Judicial pioneer, 90, dies at home

 The Honorable Cornelia Groefsema Kennedy of Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan passed away on May 12, 2014. She died peacefully at home surrounded by her family.

Judge Kennedy was born in Detroit on August 4, 1923. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan; and, like her father, mother, and older sister, she attended the University of Michigan Law School, graduating in 1947. She subsequently clerked for the Honorable Harold W. Stephens, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was the first woman to clerk for that court, which is considered second only to the Supreme Court of the United States. After 20 years in private practice in Detroit, she was elected to the Wayne County (Michigan) Circuit Court. 

In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon appointed her to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. She was the first woman to sit on that court, and in 1977 she became the first female chief judge of a federal district court in the United States.

She was elevated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. She was the second woman to sit on that court, and she held that position until her retirement on June 30, 2012. At the time of her appointment, Judge Kennedy was jokingly given the hot plate on which the first female judge of the Sixth Circuit, the Honorable Florence E. Allen, had warmed her lunch. Judge Allen’s fellow judges had belonged to an all male private club that did not admit women, thus precluding their female peer from eating with them. Judge Kennedy was eventually admitted as the first female member of that club although the maitre d’ initially refused to seat her because he was unaware of the change in club policy and her subsequent membership. 

Judge Kennedy and her sister, the Honorable Margaret G. Schaeffer, were the first sister judges in the United States. Judge Schaeffer sat on the 47th District Court in Farmington Hills, Michigan from 1974 - 1992.

Judge Kennedy was an avid traveler, visiting all seven continents, more than 80 countries, and 49 states. After her husband had died, she enjoyed traveling with her two sisters on University of Michigan tours with their husbands and on week-end getaways with their adult daughters. The granddaughter of Dutch immigrant farmers in Idaho, Judge Kennedy spent her week-ends gardening. She was also a passionate reader, especially enjoying historical non-fiction and British mysteries. 

Judge Kennedy was pre-deceased by her husband, Charles S. Kennedy, Jr.; her parents, Elmer H. and M. Blanche Gibbons Groefsema; and her sisters, Ann Jean Groefsema and Margaret G. Schaeffer. Judge Kennedy is survived by her son and daughter-in-law, Charles S. and Angela Kennedy; her grandchildren, Elizabeth and Matthew; her sister, Dr. Christine G. Gram; and 28 nieces and nephews. Judge Kennedy was devoted to them all, and she will be remembered lovingly.

A memorial service will be held on Friday, June 27, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. at Grosse Pointe Congregational Church. A luncheon will follow. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to The Honorable Cornelia G. Kennedy Scholarship, c/o Alexandra Haddad, University of Michigan Law School, 701 S. State St., Suite 4000, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.