By Tom Kirvan
For several years after being elected to the Oakland County Circuit Court bench, Nanci Grant opted not to display framed copies of her college and law school diplomas in her office.
It was a conscious decision on her part, much as it was for a judicial colleague of Grant, who was just 32 years old when she joined the bench in 1996.
Her like-minded cohort was Alice Gilbert, a revered member of the Circuit Court who resigned from the bench in 2002 after spending more than four decades in the judiciary.
“I told Alice that the reason I decided not to display the diplomas on my office wall was because I didn’t want people to know my age,” Grant related. “Her reply to me was, ‘I elected not to put up my diplomas for the same reason.’”
Now, in her second year as chief judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court, Grant is no longer self-conscious about her age. She has paid her dues as an attorney with Dickinson Wright for seven years and as a highly respected member of the bench for the past 14 years. Age and experience have become her trusted allies.
“In all honesty, it probably takes a good term (6 years) for a judge to become familiar with all the different facets and challenges built into this job,” said Grant, a native of Oakland County and a graduate of Southfield Lathrup High School. “It’s a constant learning process and one that I really embrace. I’ve been fortunate to have had the benefit of wonderful mentors, people I have been able to consistently rely on for guidance and advice.”
She didn’t have to look far for “good counsel” when she was elected to the bench. Her mentor from private practice—former Dickinson Wright attorney Elizabeth Pezzetti—was just a stone’s throw away in an adjoining building as an Oakland County Probate Court judge.
For good measure, she could feel even more at home by scanning the Circuit Court directory. There, in bold print, was her true legal mentor, a man who many area attorneys considered a “father figure” for his wise and even-handed ways.
Barry Grant, Judge Grant’s father, retired from the Oakland County Probate bench in 2008, some 11 years after administering the oath of office to his daughter. At the time, she was probably best known as “Judge Grant’s daughter.” Now there might be a bit of role reversal as her stature in the legal community continues to grow.
“I have the greatest respect for Nanci as a judge and a legal scholar,” said Gene Schnelz, retired Oakland County Circuit Court judge. “She has proven to be a very intelligent, thoughtful, and skilled member of the bench. I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Schnelz was impressed with her work even in the very early stages of her legal career.
“She worked for me in the summer while she was attending law school,” he recalled. “I had known her since she was a kid, but I hadn’t seen her for a number of years so she obviously looked quite a bit different when she began working for me. As was my custom, I didn’t always pay that close of attention when summer assistants were being introduced around. But after a few days, I started to take notice. She really stood out with the work that she submitted for me to review. I told her that based on how well she was doing, I would have to find a full time job for her when she was finished with school.”
Her response caught her summer boss off guard.
“She said her father might not go for that,” Schnelz said of the pending job offer. “When she told me her father was Barry Grant, I felt more than a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t recognized her. But it was early evidence to me that she was going to make a name for herself and wouldn’t be resting on the laurels of her father. She was that good.”
Grant, an admitted “nerd in high school,” didn’t necessarily harbor thoughts of attending law school when she began her studies at the University of Michigan. She was majoring in sociology and anthropology at U-M when the “law school light went on” in her head as a junior.
“I remember calling home to tell my mom and dad that I planned to take the LSAT and planned to enroll in law school upon graduation,” said Grant, vice chair of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission. “My mom was excited but I didn’t seem to get much of a response from my dad. I called back later to ask my mom if there was a reason he wasn’t all that elated with my news. She told me that after we hung up, my dad had tears in his eyes he was so happy that I wanted to go to law school. That made me feel even better about my decision.”
It probably helped that she enrolled at Wayne State UNiversity Law School, her father’s alma mater. Her decision, as an undergrad, to attend U-M went against the family grain.
Her father is a Michigan State alum, as are her two brothers, Jim and Scott. Her husband, attorney Mark Frankel, also attended MSU. One of the couple’s two sons, Zachary, has taken the green and white ties to another generation as a freshman at State. In short, “I am heavily outnumbered when it comes time to cheer for Michigan,” she said, sporting her best Maize and Blue smile.
Her mother, Lisa, attended the University of Vermont and Wayne State University, and is the “rock of the family,” according to Grant.
“She is an incredible person, very kind and compassionate,” Grant said of her mother, a native of New York. “But she also was demanding. She didn’t put up with poor grades or bad behavior. My parents set the bar high for all of us.”
The result: a lawyer and two physicians among the couple’s offspring.
“That’s probably a mother’s dream, isn’t it,” Grant asked with more than a slight grin.
All too often, Grant sees the other side of parental life. It’s played out in her courtroom each day, where she tries to impress upon youthful offenders the far-reaching consequences of their actions.
“Judge Pezzetti regularly sends juveniles down to my court to sit in on my criminal call,” Grant said. “It’s meant to be an eye-opener for them, to give them an idea of what can happen when they break the law. After I’m done, I like to sit down with them and have a face-to-face conversation, asking them if they know what it means to break a parent’s heart. I tell them that they are at a crossroads. They can take the perceived easier road and continue to get in trouble, or they can take the harder road of hanging out with the kids who study, who are involved in sports and music, and who perform community service. It’s their choice, but it’s a decision that will ripple throughout their family and throughout their life. I get really passionate about that message.”
It resonates with her own sons, 19-year-old Zachary and 16-year-old Eric.
“My boys have very good instincts,” she said. “They know the importance of honesty, dedication, and hard work. While I’m extremely protective of them, I also have tremendous confidence in their abilities to make the right decisions in life.”
She saw early evidence of that nearly a decade ago when she and her family were visiting Mackinac Island. While out front of a store, her son Zachary spotted a $20 bill in the street.
“He immediately took it into the store, figuring that one of their customers must have lost it,” Grant said. “He wanted to make sure that the money was returned to whomever lost it. Not bad for a 10-year-old kid. I was really proud of him.”
Her husband undoubtedly was beaming as well. He can take pride in helping serve as an exceptional role model for his children.
“Mark is a brilliant attorney, and is all about character and integrity,” his wife said proudly. “He is my go-to person, someone I can count on every step of the way in life.”
The couple met on a blind date during Grant’s junior year at U-M. Frankel was about to start law school at Wayne State.
“My cousin fixed us up. Of course, I’m not speaking to her anymore,” Grant said with a laugh. “Our first date was a concert at Hill Auditorium.”
A “rockabilly” concert, in fact, starring singer George Thorogood, whose hit song at the time was “Bad to the Bone.” Fortunately the song would not serve as a precursor of their courtship.
“We dated for a couple of years before getting engaged,” she said. “We got married just before our winter break of law school at Wayne State. My mom handled all the wedding details. I just showed up. It was a no-stress kind of wedding for me.”
Stress is in ready supply as chief judge, however, as Grant wrestles with budgetary challenges that are inherent with a county that is faced with eroding property tax revenues.
The Circuit Court has trimmed nearly $6 million from its operating budget over the past 7 years and another round of significant cuts are expected during the next 3-year budget cycle. When Circuit Court Judge John McDonald retired in December, his post was not filled, forcing his docket to be absorbed by other members of the bench.
“It was part of the ‘sunset’ provisions that are in place,” Grant said of the decision to eliminate the judgeship. “We will all have to share the load and find creative ways to maintain the same level of service that our citizens have come to expect in Oakland County.
“There certainly has been plenty of doom and gloom in this state over the last few years, but I’m enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead, especially if we bond together with a positive outlook on life,” she said. “I’m confident that the tide is turning.”