A STAND-UP JUDGE: Jurist stays in touch with her lighter side

A 22-year veteran of the bench, Kent County Judge Sara Smolenski has plenty of pearls of wisdom to share with youngsters who visit her courtroom.

I tell them to keep their shorts on, she said with a smirk.

The judge, a former basketball hotshot in high school and college, learned the lesson all too well during a game at the University of Michigan, her alma mater, more than three decades ago.

An All-City standout for two years at Grand Rapids Catholic Central, the sweet-shooting guard took her A-game to the former Grand Rapids Junior College, helping to supply some offensive punch to the fledgling womens team for the Raiders. In the fall of 1977, she set sail for U-M, which plays its games in cavernous Crisler Arena.

The arena seats more than 12,000, of which you need only about 100 for most womens games, Smolenski snickered.

She distinctly remembers her Crisler Arena debut, when about half of the crowd was comprised of my relatives. After languishing on the bench for much of the game, the point guard finally heard her name called when another sub couldnt answer the summons because of what could politely be called a uniform malfunction.

Smolenski, the over-eager guard from Grand Rapids, wasnt about to fall victim to the same problem.

No siree.

I was so excited about finally getting in to the game that I jumped up and peeled off my warm-ups, she recalled. Then, I felt a cool breeze.

Next, she heard a few snickers. By then, the cool breeze was approaching gale-force proportions.

There I was, in front of God and everyone, standing on the court at Crisler Arena in my underwear, she said, the pain of the moment still etched on her face. It was one of lifes special moments.

She doesnt remember if she scored in that game, although she is certain the gaffe must have somehow made it into the U-M record books. Perhaps under the category, Most Red-faced Relatives to Witness Big Ten Basketball Game.

Perhaps that is also why the 63rd District Court judge doesnt shy away from telling a good tale, especially of the everyday garden variety that seem to propagate in her Kent County courtroom.

Humor brings balance to my life, said the 54-year-old jurist. I wouldnt survive in this job if I didnt have a sense of humor. Its my safety net.

Hers and others.

Take her eight sisters, for instance. Their brother and their parents all have died within the span of the last few years, each after waging a courageous battle with a cruel disease.

Smolenskis brother, Michael, a revered judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, died in 2009 from the effects of Multiple System Atrophy, a neurodegenerative disease marked by a combination of symptoms affecting movement, blood pressure, and body functions.

Her father, J. Robert, a retired district court judge, died a year later at age 91 after battling cancer. Her mother, Mary, met the same unkind fate in July 2008, just a few days short of her 90th birthday.

With all that was going on with my brother and my parents, I would have been a basket case if I didnt keep my sense of humor, Smolenski said.

She has kept it well. So well, in fact, that the veteran jurist could have a second career as a stand-up comic. For years, she has been a popular speaker at various state and local events, delighting her audiences with a rapid-fire delivery that is one part Jay Leno, two parts Ellen DeGeneres.

Ive always been a bit of a ham, she admitted when describing her natural gift of gab. Ive always enjoyed public speaking and I especially like it when I can make people laugh in support of a good cause.

Which is often. She regularly performs at charitable fund-raisers and has a special place in her heart for Gildas Club, the nonprofit organization that provides emotional and social support to cancer patients as a supplement to medical care, according to its mission. The club is named in honor of Gilda Radner, the Saturday Night Live comedienne who died in 1989 following a battle with cancer.

A while ago, Judge Smolenski was invited to speak before a group of retirees from Steelcase Corp., the giant office furniture supplier headquartered in Grand Rapids. At her request, the honorarium she received for the speaking engagement was designated for Gildas Club. Whatever the sum, it probably wasnt enough based on the response she received from the more than 150 retirees on hand for the hour-long talk featuring a host of courtroom stories that tickled every funny bone in the audience.

I can usually tell with one glance if some of the stories are going to be suitable for a certain type of audience, said Smolenski, who earned her juris doctorate from Cooley Law School in 1982. On the other hand, sometimes I have to test the water a few times before I can get a clear reading on how receptive they are to a certain line of laughter.

Over lunch, an hour before she was to appear before the Steelcase group, the judge shared a shoplifting story from a recent case in her courtroom. It involved a 65-year-old woman who had pilfered an item from one of the super stores in the area.

The woman, who was accompanied in court by a man thought to be her husband (but perhaps not), agreed to plead guilty to stealing Astroglide, a heretofore
non-descript item that begged a question or two from Judge Smolenski.

I had no idea what the item was, Smolenski said. I was trying to picture whether it was big, small, animal, mineral, vegetable just what?

Upon questioning, the woman came clean:

Its a vaginal lubricant, your honor.

Smolenski, seldom at a loss for words, was momentarily tongue-tied.

I didnt know whether to say, Bad girl or You, go girl, Smolenski said with a laugh. It was priceless. Now I always ask, What department does that come from Home and Garden or Health and Beauty Aids?

While munching on a burger and fries at lunch, the judge figured the story would sit on the shelf for the Steelcase group. A half-hour into her talk, she had other ideas, dusting off the shoplifting story for all to hear. It was a winner, as was another tale about a marriage ceremony she performed in the hallowed halls of justice.

The bride was decked out in unconventional wedding attire, a revealing tube top.

On top and bottom.

I didnt know whether I would have to cite her for indecent exposure, Smolenski cracked.

The groom was a bit of a sight himself, although he dressed up for the occasion with a white button-down Oxford shirt.

After I pronounced them husband and wife, the groom decided he had had enough of that dress shirt, Smolenski related. He took of that white Oxford, which revealed his T-shirt underneath. It was inscribed with the message, #*@% Happens. It seemed particularly fitting.

So has the law as a career for the eighth of 10 kids. The law has helped keep a sense of order to an extended Smolenski family that also includes 32 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

Chief judge of the 63rd District Court, Smolenski is now in the midst of her fourth six-year term on the bench. A past president of the Michigan District Judges Association, she formerly served as an assistant city attorney in Grand Rapids and then spent four years in private practice before being elected to the bench in 1990. In her current judicial role, Smolenski handles approximately 20,000 cases annually, the vast majority of the sad and sick variety, she said, admitting that she has been particularly troubled by a string of recent drunken-driving fatalities in her district.

Then there are the domestic violence cases and the child abuse cases, which, Smolenski said, are the worst that she has to deal with on a regular

They can literally make your stomach turn, she said of the child abuse and neglect cases.

Still, a day doesnt go by where we dont get a good laugh or two in this courtroom, she said. You cant help but laugh when some attorneys cell phone goes off and the ringer is John Philip Sousas Stars and Stripes Forever, especially when it gets to the third verse and he still cant turn the darned thing off.

By Tom Kirvan

Delicious Digg Facebook Twitter MySpace
Views: 7982 views    Browse Photos (2)    Report Inappropriate Content
Photos (2)  [ view all photos ]
All Articles