An eye-opener Longtime judge acquired early taste of family law

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Judge Kathleen McCarthy was honored recently by the Wayne County Family Bar Association for her 20 years of “dedicated service” to the Family Division bench of the Wayne County Circuit Court. Pictured with the honoree at the special occasion were (left to right): Jerry Olkowski, her brother-in-law; her niece, Megan Olkowski; her sister, Sharon McCarthy; her husband, George Malis; and her daughter, Miranda Boulahanis.
(Photo by Tom Kirvan)


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As a family law judge for the past 20 years, Kathleen McCarthy learned the legal ropes the hard way long before landing a seat on the Wayne County bench in 2001.

Her career destiny, in fact, was shaped at a young age by her own family experience of living in a northwest Detroit household racked by alcohol, domestic abuse and financial problems.

“There was no way to sugarcoat what my siblings and I experienced growing up poor with a father who was unemployed most of the time because of his drinking,” said McCarthy, a Bishop Borgess alumna who was one of six children. “Our mother (Yvonne) was our rock, working for years at Montgomery Ward to help provide for us, while also suffering from domestic violence. It was a hard life. In many respects, we were fighting for survival.”

By age 12, McCarthy saw the law as her ticket to a new way of life, beginning her work career four years later as a part-time receptionist at a local law firm.

“I was determined to set my own course, to have a professional career that would afford me security and financial stability,” she said. “Based on my own experience, I knew early on that I wanted to focus on family law in hopes of making a difference in the lives of others.”

After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1989, McCarthy took her academic talents to the former Detroit College of Law, where she earned her juris doctor in 1993.

Upon passing the bar exam, McCarthy began work as trial attorney for the Law Offices of Charles L. Nichols in Dearborn, where she handled personal injury and family law cases for two years. In 1995, she and her then husband Greg Boulahanis formed their own firm, again specializing in personal injury and family law matters.

Those formative years in McCarthy’s career whetted her appetite for the opportunity to seek an opening on the Wayne County Circuit Court in the fall of 2000, not long after she met the prescribed 5 years of legal experience before seeking elective office.

“I was 34, which at the time was viewed as quite young to be seeking a judgeship,” McCarthy acknowledged. “But I was receiving encouragement from friends in the legal community.”
One of whom was Sean Cox, then a member of the Wayne County Circuit Court.

“I had gotten to know him through Judge Kaye Tertzag,” McCarthy said of Cox, who for the past 16 years has been a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Michigan. “At the time, he told me that ‘I have a game plan for you to become a judge’ and that if I followed that plan, I would be sitting on the bench one day. And he was right.”

Cox, who was a circuit court judge from 1996 to 2006 before accepting an appointment to the federal bench, is viewed by McCarthy as “someone who really helped shape my life and helped put me in a position” to contribute to the legal profession in a meaningful way.

Such praise is a two-way street, as Cox is now one to herald the work that McCarthy has accomplished over the course of her 20 years on the circuit court bench.

“She is a prime example of working your way up and making it on your own,” Cox said of McCarthy. “She came from a working-class background as I did, and throughout her career she has displayed a passion for family law and a passion for becoming a judge. She has made a real difference on the court.”

Her contributions to the Family Division, which included serving as presiding judge from 2013-21, were recognized by the Wayne County Family Law Bar Association in December when she was honored by the organization for her 20 years of distinguished service to the bench.

“I was very humbled to be honored by the Family Law Bar, an organization that I served as president for four years,” said McCarthy, who has been succeeded as presiding judge by Melissa Cox. “I must admit that I got choked up that night during the presentation ceremony.”

The honor was just one of many that McCarthy has garnered over the past 15 years, including the Pillar of Justice Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Michigan in 2010 and the Marilyn J. Kelly Award for Outstanding Service to the Practice of Law in 2021.

She currently serves on the board of the Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center, Michigan Legal Help, and the Furniture Bank of Southeastern Michigan, a nonprofit agency that provides beds and furniture to families in need. A past president of the Dearborn Bar Association, McCarthy was the co-founder of Girls Matter, an organization she helped guide from 2003-10 that offered assistance to females ages 12-18 in developing their self-esteem and conflict resolution skills.

“I’ve always derived a lot of satisfaction from helping worthwhile organizations. I see it as one of my responsibilities to give back to the community,” McCarthy said.

In a similar vein, McCarthy gave much of herself as presiding judge to help ensure that the Family Division stayed in step with the technological times.

One of the first initiatives that she implemented was allowing credit card use for child support payments.

“Up to that point in 2013, there was no mechanism for allowing credit card payments,” she said. “Once we put that program in place, we were able to collect millions of dollars in child support payments. We were the very first family court (in the state) to do so.

“There were a number of other significant changes that needed to be made to help bring the court into the 21st century as far as technology and convenience were concerned,” McCarthy said.

Over the next few years, McCarthy directed the establishment of the first self-help center at the Friend of the Court in Wayne County, while also directing litigants to the Michigan Legal Help website for further assistance.

“We also created a co-parenting class to help with communication issues in custody cases, an initiative designed to keep the focus on the well-being of the children,” McCarthy indicated.

In addition, McCarthy encouraged the use of the Wayne County Dispute Resolution Center as a means of resolving problems short of court involvement.

She also oversaw the design and development of refurbished quarters for the Friend of the Court operation in the Penobscot Building.

“It was a three-year, much-needed project that created a much more functional and attractive space for the 240 Friend of the Court employees,” said McCarthy. “It was a long overdue upgrade.”

The longtime judge took special pride in implementing an “electronic process for filing PPOs” in Family Division cases.

“It has helped to ensure the safety of domestic violence victims, many of whom lived in fear of provoking even more violence if they had to go to court to file,” McCarthy said, noting that more than 15,000 personal protection orders are filed in Wayne County each year. “This program eliminated any potential contact between the parties in court.”

Last August, after reaching the 20-year milestone in the Family Division, McCarthy made the transition to the Civil Division of the Circuit Court, an assignment where she is handling a steady diet of auto negligence, medical malpractice, and contract dispute cases. She admitted that it has been a sharp “learning curve,” made all the more difficult until she was able to recently fill a vacant judicial assistant position.

“Like all businesses since COVID hit, the courts have found it difficult to fill certain staffing needs,” McCarthy said. “That has put a real strain on everyone and probably will continue until we can address funding issues for the court.”

In the meantime, McCarthy said her spirits are constantly buoyed by her family, which includes her husband, George Malis, an attorney with Abbott Nicholson, and her two children, Miranda, age 25, and Zachary, 23.

“I’m blessed with a wonderful family,” said McCarthy, whose 90-year-old mother currently lives in Livonia. “My daughter is in her final year at Wayne State Law School and is working as an intern at Clark Hill. She has a very bright future in the law.”

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