Trailblazer: Death of state appellate judge mourned by legal community


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In terms of history, Judge Karen Fort Hood made plenty of it during her 29-year judicial career, which was tragically cut short on Sunday, Aug. 15 after she died reportedly of complications from recent knee replacement surgery.

The 68-year-old Hood became the first African American woman elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in November 2002, earning the right to serve on the state appellate bench following a decade of combined service on the Detroit Recorder’s Court and the Wayne County Circuit Court.

In June 2017, the former Detroit Public School teacher was appointed to the Judicial Tenure Commission, eventually becoming the first African American female to serve as chairperson of the nine-member panel that addresses allegations of judicial misconduct among state judges, magistrates, and referees. She was elected chair of the JTC last December for a two-year term, succeeding the Hon. Monte Burmeister, a probate judge in Crawford County.

Ottawa County Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing, who serves as vice chair of the commission, said he was “stunned” Monday upon hearing news of Judge Hood’s death.

“I had spoken with her last week and she was her usual jovial self, admitting that the knee replacement was incredibly painful but that she was getting more mobile by the day,” said Judge Hulsing. “It’s such an incredible loss for all of us who knew and admired her.”

Hulsing said he met Hood several years ago through their service on the JTC and was soon impressed with her smarts, positive attitude, and sense of fairness.

“Despite the fact that I’m from the west side of the state and she was from the east side, we took a fondness for each other and developed a lot of mutual respect for how we approached matters,” Hulsing said. “In fact, when she decided to seek the chairperson’s role, she asked me if I would be her vice-chair, which I considered a real honor.

“She brought tremendous wisdom to her role as a judge and as a commission member, and always maintained a cheerful attitude and a positive outlook on life,” Hulsing added. “It was such a blessing to know someone of such high character.”

A native of Detroit, Hood earned her bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany of the State University of New York, receiving her juris doctor from the former Detroit College of Law, now known as Michigan State University College of Law.
She served as an assistant Wayne County prosecutor before being elected in 1992 to the Detroit Recorder’s Court, which later merged operations with the Wayne County Circuit Court.

In 1999, Hood became presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Wayne Circuit Court and in 2002 won election to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where she would serve with distinction for the next 19 years.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel was among those who counted Judge Hood as a legal trailblazer.

“Judge Hood treated each of the parties and litigants who came before her with respect and dignity, and I will always remember her kindness and compassion from my own experiences appearing before her countless times,” Nessel said in a statement released Monday. “From becoming the first Black woman elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2002, to just earlier this year becoming the first Black woman to chair the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, Judge Hood spent her career shattering racial barriers. Her impact, and this loss, is felt well beyond the bench.”

Nessel’s remarks were echoed by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who said that Hood was “one of a kind.”

Said Worthy: “We served as assistant prosecutors, Recorder’s Court judges, and Wayne County Circuit Court judges together. We were also Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters. We had a lot of shared history and her loss will be profound. She was never afraid to tell you about yourself and speak truth to power.”

Long active in the legal community, Hood was a past president of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, and was a member of the Michigan Judges Association, the Wolverine Bar Association, and the National Bar Association. In addition, she was a lifetime member of the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP.

Lynn Helland, executive director and general counsel of the JTC, said that Hood left a lasting mark on the commission during her four years of service.

“Two things in particular about her stand out for me,” said Helland, a former federal prosecutor who was appointed head of the JTC in 2017. “First, she always had a kind and generous word for every person on our staff, and she was always very warm with me in our interactions. She was a person who liked and respected all people.

“Second, she called the shots as she saw them, without fear or favor,” Helland noted. “Her sense of justice was well tempered with a strong sense of mercy. She brought those qualities, along with her strong common sense, based on her experience as a judge and her life experience, to the commission’s work. We will miss her badly.”

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