New Focus: Circuit Court administrator brings tech expertise to job


By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

From her fifth-floor office in the Macomb County Circuit Court building, Jennifer M. Phillips has a picturesque view of downtown Mount Clemens and the Clinton River, winding lazily near the business district below.

The setting is brand-spanking new to Phillips, 37, who was recently hired as Macomb County Circuit Court administrator. And at the top of new shelves in her office sit five decorative blocks, each displaying a word that could be used to describe her path through life, from Michigan to Texas, Florida to Virginia, and back.

In simple letters, the signs depict Inspire, Dream, Create, Imagine, and Relax.

“I think I like the relax one the best,” Phillips said, “because when things get a little stressful, I can look up and at least have a reminder I can relax for a minute and get perspective.”

And she will need perspective to handle the jump from district court positions in Rochester and Waterford to the larger world of circuit court responsibilities.

“There are new areas to learn, and new challenges,” she said.

Her first goal in Macomb is a major priority.

“I still have not met all the judges, so that’s number one,” she said, laughing. “I’ve only been on the job five days.”

But life has been leading Phillips here for years. She was born in Warren to Ruth Louise and Carl Marlinga.

“Yes, my Dad is Carl Marlinga,” she said of the same man who served as Macomb County prosecutor from 1984 to 2004, and is now running for a State Senate seat in the 10th District.

But Phillips spent most of her life with her mother and a few other siblings after her parents divorced when she was four and her father remained in Michigan.

“We moved around a lot,” said Phillips, who attended five different high schools in at least four states before graduating from Salem High School in Virginia Beach, Va.

“My mom was a little bit of a free spirit, she was adventurous,” Phillips said.

The moves usually followed the same script, she said. Visit relatives in other areas, and then her mother would find work and settle in for a period. Because of that upbringing, Phillips said does not mind change or trying new things. But after high school, she moved back to Michigan and began working as a receptionist for a medical transcriptions company. Phillips said she had a knack for computers and began office duties for the company that led to a promotion as office manager.

But Phillips said she really wanted to become a lawyer. While working, she attended Oakland Community College, and left the medical firm to become a receptionist for a Southland law firm. Her ability with computers again led to her being named the legal document data base manager there.

“I’m not a techie, I just did well with computers,” she said.

But a law degree seemed to always get pushed back. Phillips said she worked full time while going to college part time, earning an associate degree in liberal arts and eventually a bachelor of arts in psychology from Oakland University.

Phillips went to another law firm, this in Auburn Hills, and worked as a paralegal for Julie Nicholson. When Nicholson was elected to the 52-3 District Court in Rochester Hills, she asked Phillips to join her as law clerk.

After a few years there, Phillips learned the ins and outs of district court, and became the office manager of the court when an opening came up. She later was elevated to Deputy Court Administrator.

When an opening for the same position opened in the 51 District Court in Waterford, Phillips applied and got that job.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of great jobs,” Phillips said.

She said she loved working in Rochester, but saw an opportunity to grow in Waterford, with the goal of becoming the Court Administrator. Along the way, Phillips earned a master’s degree in public administration from Oakland University, and a fellowship in the Court Executive Development Program from the National Center for State Courts.

Phillips stayed in Waterford for seven years, and worked for two judges that were instrumental to her development, Richard Kuhn Jr. and Phyllis McMillen.

There she became involved in drug court programs and other facets of the job.

“I was able to try new things, and received a lot of leeway to do that from the Judges,” she said.

Phillips said McMillen was active in the state drug court programs, and pushed her to join the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals. There, Phillips automated the registration process for the program, and was named its president.

In Waterford, Phillips said she was “able to do simple administrative things that other may not find flashy or interesting” but the result gave more structure to the tiny court. She also offered training opportunities to the staff.

“Every administrator does different things to improve an organization, but I focused on education, and hope that things are a little better there than when I found it,“ she said.

When the former Macomb County Circuit Court Administrator, Keith Beasley, retired, Phillips said she applied because it’s a natural progression in her public administration advancement. She said it’s a much bigger bench, from two to 13 judges, with new areas to learn, and new challenges to meet.

“It’s a whole new world of opportunities,” she said.

Phillips said Kuhn and McMillen were great to work for, and still consults with them.

“But I need to cut the cord,” she said laughing.

Phillips said working in the Macomb court will be challenging.

“This bench is very progressive, and they want to bring new technologies in, and I love that,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where we can automate things. The budgets are extremely tight, and anytime you can make things better and save money is a good way to go.”

Phillips said she also plans to call Beasley for advice “until he blocks my calls.” And she plans to take time to learn the organization and people before making any changes.

“You need to take the time to learn, see where you can make changes in a positive direction,“ she said. “The people I’ve met are extremely bright, and this place runs really well.“

She admits to being a bit intimidated by it all.

“It would be crazy or arrogant not to be a little intimidated,” she said. “But there’s a lot out there I can tap into to help me get comfortable.”

Her philosophy as boss and management style will be laid back, she said.

“I’m not a micromanager. My goal is to get the best people you can in the positions they need to be and give them what they need to do their jobs. I like to have a pretty positive atmosphere at work.”

The rumor mill worked overtime on message boards after Phillips was hired, with many calling the hiring nepotism because she is Marlinga’s daughter. Phillips does not try to back away from her father, saying she’s earned every job and promotion on her own.

“I had the qualifications for this position, and it was an open process, and honestly, it never even crossed my mind that people would think that,” she said.
Phillips said she’s worked in Oakland County for most of her career. Besides gaining an interest in law and public service from her father, and living with him briefly years ago, “I didn’t grow up around him.”

“I made my way through life on my own. I have a great deal of respect for his career, and I’m sure he gave me the interest and taught me things that helped me.”

In fact, Phillips considers her mother her role model because she kept looking for better jobs and better opportunities for herself and her children.

While Phillips has not given up the possibility of a law degree in the future, a new job, a baby, Libby, almost 2 years old, a step-son, Jacob, and husband Erick come first.

“I’m extremely happy with both my personal and professional life,” she said.

She met Erick Phillips while they both worked in Oakland County, and were married in 2006. He had a son from a previous marriage, so she gained an immediate family.

“It was a big adjustment. I used to be very orderly and organized, and it all went out the window. But I learned those things I thought needed to be organized were not that important.”

For fun, Phillips said she reads, “nothing high brow, just a magazine or novel to relax.” There’s that word again. Her main hobby is “chasing a 2-year-old around.” But she said she is focused on family and career, and gives 100 percent to each.

And she said she would be just as content to stay in Macomb until she retires. “It’s a great position, and I’m honored to have it.”