Gold Standard: State Appeals Court Judge served as inspiration to all


Battling the effects of multiple sclerosis, Judge Gage left the state Court of Appeals in January 2006, but treasured the friendships she made while serving on the appellate bench. In this 2007 photo, Judge Gage shares a smile with Shelly Schellenberg and her husband, Dave. The photo was taken at Schellenberg’s swearing in ceremony as a member of the State Bar.

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Thirty-six years ago, at age 35 and just three years into her legal career, Hilda Gage came face-to-face with two letters she hoped to never encounter.


The letters have a way of stopping anyone in their tracks, especially someone with a penchant for physical fitness and a history of good health. Such as the University of Michigan alum who in 1971 graduated magna cum laude from Wayne State University  Law School.

After spending 18 years as an Oakland County Circuit Court judge and 10 years on the bench for the Michigan Court of Appeals, the soft-spoken Detroit native would come to know the true meaning of Multiple Sclerosis full well.

A wheelchair. A walker. Round-the-clock care.

These were just a few of the rippling effects of the degenerative neurological disease that settled into her life over the past five years.

On Sept 13, Judge Gage lost her battle with the disease, dying at age 71 in Las Vegas. A memorial service was held Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 3 p.m. at the Ira Kaufman Chapel, 18325 W. Nine Mile Road in Southfield with Rabbi Daniel Syme presiding. Interment followed at Clover Hill Park Cemetery.

Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Joan Young, a close friend of Judge Gage for many years, said the loss is profound.

“She was a true inspiration and taught us all how to live a life of great compassion and distinction,” Judge Young said. “She endured so many challenges in her life, but she rose above them all.”

Judge Young was among those who offered eulogies on Wednesday. Others paying tribute are attorney Harriet Rotter, and Judge Gage’s brother and sister-in-law, Harvey and Judy Rosenberg.

Her former Circuit Court colleague, retired Judge Gene Schnelz, remembers Judge Gage fondly and with great admiration.

“She was an incredibly bright, sweet, sensitive, and intelligent woman,” Judge Schnelz said of Gage. “She never seemed to let anything get her down, even though she certainly had more than her share of heartache in her life. She was upbeat and had a great sense of humor.

“When she left the Circuit Court bench for the Court of Appeals, I remember writing her a letter saying that it was such a privilege and an honor to have served with her,” he related. “All of her colleagues felt that way. Ed Sosnick (Oakland County Circuit Court judge) called her a ‘wonder woman,’ and that truly was a terrific description of Hilda.”

In a fall 2007 interview with The Detroit Legal News, Judge Gage admitted that her struggles with the effects of M.S. were becoming increasingly difficult to handle.

“I hate it, to be honest,” Judge Gage said of M.S. “Not being able to walk and to take care of myself are hard facts of life for me to digest. But I’m grateful for my family and my friends, and for still being able to read so that I can stay in touch with what is going on in the world and in the law.”

She admitted to being in a “state of denial” for years about having the disease, in which the immune system attacks the nerve tissues in the central nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord. Her M.S. journey began innocently enough in 1974 when she experienced some vision problems in her left eye and “funny sensations” in her arms. She first went to an ophthalmologist who recommended that she see a neurologist to pinpoint the problem. The neurologist tried to skirt the issue, only revealing the M.S. diagnosis when pressed by a physician friend of Gage.

“Her explanation for not telling me directly is that she didn’t think I would want to know the bad news,” Gage said in amazement.

Despite the diagnosis, Gage returned to work full time in a Detroit law firm.

“I resumed working, running, walking, and swimming,” she said in the 2007 interview. “I went about my business. I assumed they were wrong about it being M.S.”

It was only in recent years, when certain physical maladies become more pronounced, that she began telling others about her condition.

“My mother didn’t even know,” said Gage, who was assisted daily by her younger daughter, Jackie. “She kept asking me, ‘What’s wrong with your leg?’ but I kept telling her it was nothing so she wouldn’t worry about me. It really didn’t begin to become very noticeable until a couple of years ago. It certainly has limited my ability to do certain things, but I’m trying to make the best of the situation.”

The year she was diagnosed with the disease, 1974, coincided with another life-altering event for Gage – the death of her 6-1/2-year-old son, Robbie. The youngest of her three children, he died of dysautonomia, a disease of the autonomic nervous system that can be fatal among children and the elderly.

“He had been hospitalized 33 times because of the disease and died in his sleep at home,” Judge Gage related. “It was a tragedy that a parent can’t put into words.”

Her son’s death, not surprisingly, also had a profound effect on her two daughters, Jackie and Julie, both of whom struggled with the loss of their brother. The death, in fact, may have prompted Julie to pursue a certain career path, according to her mother.

“She is an attorney and teaches at the University of Chicago Law School,” said Judge Gage of her older daughter. “She has always been interested in the law and genetics, and has written a textbook on genetics. I’m sure her interest in that field was sparked by the disease that affected her brother.”

