Mish brings broad experience in municipal law to Dickinson Wright


Dickinson Wright is the new home for Catherine Mish, formerly the Grand Rapids City Attorney


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

After more than 13 years in the City of Grand Rapids attorney’s office, eight of them as the City Attorney with all the responsibilities that entails, Catherine Mish has brought her expertise to the municipal law practice of Dickinson Wright.

Leading the legal department of the second-largest city in Michigan has given Mish a wide array of experiences that cannot help but stand her in good stead in representing and working with other municipalities.

“At a firm such as Dickinson Wright, which has such a statewide presence in Michigan, I can take my 13 years of experience at a well-run city and offer that to other cities,” she says.

The city attorney is responsible not only for reviewing, and in Mish’s case most of the time drafting, ordinances but also for attending council meetings and advising on legal issues and procedural matters on the spot. This means knowing the Open Meetings Act and parliamentary procedure cold.

In Grand Rapids, the city attorney serves as general legal counsel to the heads of all the city departments, including fire, police, sanitary sewer, water filtration, civil rights, and many others.

“You have to know a little bit about everything,” Mish says with a grin.

In addition, the city attorney must have some familiarity with election law, Freedom of Information Act, personal injury law, and oversee the 11 attorneys in the department as they go about prosecuting infractions and other duties.

She was also responsible for reviewing all city contracts. “The city is a four million dollar corporation. That means the different departments enter into all sorts of contracts, personnel, purchasing, some minor, some major, and it’s a great deal of work,” she notes.

On occasion, Mish says, the city attorney also gets involved in constitutional law. One example she cites happened early in her career at the department. Protestors drove all the way from Pennsylvania to intentionally disrupt a peaceful picnic held in a city park by members of a pagan group. When the city cited the protestors for disturbing the peace, they sued — which appeared to be their original intention, in order to develop case law favorable to their cause. Mish says that as she remembers, the case settled out of court.

There was also the well-known Deffert v. Moe, where an open-carry advocate sued a Grand Rapids police officer for detaining him briefly, claiming his constitutional rights were violated. Taking in to consideration the extenuating circumstance that the person with the gun was “talking to himself,” the district court dismissed the case, ruling that the officer acted appropriately.

“I think what I’ll miss most is the really dedicated legal professionals I worked with, who take care of so many things,” Mish says, with a nod to the department’s five secretaries as well. “Mayor Heartwell was great to work with, and Mayor Logie was wonderful too   — he could really run a meeting.”

She notes that the assistant attorneys generally only involved her in their decisions when media attention was likely, just to be sure that they were not misrepresenting the city attorney’s office. She greatly appreciates the staff’s good judgement in those instances.

Mish looks forward to bringing that broad range of expertise to bear in helping other cities and towns, including existing Dickinson Wright clients and others she will seek to pull in.

A summa cum laude graduate of Hillsdale College who received her J.D. magna cum laude from Wayne State University Law School, Mish says that neither of her parents attended law school and she worked her way through college, including both academic and sports scholarships. She was a runner during her years growing up in Utica in Macomb County — a six-time all-American and three-time national champion.

She moved to this side of the state primarily because her husband is from here.

Mish says she had no idea early on that she would enjoy municipal law; “It was a specialty I don’t even think I?heard of in law school,” she comments.

After three years at Miller Johnson, Mish became a research attorney in the pre-hearing division of the Court of Appeals, and then was selected as a law clerk for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman. She then clerked for the late Judge Michael Smolenski at the Court of Appeals.

“Judge Smolenski, who was a wonderful man, had been an assistant city attorney and talking with him first made it of interest to me,” Mish says. An opening came up and it was in civil litigation which I’d done at Miller Johnson. That was my initial assignment, defending police in civil lawsuits. We very rarely sued anyone ourselves.”

She has briefed and argued before the Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court, as well as the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

During her tenure at the city attorney’s office, Mish took leadership roles in a number of legal associations.

She served on the council of the State Bar of Michigan Public Corporation Law Section (PCLS) since the year before she became city attorney, and was its president in 2012-2013. She is now on the board of the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys (MAMA) — an arm of the Michigan Municipal League — as well as of the associated Legal Defense Fund.

“MAMA offers an academy for municipal attorneys, which has certified only a very short list. I’m one of about six,” Mish says proudly, smiling.

She also recently joined the board for the Legal Assistance Center, and is on the advisory committee for the Federalist Society West Michigan Chapter.

Mish and her husband live on the West side of Grand Rapids and have two children, one entering high school and one starting middle school.