Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice makes smooth legal return

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Less than 9 months after a somewhat surprising departure from the Michigan Supreme Court, Mary Beth Kelly remains as busy as ever, juggling the demands of a heavy caseload at one of Detroit’s premier law firms with a time-consuming public service schedule dedicated to advancing the causes of juvenile justice and children’s welfare.

For good measure, Kelly soon will be dealing with the prospect of becoming an “empty nester” as her 18-year-old son heads to Kalamazoo College this fall to pursue a degree in biology while running on the cross country team for the Hornets.

“In a sense, it has been a bit of a whirlwind year, but on the other hand, it is exciting and fulfilling to be back in private practice while also staying involved in state issues that I’m very passionate about,” said Kelly, who last fall joined Bodman as vice chair of its Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution practice group.

Elected to the state Supreme Court in November 2010, Kelly left office on October 1, 2015 with more than 3 years remaining on her term, determining that the “time was right” to return to private practice after achieving several key goals while on the seven-member high court.

“It was a wonderful experience to be part of such an important state institution, and I’m glad to have helped restore civility to the court after some of the problems of the past,” Kelly said. “It was one of my goals to promote a greater sense of collegiality, and I believe that tremendous progress was made in that regard over the past few years.”

Kelly, replaced on the court by University of Michigan Law School professor Joan Larsen, also was heartened to have “elevated child welfare and juvenile justice” matters for Supreme Court consideration.

“These are issues that are taking on even greater urgency in today’s society and they require a statewide response if we are going to make a significant impact,” said Kelly. “Now that I have returned to private practice, I have enjoyed the opportunity to assume a greater role as an advocate for children in need across the state.”

Kelly currently is serving her second year as chair of the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice, a three-year appointment she accepted from Gov. Rick Snyder, who lauded her work on the Supreme Court.

“Justice Kelly has shown tremendous leadership and dedication during her time on the Supreme Court,” Snyder said at the time of her departure last year. “Her advocacy on juvenile justice issues has had a major impact on the state, and she has been instrumental in shaping innovative specialty courts meant to rehabilitate drug offenders and defendants who are veterans.”

Her leadership role on the Juvenile Justice panel is “time consuming” and yet “invigorating,” said Kelly, recently appointed to the board of directors of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society.

“The need for reform in the juvenile justice system is great and fuels our committee’s desire to make headway on such important matters,” Kelly said.

A graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where she was honored as the 2015 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year, Kelly earned her law degree from the University of Notre Dame. She is a member of the Law School Advisory Board at Detroit Mercy Law and also serves on the board of Vista Maria, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the cycle of child abuse and neglect.

Before her election to the Supreme Court, Kelly spent 11 years on the Wayne Circuit Court, including three terms as chief judge from 2001-07. Admittedly, it was not an entirely happy time for Kelly, as she came under fire for her attempts to privatize the Wayne County Friend of the Court operation, a proposal that was strongly opposed by the union representing workers there.

Kelly said she remains convinced that the privatization proposal will “have its time and place,” especially as budget dollars become even more precious due to the continuing pinch on state and local tax revenues.

An attorney with Dickinson Wright for 11 years before joining the bench, the Dearborn Heights native specialized in commercial litigation, securities fraud, and antitrust work during her time with the Detroit-based firm.

“In private practice, my interest was always centered on being in court, serving as a litigator,” she said. “But I also had aspirations of being a judge at some point during my career. It seemed like a natural progression for me.”

Her decision to join Bodman instead of returning to Dickinson Wright was rooted in a desire to “start fresh” where there would be no sense of “entitlement” based on previous service with the firm, said Kelly.

She currently “focuses on business litigation, government relations, and public affairs,” and also is a “mediator and arbitrator for commercial disputes often related to sophisticated business issues.”

For now, she is purposely foregoing any appellate work before the state Supreme Court until an “appropriate amount of time” has passed, Kelly said.

“It is the proper thing to do to avoid any potential conflicts or appearances of favoritism,” Kelly stated. “Even though I’m no longer a member of the state’s highest court, I firmly believe that attorneys in private practice have a tremendous ability to shape the course of the law and to impact the justice system in a positive way. Those beliefs will serve to guide me in the years ahead.”

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