State appellate judge receives Hilda Gage Award from MJA

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Colleen O’Brien, a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals for the past seven years, is humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as the late Hilda Gage, the renowned state appellate judge who earned a reputation as a trailblazer for women during her 35-year career in the law.

After all, Gage was not only a legal scholar and widely-respected jurist, but she also served as an inspiration to many for valiantly battling the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis throughout her judicial career that included 10 years on the Court of Appeals and 18 years on the Oakland County Circuit Court bench.

And yet, O’Brien has made her own mark on the legal profession since graduating from the former Detroit College of Law in 1981, a fact magnified most recently when she was honored as this year’s recipient of the Hilda Gage Judicial Excellence Award presented by the Michigan Judges Association.

The award was presented to O’Brien on August 22 during the MJA’s annual three-day conference on Mackinac Island. The coveted honor is awarded annually to a current or former Court of Appeals judge or circuit judge who has displayed competence in docket management and managing trials, as well as made significant contributions to the legal profession, legal scholarship, and to the community. The award was created by the MJA in 2010 following the passing of Gage in September of that year.

“I never would have dreamed to receive such an honor. She was a role model for me,” Judge O’Brien said of Gage, who was the first female president of the MJA and also the first woman to chair the Judicial Tenure Commission. “I appeared before her many times when I was in private practice and she is someone I wanted to model myself after when I became a judge. She could be tough and demanding, but she also was fair and respectful. She set high standards for herself and for those appearing in court before her.”

O’Brien, a University of Michigan alumna, was appointed to the Court of Appeals in the fall of 2015, coincidentally at a time when she was serving as president of the MJA during her 17th year as an Oakland County Circuit judge. 

“Suddenly, I became the first Court of Appeals judge to be president of the Michigan Judges Association,” O’Brien said. “The timing of my appointment made that an interesting side note to my year as president.”

When she was appointed to the appellate court, then Governor Rick Snyder lauded O’Brien as an “important leader” in the state’s judiciary.

“Her personal integrity, widely respected legal acumen, and substantial judicial experience will be of great benefit to the Court of Appeals and the people of Michigan,” Snyder said.

One year after her appointment, O’Brien was elected to a full six-year term in office. She will seek re-election this fall and is unopposed in her bid for the District 2 seat on the Court of Appeals. District 2 includes Oakland, Macomb, and Genesee counties.

During her time on the Court of Appeals, O’Brien also spent four years hearing cases on the Court of Claims, which deals with litigation against the state. In addition, she recently completed four years of service on the Michigan Court Reporting and Recording Board of Review, chairing the regulatory panel all four years.

A resident of Clarkston, O’Brien has been active over the years in a number of community groups dedicated to the well-being of families and children, including serving as an adviser to Crossroads for Youth, a nonprofit treatment agency that assists at-risk youth. She also has served as a member of the Michigan Interagency Council on Homelessness and formerly was a board member of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan and is a past president of the Oakland County Women’s Bar Association.

While on the Oakland County Circuit Court, O’Brien served for 12 years as the presiding judge of the Adult Treatment Court for women plagued with substance abuse problems. She volunteered for the position in 2003, teaming with various other judges who presided over males in the program.

“I was intrigued by the concept of a drug court program after seeing how many cases that came before me involved people with a history of alcohol or drug use,” she said. “For the most part, these people are being recycled through the justice system, which to me signaled the need for a different approach to their problems.”

The recipient of the Oakland County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award in 1982, O’Brien was recognized again by the OCBA in 2011 when she was presented with its Distinguished Public Servant Award.

Jeffery Matis, chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court, is among O’Brien’s many admirers and nominated her for the Hilda Gage Award.

“Judge O’Brien is an outstanding judge with a long history of dedicated public service, hard work, and a commitment to the rule of law,” said Matis, noting her willingness to “go above and beyond service” on the bench. “It was my honor to nominate her for the Hilda Gage Award.”



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