A Test of Mettle


Photos by Julie Nagle unless otherwise noted

New chief judge now steers county’s Probate Court ship

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Not long after she was appointed as the new chief judge of the Oakland County Probate Court, Kathleen Ryan began her judicial baptism under fire.

“It was a three-step process,” she explained, matter of factly.

First, the court’s longtime administrator, Becky Schnelz, announced that she was leaving her county position to take a plum job with the State Court Administrative Office in Lansing.

Secondly, another key court administrator, Register Jill Koney Daly, announced in January that she was retiring from the county after nearly 30 years of service to take a part-time job so that she could spend more time with her family.

The head winds continued to buffet the new chief judge later that month when her Probate Court colleague, Judge Daniel A. O’Brien, took an unexpected medical leave. He is expected back to work sometime this spring.

“Thank God that Judge O’Brien is going to be all right, but I began to seriously wonder after that series of events whether the stars were aligned for me in this job,” Ryan said with her customary frankness. “Perhaps someone was trying to tell me something in a strange sort of way.”

In short, there was no “luck of the Irish” for the University of Notre Dame grad as she embarked on her two-year assignment as chief of the four-judge Probate Court, the judicial wing that hears cases involving wills and estates, guardianships, conservatorships, and mental health commitments.

But instead, Ryan has chosen to view the circumstances in a different light, the kind framed in positive terms.

“Since we’ve been short staffed, it’s given me and others an opportunity to really look at the nuts and bolts of our court operation, to gain experience on how everyone best does their job,” she said. “In almost any leadership role, you can become insulated from what is happening elsewhere in the organization. This situation has forced me to really take a closer look at how we operate at every step in the probate process and to hear ideas on how we can be more efficient. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I want to listen to those who are on the front lines on ways we can keep making improvements.”

The challenge of “doing more with less” is particularly great for the Probate Court, which has seen its workforce trimmed by 10 employees since 2008 while the case docket has increased approximately 25 percent. The math, of course, doesn’t always add up in life, according to Ryan.

“We have to figure a way to keep pace and we are looking at it as an opportunity to be creative in our thinking,” she said. “Fortunately, we have a lot of bright and dedicated people here to make sure that it happens. It was a great loss when Becky and Jill left the county after all their years of dedicated service, but we have to view this as an opportunity for others to fill their shoes.”

Ryan, who grew up in Redford the youngest of four adopted children, was well schooled in real-world realities long before she entered the legal profession. As a member of an Irish Catholic family, she is the product of a Catholic school education, attending St. Valentine’s in Redford, Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, the University of Notre Dame, and University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Her early school years, when discipline was meted out in altogether different ways, left an impression on the future jurist.

“I, not surprisingly, was a talker even back then, which tended to get me in trouble with the nuns in the classroom,” Ryan admitted. “On occasion I had my mouth duct taped to keep me from talking. No joke.”

Ryan, now in her eighth year on the bench, fortunately hasn’t invoked such measures during her time as a judge even when tempted.

“It’s probably because I like to hear a good argument, with emphasis on the word ‘good,’” she said. “I didn’t shy away from a good legal scrap when I was a lawyer and I certainly had to sharpen my skills as the youngest of four children with a father as a federal judge.”

Her dad, 85-year-old James L. Ryan, retired from the federal judiciary in 2010 after a distinguished 25-year career on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He previously served as a state Supreme Court justice, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, and as a Justice of the Peace in Redford.

His impressive legal resume was rightfully acknowledged by federal colleagues at his portraiture ceremony in September 2010 when many of those on hand sported green ties in honor of Ryan’s Irish heritage.
Gerald Rosen, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court, was among the well-wishers that day.

“The good turnout from our bench shows the great respect we have for you, even when you are reversing us,” Rosen said to a roar of laughter.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson also was among the speakers at the ceremony, as one of the many law clerks who served Ryan during his time on the bench.

“Seventy-seven law clerks and five judicial assistants,” Lawson recounted. “That’s a lot of people to help one guy get his work done.

“When it comes to Judge Ryan,” Lawson added in reverence, “we all speak with one voice.”

His daughter would second that motion, calling her dad the unquestioned “voice of reason” in the family, lauding his “brilliance” as a “legal scholar” even if he exhibits certain shortcomings.

“My dad’s idea of roughing it is spending a night at a Holiday Inn without a mini-bar,” she said with a grin. “He can be a real trip at times.”

Good-natured family banter is part of the Ryan D.N.A., which travels through the bloodstream of her three older siblings.

“We like to rib each other,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s what we do to keep each other humble.”

Her older brother, Daniel Ryan, is a mediator after retiring from the Wayne County Circuit Court bench. Brother Jim, a former state legislator, is a lobbyist for a public affairs firm, while sister Colleen is a homemaker who works with disabled children.

“We’re a tightknit family, and we were truly blessed to have wonderful parents,” said Ryan, who fights back tears when talk turns to her mother, Mary, who died in 2007 of a brain aneurysm just three weeks after celebrating her golden wedding anniversary.

“My Mom was simply wonderful, a real angel,” Ryan said. “She spent her life helping others. She was constantly doing good deeds. She was the most selfless woman in the world.”

It was the norm for her to help the homeless, work in soup kitchens, clean church pews, and open the family home to out-of-town church visitors.

“On occasion I would come home from school only to be informed by her that some nuns from India would be staying the week in my bedroom,” she recalled. “That was not all that unusual around our house. My Mom really instilled a sense of service in me, stressing the importance of making a difference in the lives of others.”

So much so that Ryan admits to having a “problem” – and a good one at that.

“Some friends say that I should be in ‘Joiners’ Anonymous’ because I have such a hard time saying ‘no’ to good causes,” she said. “I like to be involved, whether it’s for a charitable or bar association cause. We can all find time to do some good.”

Such thinking, of course, begins in the courtroom for the new Chief Judge, who spent the first 14 years of her career in private practice specializing in family law and probate work.

“I love the probate docket,” she said. “It’s never routine, never boring. What makes this job even more special is the opportunity to work with such a terrific group of judges. And all of us are fortunate to have very dedicated staffs who are willing to go the extra mile for the citizens we serve.”

Now, as she approaches her 49th birthday next month – on a b-day she shares with such notables as comedian Jay Leno and the late and not-so-great Saddam Hussein, Ryan acknowledged that she is the “most introverted extrovert you’ll ever know.”

She also isn’t afraid to display her emotions, keeping a box of tissues ever handy when the need arises.

“I’m a crier, always have been and always will be,” she admitted. “But never in court. That’s a hard-and-fast rule for me whatever the situation.”