Judge Feeney given Justice Marilyn J. Kelly Award for Outstanding Service

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE INSTITUTE FOR CONTINUING LEGAL EDUCATION

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

There is no question that Kent County Circuit Court Family Division Judge Kathleen Feeney has contributed greatly to the field of family law.

The State Bar of Michigan Family Law Section has recognized that by awarding Judge Feeney its Justice Marilyn J. Kelly Award for Outstanding Service to the Practice of Family Law.

What might be less obvious is the toll that continual exposure to what Judge Feeney calls “unspeakable things” takes on family law judges.

“I’ve heard people call it secondary trauma, but it’s what I call ‘the things that I think about when I wake up in the middle of the night.’ Because it’s very intense,” she says.

A long-time Family Law Section member, Judge Feeney says the rationale behind giving the award was to encourage judges to stay on the family law bench.

The section had long given a Lifetime Achievement Award. Justice Marilyn J. Kelly won that award in 2011, among many other State Bar honors over the years.

It is fitting that the newer award is named after Justice Kelly, who devoted her legal career to family law before becoming first a Court of Appeals judge and then a Michigan Supreme Court justice, rising to the position of Chief Justice.

Judge Feeney is only the second recipient of the award. The first, in 2015, was Oakland County Judge Joan Young.

Though Judge Feeney was given the award for being “an outstanding judge with a great reputation” and because she is “passionate, widely respected, acknowledged as a leader by her peers, and well known by family law practitioners,” she herself feels it is likely that the breadth and depth of her involvement with the profession and the community probably tipped the balance in her favor.

A list of those involvements might give the impression that the judge has figured out the secret of 36-hour days.

Judge Feeney is an active member of the Michigan Judges Association, chairing its Family Law Committee;  sits on the review committee for the Michigan Family Law Benchbook;  is a member of the Michigan Judge’s Association and serves on its Court Rules Committee;  and  serves on State Court Administrative Office work groups as well as on the MiSCWS Forms Review committee, Domestic Relations Forms committee and the Supreme Court’s Civil Jury Instruction Committee,

“The jury instruction committee is excellent, it’s so diverse. I actually felt like I had a strong role on that, sharing how we do our jury trials in our abuse and neglect cases,” Judge Feeney comments.

She is also a member of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan (and a long-time member of its charity softball team), and a former chair of the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section as well as a member of the State Bar Young Lawyers Section. She was named the Outstanding Young Lawyer of the State Bar of Michigan in 1995.

Her professional contributions extend to serving as an adjunct professor at Davenport University’s paralegal program and lecturing for the Institute for Continuing Legal Education.

Community activities encompass  a wide variety of service org-

anizations, including 15 years on the board of the Wolverine World Wide Family YMCA and serving through her church.

Interestingly, Judge Feeney sees all of this as a lifeline in the struggle to keep moving forward despite the exposure to so much misery and distress. “It’s good to make contact with others who are in the same situation, and feel like you’re contributing to making it better. That kind of helps you with your sanity,” she says.

She says a frequent source of conflict is the struggle to put children’s needs first versus what the parent or parents desire, particularly in cases where the mother is a victim of domestic violence.

“I think of it as like a sinking ship. I realize the parents have a right to choose in relationships, but if the back half of the ship is sinking, it will take the front half right down with it,” she says. “I can’t make the decision to return a child to the Titanic.”

Appointed to the bench in March 2000 and elected to a full term later that year, Judge Feeney is now the presiding judge of the Kent County Circuit Court Family Division. Prior to that, she was judicial counsel to Court of Appeals Judge Jane Markey.

The Detroit native attended Michigan State University’s Honors College, graduating with high honors, and then the University of Illinois College of Law, where she was named the Outstanding Woman Law Graduate in 1987.

She followed that up with a few years at Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith in Lansing, and then moved on to Mika Meyers, practicing in domestic and personal injury law.

It is clear from the way Judge Feeney talks about counseling the people who come before her that she cares deeply, not only about children and juvenile offenders, but about everyone in the family law equation.

“On a case-to-case basis, I want to tell myself I?am making a difference,” she says. “I would certainly hope that we are. In the end  you have to focus on what you have right in front of you right now or it can get to you very easily. But if I’ve made somebody’s life a little bit better or safer, that’s what matters.”