Judge Christopher Yates wins top recognition, Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Almost no one would be surprised to find out that 17th Circuit Court Judge Christopher P. Yates won the prestigious Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award, given by the Michigan Judges Association (MJA) annually since 2011.

The exception would be Judge Yates himself.

At the MJA annual conference on Mackinac Island August 19, Judge James Alexander of the Oakland County Circuit Court announced that Judge Yates was the winner of the award, which is the only one given out by the MJA.

Judge Yates’s wife, Janice, says she does not usually accompany her husband to the annual luncheon, but she was in attendance at the conference so decided to come. She was just about to leave to prepare for a client meeting  when, she says, she was stopped in her tracks by hearing a description she thought “sounded like Chris.”

As it dawned on Judge Yates that he was the recipient, his body language reflected complete astonishment. “He was just shocked,” his wife says. “It was great, it was truly great, “ she adds with a laugh.

“It’s really amazing, though, he can just get up and give candid remarks and do such a good job. He talked about how incredibly grateful he was,” says Janice,  now an e-discovery consultant after retiring from East Grand Rapids Public Schools where she was well-known for spearheading successful student participation in the statewide We the People constitutional competition.

Judge Alexander – himself a Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence award winner and a past MJA?president – and attorney Dan Quick of Dickinson Wright nominated Judge Yates.

“Chris is exactly what a judge should be,” says Judge Alexander. “He’s got the temperament, he’s got the brains... and he never gives less than 100 percent to anything he tries to do.”

It was Judge Alexander, working with Muskegon County Judge Timothy Hicks, who gave the award its name after Hilda Gage died in 2010. Though she had retired from the Oakland County bench in 2006, she was a pioneer during her 18-year tenure. She was the first woman to be president of the MJA, to chair the National Conference of State Trial Judges of the American Bar Association, and to preside over the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission.

“She was my mentor,” Judge Alexander says. “She was a great judge and a great person to work with.”

The Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award recognizes a current or former judge who “demonstrates: 1. Competence in docket management and managing trials; 2. Contributions to the profession; 3. Contributions to legal scholarship; 4. Contributions to the community.”

Past winners, in addition to Judge Alexander in 2017, include Hon. James Ryan (2011), Hon. James Kingsley (2012), Hon. Barry Howard (2013), Hon. Joan Young (2014), Hon. Timothy Connors (2015), Hon. Alton “Tom” Davis (2016), and Hon. Thomas Solka (2018).

Judge Jon Hulsing of the Ottawa County 20th Circuit Court received the nominations this year, but was not directly involved in managing the process this year as he has in the past. He indicated that the people who choose from the nominations do so based solely on the contents of the nomination form, and there are usually two to five nominations per year.

Judge Hulsing commented, “I can say that EVERYONE feels that Chris is extremely deserving of this award.  His contributions to justice and the legal profession have been simply amazing—and accomplished so early in a judicial career!”

People evaluating that career can certainly check off the boxes on the qualifications listed above. He is the current secretary of the MJA, and has been on that board since 2012, serving on several MJA committees and subgroups. He is a faculty member on the National Judicial College, on the executive board of the American College of Business Court Judges, and the Business Court Representative to the American Bar Association Business Law Section, along with service to the State Bar of Michigan Business Law Section. (He was also a member of the SBM Representative Assembly.)

Well-known for being one of two judges involved in successfully piloting the business court docket concept, Yates has a Masters in Business Adminstration from the University of Illinois, a B.A. from Kalamazoo College, and his J.D. from University of Illinois Law School. 

Judge Yates interned for Chief Judge James P. Churchill of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and for Judge Ralph B. Guy of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Appeals Court before working as an attorney-advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC, as chief federal public defender for the Western District of Michigan. Yates was a partner at Yates, LaGrand and Denenfeld  immediately before his appointment to the bench in 2008.

But that is not all – there is also his ready sense of humor, his ability to react  and adapt quickly, and his kindness. Says Janice Yates, “People have a hard time believing how nice he is, but I can attest to it, he’s just genuinely very nice.

“He is really humbled by getting that award – humbled is the best way I can say it,” she adds.