and that is a tendency that can trip up lawyers across the spectrum,” Riordan said.

As the product of a Catholic school education at Bishop Borgess in Redford, Riordan took his love for language to Michigan State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1982 before embarking on a relatively short career in teaching and coaching.

“Teaching can be a difficult job, but it offers a challenge that I consider particularly interesting, finding ways to convey a message that will stick in the minds of students,” he explained. “It’s the primary reason that I continue to teach at the law school level. There is a real joy in seeing something click for a student.”

At the urging of his late mother Bridget, Riordan enrolled in law school at the University of Detroit in the late ’80s after he spent time as an inspector with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was a decision that would pay lasting dividends on the professional and personal fronts.

Aside from earning his law degree from U of D, Riordan also had the good fortune of meeting his future wife there, in what could be labeled as a “win-win” proposition.

His wife, Meghan Kennedy Riordan, also was a member of the 1990 graduating class at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, using it as a launch pad for a distinguished career in the field of immigration law. An alumna of Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., Ms. Riordan now serves as head of the Immigration Law Practice Group for Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook, where she has been recognized by DBusiness Magazine as a “Top Lawyer in Michigan” in immigration law.

“I can safely say that Meghan and I really found U of D to be an excellent law school with a great group of professors,” said Judge Riordan, a vice president of the University of Detroit Mercy Law Alumni Association. “She was very involved in the moot court program there and I have taught securities regulation and administrative law at U of D for a number of years.”

It was in law school where Riordan first crossed paths with his longtime friend, Mark Wisniewski, now the chairman and CEO of Kitch.

“Mike and I met on the first day of law school back in the fall of 1987,” Wisniewski recalled. “He was a graduate of Bishop Borgess High School on the west side of Detroit and I was a graduate of De La Salle Collegiate on the east side. Back then, the east side and west side were miles apart. We hit it off from day one and continue to be close friends to this day. Throughout our law school days, Mike impressed me as one of the hardest working students in our class . . . or just as smart as Michigan Court of Appeals Chief Judge Chris Murray, who was also in our class.

“We were both members of law review in law school, but Mike rose to a management level within the law review, writing articles while in law school and after law school,” Wisniewski said. “He has always had a love for the law, but more importantly, a love for the education of the law. We always enjoyed debating legal issues back in law school over a pint or two and we still debate legal issues that are in the news to this day. We just do it over a soda these days. Mike has taken that passion for the law into the classroom where I have heard from many of his students who later became lawyers on how much they loved his class and his teaching style.”

Following law school, Riordan served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Robert DeMascio for two years before moving to Chicago, where he worked as a senior attorney in the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and then as an assistant general counsel for Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.

“We lived there for 4-1/2 years and it was a great opportunity to gain experience in securities regulation and related work,” said Riordan of his time in the Windy City. “I came back to Detroit in 1998 when Saul Green hired me as an Assistant United States Attorney, where I would work for the next 14 years.”

It also would be a time when he ramped up his involvement in volunteer work, particularly with the State Bar of Michigan, where he has been a member of the Board of Commissioners since 2006.
He also is a member of the Federalist Society, serving as vice chair of its Board of Advisors and as a past president of the Michigan Lawyers Chapter. He also serves on the boards of Detroit’s Loyola High School and PBJ Ministries, which distributes food, clothing, and other essentials to the homeless and poor.

In addition, the MSU alum is a past president of the Federal Bar Association (Eastern District of Michigan) and the Incorporated Society of Irish American Lawyers.

“I’ve always enjoyed my involvement with the various bar associations,” said Riordan, a board member of the Michigan Institute of Continuing Legal Education. “It has offered the opportunity to meet new people, to network, and to keep abreast of what is going on of importance in the legal community,” he related.

His overall body of work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and in the legal community certainly factored into his appointment to the state appellate court bench in March 2012. In making the appointment, Governor Rick Snyder praised Riordan for bringing “tremendous legal experience” to the court and for being “highly respected by the legal and judicial communities.”

The chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Christopher Murray, echoes the comments.

“I have known Mike since our first year of law school at UDM Law,” said Murray. “He and I quickly became friends, and we started the first Federalist Society law school chapter at UDM. As he is now, back then Mike was a very generous guy, always willing to help out a fellow classmate with advice, or to connect with people who could provide help for a particular situation, etc. As then, Mike knows a lot of people!

“After law school we were both involved in several attorney organizations, and then, of course, he was appointed to the COA,” Murray said. “He has been a great colleague since day one. He is always on top of his cases, he eagerly discusses the merits with each of us after case call, and he volunteers with administrative matters (currently, he is chair of the Quality Review Committee), and arranges an annual Tigers’ outing. He does everything with enthusiasm, and he cares about people. Judge Riordan is a student of the law, a true professional, and a decent, good person that all of us are proud to have as a colleague.”

Riordan, who was sworn in by then Chief Justice Robert Young, completed the unexpired term of Judge Brian Zahra, who earlier that year accepted an appointment to the Michigan Supreme Court. The downside to Riordan’s rise to the appellate court was that he had to run for re-election that November for a full 6-year term.

As is customary in Court of Appeals races, the incumbent was unopposed at the polls, just as Riordan will be this November when he runs for re-election.

“Let’s just say that I consider it a blessing that I don’t have to mount a campaign for state office,” Riordan said with a smile.

Otherwise the father of three would be hard-pressed to keep up with his children’s school activities, which range from collegiate football to high school rowing.

“My wife and I really enjoy watching our kids compete, and, of course, as a former football player, I get some vicarious thrills seeing our son play for the University at Buffalo,” said Riordan, who toyed with the idea of walking on to the MSU gridiron squad coached by Darryl Rogers in 1978.

The couple’s oldest child is Jeremiah, a 19-year-old sophomore at Buffalo, where he is a long-snapper on the football team. Daughter Mary, a Livonia Ladywood grad, is a freshman at the University of Toledo this fall, hoping to pursue an economics and pre-law curriculum. Their youngest, Fiona, is a sophomore at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills and “loves competitive rowing,” according to her father.

The Riordan family is steeped in Irish roots, as the jurist’s parents hailed from farming and fishing families on the “Ring of Kerry” in southwestern Ireland.

His mother, one of seven children, came from Rossmore Island on the Kenmare River, outside the village of Sneem. His father Jeremiah, one of 16 children, was from a farm outside the village of Glenbeigh, overlooking Rossbeigh Strand on Dingle Bay.

After World War II, Riordan’s mother followed relatives to America, settling in the Bronx where she worked as a domestic. She later became a housekeeper/cook for her uncle, Fr. Patrick J. O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Detroit – and founder of the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1956.

Riordan’s father lived with relatives in Binghamton, N.Y., before following siblings to the Bronx, where he met his future wife at a Kerry football dance at the Tuxedo Ballroom.

“After working for the gas company in Chicago for a year, he moved to Detroit and married my mother,” Riordan sad. “He worked for Michigan Consolidated Gas’s street department, with many other Irish immigrants, and did side jobs. My mother stayed at home and raised our family of five.”

With several cousins in Ireland, Riordan has visited the Emerald Isle many times, including in 2011 with his children and wife, whose family roots are in County Cork.

“We are Irish through and through, and we embrace our family heritage,” said Riordan. “My parents were the salt of the earth, and one of my few regrets in life is that they weren’t around when I was sworn in as a judge. It would have been a proud family moment for them.”