Bar honors judge for professionalism and civility

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

 

If it wasn’t so hard to find a parking spot in Los Angeles, Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Darlene O’Brien might not be honored this Thursday at the Washtenaw County Bar Association’s Annual Awards Dinner.

As it was, O’Brien chose Notre Dame’s law school over U.C.L.A.’s, and remained a Midwesterner destined to become a Washtenaw County judge adding another award to her collection.

O’Brien, who is known as a calm presence on the bench, is particularly gracious to the families of those appearing before her, said Teresa Killeen, a judicial attorney for the Washtenaw County Probate Court.

“Regardless of whether the person appearing before her is developmentally disabled, or mentally disabled, or convicted of a criminal act, the person has family members in attendance,” said Killeen. “And the family members want to see their loved one treated with respect and dignity, which Judge O’Brien does with great consistency.

“It’s such a kindness to both the person and the person’s family. It is very moving to watch her acknowledge the good in criminal defendants and their potential for rehabilitation.”

Darlene Mason O’Brien grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of three girls. Her father was a drill polisher; her mother, a bookkeeper.

In high school, O’Brien planned to become a legal secretary until a guidance counselor persuaded her to reach a bit higher. After earning a degree in political science summa cum laude at the University of Toledo, she applied to and was accepted at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, the only one at the time with a corrections law program. 

She was all set to attend until she received an application to join a lottery for a parking spot.

“I started thinking seriously about what it was going to be like living in L.A. trying to do law school,” said O’Brien, sitting in her light-filled office in the Washtenaw County Courthouse. “So I went and visited Notre Dame and decided, ‘Boy, there’s a lot of parking here! And life would be easier going to law school here. I could focus on my studies.’”

So she headed to South Bend instead, where the focus on ethics and integrity made a permanent impact, she said.

In her third year of law school, O’Brien started clerking part-time. After graduation, she accepted a clerkship with a federal bankruptcy court.

“That was very helpful for this job because I was able to learn what the judge needs to be able to rule in a person’s favor; to always look at it through a judge’s perspective,” she said. “You see litigants coming before the court all the time and they’re very caught up in their case. But you have to start with: What is the judge going to need to rule in my favor?’”

“People may file ex parte motions and they don’t give me anything of evidentiary value. It isn’t notarized. Or it’s not a verified pleading. I can’t grant them their relief from the get-go because I have nothing of evidentiary value.”

After clerking for a year, O’Brien took a job with a Saginaw law firm. 

During that time, she drove down to Ann Arbor to attend The Advocacy Institute at the Michigan League. That’s when attorney Diana Raimi introduced her to Tom O’Brien, a partner in the Ann Arbor law firm of O’Brien, Moran & Dimond.

She jokes that they met just outside The Hussey Room.

And, yes, it was love at first sight.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Absolutely!”

The two dated nearly a year before they got married in a small ceremony on the O’Brien Sesquicentennial farmhouse in 1984. Her new father-in-law was retired Washtenaw County Probate Judge Francis O’Brien, a longtime Washtenaw County judge, who died in 1991.

“He was a wonderful man with a heart of gold,” she said. 

The couple soon formed the Ann Arbor law firm of O’Brien & O’Brien, where they focused on plaintiff’s personal injury and criminal defense and she handled probate and domestic relations cases.

In 2006, Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed O’Brien to Washtenaw County Probate judge. She won election later that year. 

O’Brien, who hears domestic relations cases and about 25 percent of the county’s felony criminal docket, doesn’t miss private practice.

“(Being judge) carries an awesome responsibility, but it’s different than the weight an attorney carries when they are trying to win the best result for their client,” she said. 

After hearing the mental health docket for nearly seven years, she has an understanding of and appreciation for people struggling with mental health issues, and brings that understanding to other cases on the criminal and domestic docket.

“A lot of times people’s behavior is the result of a mental illness, and they may be able to benefit greatly from treatment I can order,” she said. “And they may not like it at first, but I’ve had people afterwards thank me because it’s changed their lives.”

The biggest challenge of the job is lack of sufficient time due to heavy caseloads. Too, she finds it sobering to hear a family case and realize there is no ideal option.

“Some children are not given the caliber of parents I had the benefit of enjoying,”she said.

Although they enjoy talking about the law at the dinner table, the O’Briens also appreciate time away from it. 

In any spare time, O’Brien enjoys yoga, walking the trails and swimming at the family farm in Northfield Township, and working out at the Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center. 

Their son, John, just graduated from Cooley Law School in Lansing and daughter Lauren is a freelance graphic designer living in San Francisco.

O’Brien said she’s honored to receive the Professionalism and Civility in the Practice of Law Award because she believes the caliber of WCBA members is exceptionally high.

 “We have so many attorneys who are so good at what they do,” she said. “They’re well educated, and really on top of their game. I think it’s because we have excellent law schools here and Ann Arbor is such a great community.”

O’Brien has a long resume of achievements, and is particularly proud of her work with the Michigan Probate Judges Association. As a member of its Executive Committee, she weighs in on pending legislation. 

Her six-year term as judge ends Jan. 1, 2019, and she hopes to be on the ballot for another term. 

“I don’t look forward to retiring,” said O’Brien. “I love what I’m doing. I love my job.” 

 

 

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