Stand-up judge made U-M debut one to remember


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Once viewed as a winter afterthought, the Women’s Basketball program at the University of Michigan has raised its profile in recent seasons, twice making the NCAA Tournament under the leadership of head coach Kim Barnes Arico.

The Wolverines opened their regular season November 8 against in-state rival Western Michigan University at the Crisler Center, a 12,707-seat arena that rarely has been filled to the rafters for a U-M women’s game.

Count Sara Smolenski, a longtime judge with the 63rd District Court in Grand Rapids, particularly grateful for that.

The judge, a former basketball hotshot in high school and college, got to know the arena well during her playing days at U-M nearly four decades ago.

An All-City standout for two years at Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Smolenski was a sweet-shooting guard back then, eventually taking her “A-game” to the former Grand Rapids Junior College, helping supply some offensive punch to the fledgling women’s team for the Raiders. In the fall of 1977, she set sail for U-M, which plays its games in cavernous Crisler, a multi-purpose sports arena named after former Wolverine Athletic Director Fritz Crisler.

Smolenski, who earned her juris doctorate from Cooley Law School in 1982, distinctly remembers her Crisler debut, when “about half of the crowd was comprised of my relatives,” she said with a snicker.

After languishing on the bench for much of the game, the point guard finally heard her name called when another sub couldn’t answer the summons because of what could politely be described as a “uniform malfunction.”

Smolenski, the over-eager guard from Grand Rapids, wasn’t about to fall victim to the same problem.

No siree.

“I was so excited about finally getting in to the game that I jumped up and peeled off my warm-ups,” she recalled. “Then, I felt a cool breeze.”

Next, she heard a few chuckles. By then, the “cool breeze” was approaching gale-force proportions.

“There I was, in front of God and everyone, standing on the court at Crisler Arena in my underwear,” she said, the pain of the moment still etched in her athletic psyche. “It was one of life’s ‘special’ moments.”

She doesn’t remember if she scored in that game, although she is certain the gaffe must have somehow made it into the U-M record books. Perhaps under the category, “Most Red-faced Relatives to Witness Big Ten Basketball Game.”

Perhaps that also is why the 63rd District Court judge doesn’t shy way from telling a good tale, especially of the everyday garden variety that seem to propagate in her Kent County courtroom.

“Humor brings balance to my life,” said Smolenski. “I wouldn’t survive in this job if I didn’t have a sense of humor. It’s my safety net.”

For years, Smolenski has been a popular speaker at various state and local events, delighting her audiences with a rapid-fire delivery that is one part Jay Leno, two parts Ellen DeGeneres.

One of her favorite true-life courtroom tales revolved around a marriage ceremony she performed in the hallowed halls of justice.

The bride was decked out in unconventional wedding attire, a revealing tube top.

On top and bottom.

“I didn’t know whether to cite her for indecent exposure,” Smolenski said with a smile.

The groom was a bit of a sight himself, although he dressed up for the occasion with a white button-down Oxford shirt.

“After I pronounced them husband and wife, the groom decided he had had enough of that dress shirt,” Smolenski related.

“He took off that white Oxford, which revealed his T-shirt underneath. It was inscribed with the message, ‘#%@& Happens.’ It seemed particularly fitting.”