At the helm: Chief Judge aims to keep her court on a 'positive' path

By Linda laderman
Legal News

From the time she was old enough to seriously consider her future, Shalina Kumar saw herself as part of the legal profession. What she didn’t know was that, after a career as a civil attorney, she would eventually become a judge, and later chief judge, of Oakland County’s Sixth Circuit Court criminal and civil divisions.

“As far back I can remember, before even starting law school, I loved the courtroom and I loved the law. I just had this internal feeling that I wanted to spend my professional life in the courtroom,” Kumar said. “I always had that in mind, which is why I became a trial lawyer. I think joining the judiciary was a natural progression.”

Appointed to the bench in 2007 by then Governor Jennifer Granholm, Kumar said a class trip to Washington, D.C., led by her high school government teacher, further validated her determination to pursue a law degree.

“My government teacher in high school, Paul Dain, took us on a class trip to Washington, D.C.,” said Kumar, an alumna of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “I fell in love with government and the law on that trip. He was one of my first calls the day I received my appointment to the bench.”

Kumar became chief judge a year ago, a position that has given her an opportunity to help move the needle forward for attorneys and litigants.

“I’ve raised the indigent defense attorney fees by 17 percent and appellate attorney fees by the same amount. The raises were a long time coming. I was really happy to be able to do that,” Kumar said. “We have wonderful indigent appointed counsel in Oakland County. They are high level attorneys who do a fabulous job.”

Though she never represented indigent clients in her civil practice, Kumar said her trial experience helped smooth the transition from civil attorney to the bench.

“At first I thought it was really going to be difficult – you fight for it and fight for it and then you get it and suddenly you think, ‘Wait a minute, this is not going to be so easy,’” Kumar said with a laugh. “Luckily for me, it was an easy transition. I had a lot of trial experience as a medical malpractice attorney, trying really complex civil matters. That gave me a lot of time in the courtroom.”

In 2015, Kumar began to work with women who were in the adult drug treatment and mental health courts, an assignment she chose not to relinquish when she became chief judge.

“I didn’t reduce my docket when I became chief judge even though I thought about taking a break for a while. But, I get very attached to my girls and they get very disappointed if they think I’m not going to be there, so I decided against that and stayed on,” Kumar said. “To watch people from the beginning, who instead of being in jail or prison come through our treatment courts, is very rewarding.”

Describing the treatment court’s program as “very vigorous,” Kumar said that each participant must complete seven stages. Then, if successful, they are recognized at a graduation ceremony.

“The program becomes stricter as they graduate levels, but to watch them on graduation day is unbelievable. It’s so interesting because up on the screen behind the judges are their photos, taken when they entered the program,” Kumar said. “I’m always looking back at the pictures, then I look at the person in front of me who is graduating – and you wouldn’t even believe it’s the same person. It’s such an amazing change.”

Apart from their regular dockets, Michigan’s circuit courts are bound by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for teen-agers under 18 to be unconstitutional.

A subsequent 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires states to re-sentence prisoners who were given life sentences as minors, is in the hearing phase, Kumar said.

“The ruling is a positive step for those very young kids who were sentenced to life without parole. I absolutely agree that those cases need to be re-looked at to see if there were any kind of mitigating factors,” Kumar said. “Because we were not the sentencing judges, we need to learn everything about the facts of the case, hear what’s gone on while the person was in prison, and use our discretion to decide if there should be a term of years instead of a life sentence. It’s basically a re-sentencing, but much more involved.”

Up for re-election in 2020, Kumar said continuing as a Circuit Court judge is her “primary goal.”

“I want to continue as chief judge, where I can do positive things for the litigants and the lawyers,” Kumar said. “I enjoy this job very much and am fortunate to have it. I hope I can remain a judge for the rest of my career.”


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