Winding down: Retirement in the works for longtime Detroit-area judge

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

With nearly 28 years on the bench, Joan Young currently holds the unofficial title as the longest serving judge in Oakland County, a local claim to judicial fame that she will gladly relinquish later this year when she steps into the world of retirement.

“It is a decision that I’ve been mulling over for awhile and I initially thought that I would retire when my term expired in 2010,” said Young. “But the time is right now to begin the next chapter in my life and to allow opportunities for those interested in running for the judgeship next fall.”

During a career in which she has served as a probate and now Oakland County Circuit Court judge, Young has been mindful of words of advice offered by her longtime friend Hilda Gage, the late Michigan Court of Appeals judge.

“Judge Gage, who was a legal mentor and as fine a person as you could ever meet, was my predecessor on the Oakland Circuit Court,” said Young, reflecting on her years on the bench during a recent interview.

“When she was elevated to the Court of Appeals by Governor (John) Engler in 1997, I was appointed to replace her, which in many ways was an unenviable and formidable task.”

As a surprise gift to her successor, Gage left a hand-written note stuck to the front of the court bench, Young recalled.

“It said, ‘Joan: Think it, don’t say it.’ That note is still on my bench, reminding me daily that judicial restraint in conduct as well as in decision-making was her trademark and the hallmark of a good judge.”

The message has been a guidepost for Young, who has served as chief judge of the 52nd District Court, the Oakland County Probate Court, and the Oakland Circuit Court, posts where she has displayed a keen sense of leadership, according to her circuit court colleague, Wendy Potts.

“Judge Young has been a leader on this bench in so many ways,” said Potts, a Circuit Court jurist since 1997. “She was an outstanding chief judge who was innovative in approaching problems and crafting solutions. She was intimately involved in implementing Oakland County’s Family Court Plan.

“Judge Young has been an adult drug court judge for years and still serves in this capacity, handling this challenging and life-changing docket in addition to her full Family Court docket. Judge Young has worn her robe with dignity and is a model for the best the judiciary has to offer the public and the litigants.”

A Michigan State University alum, Young began her professional career as a social worker, spending two years in the role before enrolling at Wayne State University Law School. The law was far from her original career destination, she indicated.

“I initially wanted to be a Spanish teacher, plain and simple,” said Young, who was valedictorian of her class at Allegan High School near Grand Rapids.

But “Perry Mason” got in the way.

“I used to watch that show every week and it really piqued my interest in the law,” she said. “That show, despite what people might think now, served as a powerful influence for a lot of people considering careers in the law.”

Like most veteran jurists, Young has taken pride in running a tight ship in her courtroom, placing a premium on preparation and devotion to detail. They are character traits she shares with her husband, Tom Schellenberg, an attorney and CPA who is the founder and president of Schellenberg & Associates, P.C., a tax and business consulting firm based in Birmingham.

A Vietnam veteran, Schellenberg also is a graduate of Wayne State Law School, and shares a love with his wife of their two daughters and five grandchildren.

The couple was married in 1973 and last month celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary. It is their hope that Young’s impending retirement will allow more time to enjoy their vacation home on Lake Michigan in the northern part of the state.

“It is a lake house that has served as a magnet for our family,” said Young. “It is a place where we can get away from it all and enjoy the lake beauty, the sunsets and all the offerings of life up north.”

As she ponders the pace of retired life, Young can reflect on the fact that she has served as a role model for many since beginning her career in private practice in 1974. After spending five years practicing law in Troy, she was appointed deputy court administrator for the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in 1979. Three years later, she was named court administrator/judicial assistant, succeeding Fred Mester when he was appointed to the Circuit Court bench.

In 1988, she was encouraged to run for a Probate Court seat, eventually earning the nod from Oakland County voters despite an initial reluctance to seek elective office. Campaigning, she acknowledged, has never been in her “comfort zone,” even though Young has won a series of election races in 1998, 2004, and 2010 after being appointed to the Circuit Court.

Her friends and supporters, chief among them well known attorney Harriet Rotter, admit to holding a glimmer of hope that Young would return to the campaign trail in 2016, but the incumbent had other ideas.
“No one wants to see her leave,” Rotter said of Young. “She is revered and respected by everyone, and possesses a brilliant legal mind and the absolute patience of a saint.  Those kind of qualities are hard to come by in one package, which makes her decision to depart all the more of a loss for the legal community.”

A family law attorney, Rotter first met Young during the course of a rape trial in the mid-‘70s.

“I was an assistant prosecutor for Brooks Patterson and Joan was the attorney for the defendant in a ghastly rape case,” Rotter related. “We were on opposite sides, but I quickly got an appreciation for her smarts and courtroom skill.”

Her admiration would grow in the years ahead, as Rotter watched Young make her “way up the legal ladder,” displaying the sharpness and dedication needed to succeed.

“In court, she is pleasant and respectful to all parties, but when necessary she can be very, very firm,” said Rotter. “You can’t pull the wool over her eyes for a second.”

She put her administrative skills to work as chief judge from 2001-03, a difficult time of transition for the local court system.

“We had to cut $2.4 million out of the budget during that time, which was a particularly difficult task considering the heavy caseload we have continued to face,” Young said. “It also was a time when the Friend of the
Court system was in transition from local to state control. The challenges were many during the time I spent as chief judge.”

Young accepted even more responsibility when she began work in 2002 with the Adult Treatment Court, more commonly known as the “drug court” in Oakland County.

“I am a firm believer in he benefits of the drug court program,” she said. “The evidence shows that a well-designed program of treatment and accountability can meet the mission of ensuring public safety without incurring the costs associated with expensive incarceration. The goal is to keep these people clean, out of jail, and to become productive members of society. The savings can be immense, which doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the importance of these people finally taking responsibility for their actions.”

Young has been active with a host of community, charitable, and professional organizations throughout her judicial career, serving as a co-founder of the Women’s Bar Association of Oakland County in 1976 and chairing the Michigan State (Teacher) Tenure Commission from 1979-83. She also has served on the board of directors of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, the board of the Michigan Opera Theatre, and numerous other organizations dedicated to family and foster care causes.

In 2007, the Child Abuse and Neglect Council of Oakland County paid special tribute to the Circuit Court jurist by creating the annual “Honorable Joan E. Young Foster Parent of the Year” award. It is among a slew of honors that have come her way, according to retired Circuit Court Judge Edward Sosnick.

“Joan has been the recipient of awards too numerous to count, and very deserving of each and everyone of them,” said Sosnick. “She has always been very giving of her time and talents, whether for the various bar associations or charitable organizations. She has done much in that regard, and done it exceedingly well.”

Sosnick, like Rotter, also knows the personal side of Young. Several years ago, Sosnick and Young took the stage at an Oakland County Bar Association talent show, performing a crowd-pleasing “Sonny and Cher” routine.

Rotter, in turn, is quick to share memories of Young in her “hippy days” when she followed the likes of Cesar Chavez, the legendary political activist who championed the rights of farm workers. On the flip side, there are stories from the “girls’ weekends” and outings Rotter enjoyed with Young, Judge Gage, and Michelle Engler, Michigan’s former First Lady.

“Joan has been an incredible friend for more than 35 years, and I selfishly wish that she wasn’t retiring, but I’ve run out of ideas to convince her otherwise,” said Rotter. “Instead, I will try to look at her leaving in a different light — that we were indeed fortunate to have her on the bench for this long.”

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