Panel discusses women in the judiciary

Justices have seen seismic gender shift on the bench

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Four experienced jurists all agreed on one particular piece of advice for law students: learn to write.

Wayne State University Law School presented "Women in the Judiciary" as part of its continuing Alumni Speaker Series at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights on Thursday, March 12.

The judges talked about their experiences on the bench and the path they took to get there after law school.

The panelists were Judge Mary Ellen Brennan of the Sixth Circuit Court; Judge Megan Brennan of the Third Circuit Court; Chief Judge Nanci Grant of the Sixth Circuit Court; and Judge Donna Milhouse of the 36th District Court.

The moderator was retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly, who is currently serving as Distinguished Jurist in Residence at Wayne Law.

Kelly praised the panelists and said that the students at the event had an opportunity to learn from some very special judges.

"I can tell you from personal experience that you have before you four wonderful women judges, who set a terrific example of the ethics and quality that we need in our judges throughout the state," she said.

Nanci Grant talked about the seismic gender shift on the bench during her career. She said that when she first ran, it was unusual for a woman to be running for judge.

"It's really changed," Grant said. "When I joined the bench, I was one of three women on my 18-member court. Yesterday we had a judges meeting. There are now three men on the court. "

Grant also stressed the importance of community involvement.

"Don't just go to school and do your work and then go home. I was married with two kids and very busy. You have to be involved in your community. If you don't do that, you're not a whole person."

Several of the judges talked about the importance of timing in their careers.

"I ran for judge in 2004 and lost," said Mary Ellen Brennan. "That was a good thing. I wasn't ready to be a judge, my family wasn't ready for me to be a judge and the timing wasn't right. I ran again in 2008 and was elected."

Megan Brennan pointed out to the students that they can be learning about the law even when they're not at the school.

"I knew in high school that I wanted to be a lawyer," she said. "When I went to Wayne Law, I was a night student. While I was in school, I worked at the Michigan Court of Appeals as a librarian, so I had a great experience with attorneys at the appellate level. It was a wonderful job for a law student."

Donna Milhouse pointed out that support from an early employer can really make a difference for female law grads.

"I had my two children while I was at the law firm now called Clark Hill," she said. "The firm was really understanding. I think I was only the second woman to have children there while I was still practicing."

Milhouse liked being an attorney, but was eager to make the switch to the bench.

"I love being an advocate, but I really love being that neutral on the bench," she said. "Being a judge was a perfect fit for me because I like being able to get people to agree. I'm doing mostly civil docket now. I leave it to the attorneys to be the advocates, and then I suggest 'Go out in the hallway one more time and see if you can resolve that.' It works."

Justice Kelly seconded Milhouse's point about the difference between an advocate and a judge.

"I have seen judges take the bench who were wonderful advocates, and they got on the bench and they were terrible," she said. "They couldn't adjust to sitting back, giving up the advocacy role and taking up the task of listening. If like Judge Milhouse, and me too, what you like is hearing both sides and then making a decision on the law, then maybe being a judge is for you."

Writing was a skill that came up repeatedly as the judges talked about preparation for a legal career, including that step to the bench.

"Legal writing is extremely important," Milhouse said. "If you can develop that skill, it will serve you well."

Megan Brennan concurred in that opinion.

"The most important thing I learned was to write well," she said. "I'm sorry to say that I can no longer remember the name of my first writing teacher here, but she was amazing. She ripped up my writing right from the get go. She taught me so much."

And Grant pointed out that, even if a law grad doesn't go on to practice, the skill can be invaluable.

"Whether you become a practicing attorney or not, good writing will be important to your career," she said.

The other topic that the judges all chimed in on was the importance of integrity and professional courtesy.

When asked what attorneys do that bothers her the most, Mary Ellen Brennan didn't hesitate to answer.

"Dishonesty. Dishonesty, dishonesty," she said. "What attorneys don't think about is that I'm going to remember. No motion is worth compromising your integrity in front of the judge. Reputation is so important. Your handshake has to mean something."

Nanci Grant wholeheartedly agreed.

"We're all saying the same thing," she said. "Ethics and professional courtesy. Because of the nature of my job, I swear in attorneys almost every week and hear the lawyer's oath more often than most. The last line says, 'I will in all other respects conduct myself personally and professionally in conformity with the high standards of conduct imposed upon members of the bar as conditions for the privilege to practice law in this State.'

"I take that seriously. Sometimes an advocate thinks they're doing their job and they're actually being a jackass."

Published: Mon, Mar 30, 2015

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