Deborah McNabb makes smooth transition from referee to judge



Judge Deborah McNabb, who took her place on the 17th Circuit Court bench on January 1, 2017.

– Legal News photo by Cynthia Price


Predictions that 17th Circuit Court Family Division Judge Deborah McNabb would “hit the ground running” due to her 25 years as a referee have proven to be correct.

“I guess the biggest thing is remembering to put the robe on,” Judge McNabb jokes.

In the Family Division, which was created by the Michigan legislature in 1998, referees handle all the same kinds of cases that judges do, with the exception of jury trials. Judge McNabb notes that when she was required to attend what is often called “baby judges school,” she found the day on juries very helpful.

“Kent County doesn’t do very many jury trials in the Family Division,” she notes. “I’ve had two requests and one was withdrawn because the case settled. There’s one pending so I may still do it.”

However, an important distinction is that referee decisions are considered to be recommended orders, subject to the approval of the judge with whom each referee works.

“Actually, it is psychologically a bit different in that now the buck stops with me,” Judge McNabb says. “I guess I’m surprised a little bit about how often I think about that. I’m feeling very strongly the gravity of the decisions I make.”

An exception is orders for child removal from the home that occur after 5:00 in the evening. The seven referees, who are each assigned to one of the seven judges in the division — Judge McNabb was assigned to Judge Kathleen Feeney — take turns being on call to make those decisions.

“There’s a procedure by which, if Child Protective Services is called to a home and the caseworker believes that the child should be removed, the referee on call makes the decision,” Judge McNabb explains. “So sometimes in the middle of the night, you’re making pretty important decisions.”

In terms of the work day, tasks are divided between judge and referee in terms of type of case. “Referees do all of the preliminary hearings in delinquency and in child protective cases, but then in the domestic relations part of the docket, the judges hear all of the initial proceedings,” Judge McNabb explains.

She began her career before the creation of the Family Division, in 1991, as a Friend of the Court Domestic Relations referee. She participated in developing the reorganization plan after the law changed, and when it was adopted became one of the referees.

“The thing about the Family Division is, after 25 and a half years I’ve never been bored – ever,” Judge McNabb says. “Every time you think you’ve seen it all, there’s something new. One thing that doesn’t change, though, is it’s all about families, whether it’s a custody case or abuse and neglect or delinquency. Often those things are very intertwined, and as a referee you have the opportunity to look at it holistically.

“I always focus on doing the right thing for the families and the children. Of course I can only do that within the bounds of the law. The tension is, sometimes my heart wants to do one thing but I’m not able to do it under the law,” she continues.

Prior to that, McNabb worked for the Michigan Migrant Legal Aid Project, which now goes by Migrant Legal Services. Her interest in such issues derived in part from a summer during law school spent in Mexico City studying the Mexican legal system.

The native of Miami, Fla., went to Alma College here in Michigan, followed by DePaul University School of Law in Chicago. She was also privileged to spend a summer at the University of Exeter in England, “studying what would later become the European Union.” She continues to serve as an advisory board member for the “A Family Law Model for Europe” project through Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland.

She met her husband while at Alma, and the two married one week after she finished law school. Because her father was terminally ill, the couple returned to Florida, but, McNabb says, “I never really liked it there, I don’t like the heat and the sun, so I was happy to get out of there. I did take the Florida Bar, and passed it, but while we were down there caring for my dad, I found out about the opportunity with the Migrant Legal Aid Project.”

Judge McNabb has four children — Lauren 27, Ian 25, Devan 23, and Erin 21. She credits her stay-at-home husband with relieving her of a lot of stress. “I thanked him at my investiture, because I was able to pursue my career with literally no worries about how it was affecting my family,” she says.

“We were actually in the Ladies Home Journal in 1997. Back then it was really unusual. It was tough for us at that point, and the day care costs would have killed us. It’s worked out really well for us,” she adds.

Locally, Judge McNabb is a member of the Kent County Child Death Review Team and is a member of the Family Law and Parents and Children Sections of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. At the state level, she is on the State Bar of Michigan Children’s Law Section Council (as well as a member of the Family Law Section), and was president of the Referees Association of Michigan. She also serves as an advisory committee member for the Institute for Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) “Michigan Family Law Benchbook,” and often makes presentations for ICLE and a variety of other legal organizations.

Judge McNabb also served on the 2010 “SOS” task force, convened by the Michigan Supreme Court to determine how to help people have better access to the court system. the task force eventually developed the web page

Nationally, Judge McNabb is a member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and a variety of its committees; the Family Law Section and Judicial Division of the American Bar Association; the American Association of Family and Conciliation Courts; and the American Judicature Society.  

Her community activities have included involvement with her children’s activities, including the Girl Scouts, booster clubs, her son’s school band, and coaching Odyssey of the Mind, now known as Destination Imagination,.

And Judge McNabb says it is very important to her own peace of mind not to take her work home with her. “I see so much,” she says. “Not every single day, but most days there are some pretty awful stories. I think the general public is not aware of all that goes on.

“So I really make a concerted effort to leave work at work. I approach every case with the perspective of ‘Do no harm,’ and I accept the fact that I can’t fix everything. What I can do is try to protect children the best I can. Some of them have been so traumatized by the life they’ve had, sometimes since birth, and even before birth.”

Despite an increase in difficulty in obtaining petition signatures since she first briefly considered a run for a judicial seat in 2002, which she theorizes probably has to do with people’s suspicion about government, McNabb says that she enjoyed running for office. “Going door to door was fun. Of course, sometimes they would ask me questions about specifics which judicial candidates aren’t allowed to answer. But for the most part, I?liked it.”

For now, she is very pleased to have the opportunity to serve as a judge. “I’m just looking forward to the next six years,” Judge McNabb says, “because I really love this work.”