Hon. Paul J. Sullivan joins two other judges in receiving Worsfold Award

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Nearing the end of his judicial career, 17th Circuit Court Judge Paul J. Sullivan received the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award at the Law Day Luncheon last May.

In an unusual move, the GRBA shared the award between three prestigious judges: Judge Sullivan, Judge William Kelly of the 62-B District Court in Kentwood, who has been the subject of several Grand Rapids Legal News profiles, and Judge Janet Neff, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan (also no stranger to these pages).

Judge Sullivan’s award involved another unique circumstance: he had previously watched – very proudly – as his own son received an award at Law Day 2015. Colin Sullivan won the Liberty Bell Award for his commitment to teaching and coaching We the People, the program and competition which promotes students’ civic competence.

When his turn came, Judge Sullivan accepted the award with great modesty, while acknowledging the seriousness of the honor. The Worsfold Distinguished Service Award is given to a member of the GRBA for a career of service, acknowledging and honoring a member, or in this case members, “whose service stands out for its extraordinary impact on the life of the community.”

Judge Sullivan (and the other two honorees) fit that description admirably.

When his current term expires on the last day of 2020, Paul Sullivan will have been a judge for 32 years.

After receiving his undergraduate degree in government from Georgetown University, he got a job as a staff assistant for U.S. Sen. Norris Cotton of New Hampshire, from which Sullivan hails. “I was interested in politics,” he says, “maybe even elected office, but a judgeship was not what I was thinking about at the time.”

After he received his J.D. from Catholic University of America, he continued to work on the Hill. “I got an offer to be counsel to the Senate commerce committee. I thought if I took that job, I was afraid I’d never get out, so I decided instead to look around.”

His search took him to Philadelphia, a place he had never been before, nor had his wife Mary Ellen, whom he had met at Georgetown and who is from Grand Rapids. He enjoyed his job as an assistant prosecuting attorney there, but as children came along (Colin and his sister), Mary Ellen Sullivan wanted to move back home, and Judge Sullivan agreed.

He joined Roach Twohey Benson and Brady, which became Roach, Twohey, Maggini, and Brady after Robert Benson left to join the bench, and then Twohey, Maggini, Muldoon, Mudie and Sullivan. He was a generalist, practicing in criminal defense, representing plaintiffs in civil complaints, and doing a bit of domestic law.

“I truly enjoyed my work in Philadelphia,” Judge Sullivan says, “but it’s a different kind of practice here.” Not only is it more difficult to form trust relationships in a larger city, he says, but also the workload was crushing and it took a long time for cases to get through the crowded court system.

Another thing he really enjoyed about Grand Rapids was getting involved in various community organizations, including the GRBA, the Jaycees, the Lions, and other non-profits. “At my firm, I was encouraged with a capital E to get involved,” he says. Judge Sullivan also formed lifelong friends, including James Brady, who is his son’s godfather.

In 1988 he was elected to  the 61st District Court when the number of judges increased from four to five. Though he acknowledges it was hard to leave his firm, by then he found himself very drawn to  the public service he could perform through the judiciary. In 1995 he was appointed to the 17th Circuit, and has won re-election to that court several times.

Judge Sullivan served as Chief Judge 2004 to 2009. He has also been the long-time Chair of the SCAO Trial Court Performance Measures Committee, among many other professional contributions.

Because he will have reached the age of 70 before his current term ends, Judge Sullivan now sees the end of that public service. “I very much like what I do, but I also recognize that sometimes you reach an age where it’s appropriate to let younger blood come in – they come in with new ideas and enthusiasms,” he says.

One case that stands out for him, he says, is the decision to let the decriminalization of marijuana in Grand Rapids stand. “To be honest, I can see a lot of problems with the drug, but it’s not for me as a judge to say whether it’s going to be decriminalized or not; the people have spoken.” He adds that in this regard, he thinks there needs to be more education in civics, so citizens understand the roles of each branch of government.

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