Groundbreaking jurist remembered as 'brilliant' and and 'tenacious'

 Kennedy’s legal career was made up of many ‘firsts’

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Legendary legal pioneer Judge Cornelia G. Kennedy had so many “firsts” in her resume that another jurist with his own fair share of firsts paid her tribute.

“Judge Kennedy and I were very close friends,” said Damon Keith, senior judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. “She’s one of the most brilliant judges I’ve enjoyed sitting with on the district court and court of appeals. She was one of the finest judges I’ve ever known. She had a brilliant mind and excellent reputation and received the greatest respect from all who knew her. I will miss her tremendously.”

Kennedy died last week at her home in Grosse Pointe Woods at the age of 90.

“Judge Kennedy was a pioneer for women on the bench,” said Jocelyn Benson, interim dean of the Wayne State University Law School. “Among her many firsts, she was the first woman to serve as chief judge of a U.S. district court. I considered her a role model, and her voice will be missed.”

Kennedy was born in Detroit on Aug. 4, 1923. By the time she was a teenager, her interest in the law was emerging. As a high school senior, she was so intrigued by the election of the first female judge in Michigan, Lila Neunenfelt, that she asked her father to arrange for her to interview the judge for her school newspaper. She did, and the encounter had a huge impact on the young student.

She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan and then attended the University of Michigan Law School, as her father, mother, and older sister had done, graduating in 1947. She then clerked for the Honorable Harold W. Stephens, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Kennedy was the first woman to clerk for that court, which is considered second only to the Supreme Court of the United States.  

Upon completing her clerkship, Kennedy entered into private practice in Detroit with her father and later with the law firm of Markle & Markle.

After 20 years in private practice in Detroit, she was elected to the Wayne County Circuit Court. With that victory, Kennedy joined Lila Neunenfelt in robes on the circuit court.

Four years later President Nixon appointed Kennedy to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In 1977, after serving as a district court judge for seven years, Kennedy became chief judge of the Eastern District. She was the first woman to become a chief judge of a United States District Court.

Two years later, President Jimmy Carter nominated Kennedy to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

During her tenure as a circuit court judge and federal district court judge, Kennedy was the director of the Detroit Bar Association, a member of the Judiciary Conference of the United States, and chairperson of the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges — the first woman to hold each of those positions.

Perhaps the most unusual of Kennedy’s “firsts” was that she and her sister, Margaret G. Schaeffer, were the first sister judges in the U. S. Schaeffer sat on the 47th District Court in Farmington Hills from 1974-1992.

“The legal community knew Judge Kennedy as scrupulously fair, and absolutely tenacious in her pursuit of the facts of each case; a judge who firmly believed that cases should be resolved by their particular facts rather than broad generalizations,” said Lynn Helland, who as a young man clerked for Kennedy from August 1980 to August 1982. “Those closest to her knew her also as someone who loved and enjoyed her family, which included not only her husband Charles and her son Chuck and his family, but also her sisters with whom she often traveled, and her many law clerks who she made feel a part of her family upon joining her chambers. For those of us honored to be included in that family she remains a guide to living our own lives and careers with integrity, even decades after we no longer work with her.” 

“In addition to possessing extraordinary intellect and wisdom, Judge Kennedy treated every case, lawyer, and individual she encountered each day with unfailing fairness, objectivity, dignity, and respect,”  said Sarah Resnick Cohen, Assistant United States Attorney and Deputy Chief of the Health Care Fraud Unit, who clerked for Kennedy from 1996 - 1998. “Her dedication to justice and humility will be sorely missed by all the law clerks who were so honored to work for her and by practitioners who were privileged to appear before her. She has left an indelible impression on all of us that will last long after her passing.” 

The State Bar of Michigan, as part of their “Michigan Lawyers in History” series, quoted another noted woman jurist:

In 1981, Judge Kennedy was one of just two judges seriously considered to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused by the resignation of Justice Potter Stewart. The spot ultimately went to Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote of Judge Kennedy:

“She has been a shining example to women across the land in every area. Her work on the bench has been marked by excellent analysis overlaid by common sense. Her volunteer service has spanned every aspect of legal service. She has been a wife and a mother, and a friend and mentor to countless young lawyers, both male and female. She has been a most impressive model for me for a very long time. She is deserving of the highest tribute for her splendid service on the bench for more than 30 years.”

And today’s woman judges and justices acknowledge their debt to her.

“Judge Kennedy not only inspired generations of women law students and lawyers by her stunning accomplishments and work ethic well into her 80s, but more importantly, she fostered confidence in the rule of law and in our courts by her example of leadership, collegiality and commitment to public service,” said Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. 

A memorial service will be held on Friday, June 27, at 11 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.

Kennedy makes law

Judge Kennedy once made law in a way that is not typical for a judge. The judge lived in Grosse Pointe but heard cases in Cincinnati, necessitating that she have an apartment in Cincinnati. The apartment was within walking distance of the courthouse. Judge Kennedy was a big-time walker and a big-time worker on the weekend. One weekend she walked, by herself, between her apartment and the courthouse. Judge Kennedy was a quite petite, frail-appearing person, and she carried her purse. Two Cincinnati thugs saw an easy mark and committed what they undoubtedly thought was a garden-variety mugging, knocking her to the ground and stealing her purse. Little did they know that they had attacked a federal judge, and that federal agents would take the attack very, very seriously. As a result, rather than disappear into the streets with their minor loot, the thugs were tracked by their use of Judge Kennedy's credit cards. They were prosecuted in federal court, where a federal judge also took the case very, very seriously. The case made law in that it clarified that for purposes of federal criminal law a federal judge is acting in the course of her duties when walking between her residence and place of employment on a weekend. 
As a side note, the case helped Judge Kennedy develop empathy for trial witnesses, as she was slightly chagrined during the trial to have to have her recollection gently refreshed by the prosecutor about the contents of her purse that were found in the possession of the thugs. 
As a final note, the mugging did not dissuade the much-tougher-than-she-looked Judge Kennedy from walking between the courthouse and her apartment on weekends.
— Lynn Helland