A 1957 graduate of Detroit Mumford High School, Gage has been enrolled in the “school of hard knocks” since she was 11 when her father, Jack, died of a stroke. He supported his family by managing a lumberyard and helping build houses. He left behind a wife, Mildred, and three children.

Her sister, Susan, was 10 years older and was “full of life” until suffering the same fate as her father, dying of a stroke at age 50. Her brother, Harvey, 21 months older, is a former owner of an auto battery company.

Gage earned a bachelor’s degree with distinction from Michigan in 1960, majoring in constitutional history. Two years later, she was awarded a master’s in elementary education and history from U-M, also with distinction. Her former husband, Noel, was in law school at the time and “I loved helping him brief cases,” she said, setting the stage for her own law studies at Wayne State some six years later.

“I decided to go to Wayne State because they had a night school and I had two children at the time,” Judge Gage explained in the 2007 interview. “I did well there and stayed on to teach legal research for a couple of years.”

She then became part of a “rainbow law firm” in Detroit, joining legal forces with Ed Bell, Sam Gardner, and John McSorley, serving such clients as Detroit Edison and the Detroit Board of Education.

“There weren’t many women lawyers at the time and I was afforded the opportunity to handle just about anything. We had an interesting caseload and some high profile clients,” Gage said, counting former heavyweight boxing champ Leon Spinks and Motown great Aretha Franklin among the notables.

Bell, who once ran for mayor of Detroit against a then little known state legislator named Coleman Young, was the first minority judge in Wayne County Circuit Court, according to Gage.

“Judge Bell allowed me to explore my talents and taught me a lot about docket management,” said Gage, who clerked for him during law school. “He was a great influence on me and I am greatly appreciative for his guidance. He saw me as a budding litigator, which, at the time, gave me a lot of confidence. Other judges that I would point to as mentors were Judge Sam Gardner, of Recorder’s Court, and Circuit Court Judge James Thornburn.”

After spending four years in private practice, Gage returned to Wayne State in 1977 as a part-time instructor teaching “Contemporary Issues Affecting Consumers: The Family and the Law.” A year later, she was elected to Oakland County Circuit Court, twice earning re-election to six-year terms in office. She served as chief judge for two years, eventually receiving an appointment to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1997. Gage was twice elected to the Court of Appeals, resigning in January of 2006 for health reasons. At the time of her departure, she was widely praised by her court colleagues, including Chief Judge William Whitbeck.

“She is both a great judge and a great lady,” Whitbeck said upon her resignation. “Uncompromising legal scholarship, amazing grace, tremendous strength of character, and enormous courage – that is Judge Hilda Gage. Her standards are high, but never more so than when she applies them to herself.”

Judge Gage was the first woman to serve as chairperson of the National Conference of State Trial Judges of the American Bar Association. She also was the first woman president of the Michigan Judges Association and first female chairperson of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission. In addition, she has served on the executive boards of Michigan Children’s Hospital and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and co-founded the Dysautonomia Foundation chapter in Michigan.

Her pioneering work in the legal profession and her longstanding record of community service made Gage a magnet for a series of coveted honors and awards over the years. In 1995, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and a year later was chosen by The Detroit News as “Michiganian of the Year” in recognition of “excellence and dedication” to charitable work. In 1999, she received “Public Official of the Year” honors from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in Michigan, while also receiving the Q2 Award presented by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson for “Meritorious Community Service.”

She served on the faculty of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev. and was particularly proud of the role she played in developing national standards to reduce the amount of time it takes to try a case. Gage chaired the committee on Court Delay Reduction and the panel presented its findings and recommendations at the 1984 American Bar Association’s National Conference of State Trial Judges. The reform initiative was adopted by the ABA in 1984 and the standards are now in place nationwide.

In 2007, Judge Gage was reminded of a case that wound its way through the Michigan court system for 10 years, much of the time spent in her Oakland County courtroom. The 1988 case of Schellenberg v. Elks Lodge No. 2225 challenged the all-male exclusivity of membership in the Elks. Gage ruled in favor of plaintiff Shelly Schellenberg, stating that the local Elks lodge could not discriminate against her because of gender. The ruling was upheld on appeal and Schellenberg was finally admitted to the Rochester Elks Lodge as a full-fledged member in 1998. The case, ironically, spawned a new career interest for Schellenberg, who enrolled in law school three years ago, graduating from Wayne State last May. On Nov. 8, 2007, Schellenberg was sworn in as a member of the state bar by none other than Judge Gage.

Judge Gage is survived by her daughter, Julie (John) Gage Palmer; her brother, Harvey (Judy) Rosenberg; and three grandchildren, David, Joseph and Benjamin Palmer. She was preceded in death by her parents, Mildred and Jacob Rosenberg; her children, Jackie and Robert; and her sister, Susan Goldfarb.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, 30 W. 26th Street, New York, NY 10010.