T.J. Ackert prepares to assume judgeship in 17th Circuit Court Family Division



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

T.J. Ackert, now a business and corporate attorney at Miller Johnson, will transition to a new role as a 17th Circuit Court Judge on September 1.

The fact that there is a lot to do both before and after that day does not dampen Ackert’s enthusiasm one bit.

“I had always thought about being a judge,” he says. “My family has a history of public service, and my father always encouraged us to seek it out.?I felt that I had the ability and the resources to serve the people of Kent County well.

“After 31 years of practice, it’s a privilege to serve in this capacity.”

Ackert, who will join the bench in the Family Division, says that all of the judges, particularly Probate Court Chief Judge David Murkowski and 17th Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Johnston, have been very helpful already. He also praises the agencies associated with the position, such as Friend of the Court, for reaching out to him promptly and making him feel welcome.

Before he starts his learning curve, Ackert must transition out of his very active practice at Miller Johnson. He is suggesting to clients three or four lawyers at his firm for business matters, and one for litigation. He has been in the process of contacting those with current matters since the August 4th announcement of his appointment by Gov. Snyder, to determine whether the cases can be brought to completion or will need to be transferred to another attorney.

“The clients have been very receptive,” he says, “but then, they’ve already worked with others here. Everyone has been very nice and very congratulatory, and of course I’ll maintain the friendships I’ve developed over the years with many of those clients.”

Ackert has been at Miller Johnson since 2007, after starting his career at Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge. He went to the University of Michigan for his Bachelor in General Studies degree, and joined Smith Haughey immediately after receiving his J.D. from the University of Toledo College of Law, in 1984.

Not only did he accrue a number of honors during that time — he is listed in the Best Lawyers in America® for Business Organizations, Closely Held Companies and Family Business Law, Corporate Law, and Mergers and Acquisitions Law, and as a Michigan Super Lawyer in Business/Corporate from 2006 to 2010 — but he also has served in a number of professional organizations, including in leadership positions.

Many will remember that he was president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association in 2012-2013. He was also its treasurer,  and chair of the Justice Foundation and the Business and Taxation Law Section, as well as of the  Legislative Round Table Committee.

He has also been on the board of the Construction Financial Management Association, chaired the Policy and Legislative Committee of the Western Michigan Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., in addition to maintaining section memberships in the American Bar Association and State Bar of Michigan.

He served on SBM’s Committee on Business Courts, about which he says, “It took time and diligence, but it was really addressing a need, to serve the litigants and the public better, so now we have business courts.”

Among his many community involvements have been the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Rapids Mayoral Commission on Voting, Legal Aid of Western Michigan, the Association for Corporate Growth, Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Family Business Alliance, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish Social Justice and Stewardship committees (also serving as Secretariat for Social Justice of the Diocese of Grand Rapids), the Counsel of Performing Arts for Children, Catholic Social Services of Grand Rapids, and the West Michigan Science Technology Initiative.

“T.J. has a wealth of knowledge in complex legal matters that have prepared him for the complexities he will face on the bench,” Gov. Snyder said in a prepared statement. “I am confident that his legal skill, compassion and commitment to his community will serve the residents of Kent County well in this new position.”

The judicial vacancy, considered to be a probate court judgeship, opened up when Judge George “Jay” Quist was appointed to fill, in turn, the 17th Circuit Court position left when Judge James Robert Redford became the governor’s legal counsel.

Though Ackert first applied for Redford’s vacated seat, and though his recent practice has been in general litigation and multiple aspects of business law, he is no stranger to family courts.
“In my first eight years of practice I had been involved with abuse, neglect and delinquency, and from time to time I’ve been called in by some of the family divorce practitioners to assist on the business side of divorce matters, so that area of the law is not foreign to me,” he explains.

The application process was intensive, including an interview in front of a panel of about 25 people from the State Bar Judicial Qualifications Committee. Following that, one individual from that committee conducts an in-depth investigation, and the committee forwards a limited number of candidates as  recommendations to the governor’s office. Those people are then interviewed again.

When Quist was chosen, “I was encouraged by attorneys and people within the community to consider looking at filling Judge Quist’s spot in the Family Division. They all believed that I had the ability, the temperament and the commitment, so we went through the process again,” Ackert says. He was able to skip the large-panel interview this time.

Ackert’s official investiture ceremony will be September 24, but he will be sworn in September 1. He will have to run in the 2016 elections to continue on the bench.

“The first couple of weeks I’ll be meeting with various agencies and the prosecutor’s office, shadowing the judges, riding with the Grand Rapids Police Department, just seeing all the moving parts that play a role in the Family Division,” Ackert says. “By October 1, I’ll have a full docket.”

He has already been introduced to several court programs, including one he finds amazing: the Adolescent Sex Offender Treatment Program, which intervenes to prevent repeat offenses by young people who have sexually assaulted other children. “It’s wildly successful,” Ackert says. “It reduced the recidivism rate 90%.”

Though he says it is “some distance down the road,” Ackert is interested in exploring the possibility of a domestic violence court once he gets acclimated.

Well-known for entertaining local legal audiences as half of the Blues Brothers in Just Lips, as well as when he emceed the Second City benefit performance a few years back, Ackert knows his sense of humor will be an asset. For example, he laughs when he says, “I have to sign the judicial orders ‘Terence.’ I’ve been T.J. ever since I was a little kid.”

But it is clear that, overall, he takes the responsibility very seriously. “As a judge, I’m not there to create the law and I’m not in a position to express what I personally believe the law should be —  I’m there to enforce the law based on the facts before me. I believe everyone in the process is entitled to dignity, respect and a fair hearing. But ultimately someone has to decide, and I know I won’t be able to make everyone happy,” Ackert says.

“You have to have a passion to serve. Being a judge is not for everyone, but I’m really looking forward to it.” It is clear, though, that he takes being a judge very seriously and has “Being a judge isn’t for e everyone