Return engagement: Former Supreme Court justice eyes circuit court seat

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The term “coming full circle” will certainly apply to the judicial journey taken by Mary Beth Kelly should she taste success in her bid for a judgeship on the 3rd Circuit Court of Wayne County.

Kelly, one of the most respected and well-known figures in state legal circles, is one of seven candidates seeking to be among the top four vote-getters in the August 4 primary election for two openings on the Wayne County Circuit Court bench.

Should she get the nod from voters in the primary race and then the November general election, Kelly will complete a return to the court where she began her judicial career in 1999.

Such an odyssey has been highlighted by three terms as chief judge of the Wayne Circuit Court, followed by four years as a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, where she helped restore a sense of civility to the seven-member panel that had been split along partisan political lines.

“It was an easy decision to run for office since I have served as a visiting judge on the Circuit Court since 2017 when I was asked by (then Chief Judge) Bob Colombo to help with clearing a backlog of cases in the Family Division of the court,” Kelly said. “I have a soft spot in my heart for the Circuit Court based on all my years there, especially when I served as chief judge.”

Kelly will be joined on the primary ballot by six other candidates, including Chandra Baker, Deana Beard, Dennis Donahue, Nicholas Hathaway, Shakira Hawkins and Frank Simone. The Judicial Evaluation Committee of the Detroit Bar Association offered “outstanding ratings” to Kelly and Baker in reviewing their qualifications for the job on the bench.

Elected to the state Supreme Court in November 2010, Kelly left office on Oct. 1, 2015 with more than three years remaining on her term, determining that the “time was right” to return to private practice after achieving several key goals while on the seven-member high court.

“It was a wonderful experience to be part of such an important state institution, and I’m glad to have helped restore civility to the court after some of the problems of the past,” Kelly said. “It was one of my goals to promote a greater sense of collegiality, and I believe that tremendous progress was made in that regard over the past few years.”

Kelly, who returned to private practice for a year before joining the Detroit office of JAMS (Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services) as an arbitrator and mediator, also was heartened to have “elevated child welfare and juvenile justice” matters for Supreme Court consideration.

“These are issues that are taking on even greater urgency in today’s society and they require a statewide response if we are going to make a significant impact,” said Kelly, who served as chair of the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice, a three-year appointment she accepted from then Governor Rick Snyder.

A graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where she was honored as the 2015 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year, Kelly earned her law degree from the University of Notre Dame. She has been a member of the Law School Advisory Board at Detroit Mercy Law and also has served on the board of Vista Maria, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the cycle of child abuse and neglect.

She also volunteered at the Scott Correctional Facility, assisting inmates with their spiritual needs alongside Marianne Williamson, noted author and peace activist, and a friend of Kelly.

Before her election to the Supreme Court, Kelly spent 11 years on the Wayne Circuit Court, including three terms as chief judge from 2001-07.

Admittedly, it was not an entirely happy time for Kelly, as she came under fire for her attempts to privatize the Wayne County Friend of the Court operation, a proposal that was strongly opposed by the union representing workers there.

Yet, Kelly said at the time and now again that she remains convinced that the privatization proposal will “have its time and place,” especially as budget dollars become even more precious due to the continuing pinch on state and local tax revenues.

An attorney with Dickinson Wright for 11 years before joining the bench, the Dearborn Heights native specialized in commercial litigation, securities fraud, and antitrust work during her time with the Detroit-based firm. One of seven children, she graduated from Bishop Borgess High School in 1980, where she competed on the track and tennis teams.

For the past two-and-a-half  years, Kelly has been pulling double duty with her work at JAMS and as a visiting judge with the Circuit Court, a schedule that she admits is “not sustainable” long term.

“I really love trial court work and feel that I am best suited for that role in the legal system, where I can help make an impact on families and individuals,” said Kelly, who is basing her candidacy on a resume framed by “experience, independence, and a commitment to equal justice.”

Her father, who died at age 72 in 2006, was a high school principal, also serving as a longtime football coach. Her mother, how 85, is a retired nurse who worked in several hospitals over the course of her career, doubling as a “great role model for me and my sisters and brother,” according to Kelly.

An avid runner, Kelly is the mother of a 22-year-old son, Jackson, who in June earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Kalamazoo College, where he was a key member of the cross country team. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in medical science from Boston University as a stepping stone to medical school and a potential career in sports medicine, according to Kelly, who is a veteran of four marathons.

“He loved his time at Kalamazoo College and I’m excited for him as he gets ready to start his master’s program at Boston University,” Kelly said of her son. “He’s my pride and joy.”

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