Former chief justice shows 'ardent desire' to do good at WSU


Tom Kirvan

Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

When Marilyn Kelly retired from the state Supreme Court nine years ago, most political observers figured it would be but a brief respite from the world of public service.

For that, we should all be thankful, as it was only two years before Kelly ran for elective office again, winning a seat in the November 2014 election on the Board of Governors at Wayne State University, where she earned her law degree with honors.

Kelly’s return to the campaign trail was rooted in her “deep commitment to Wayne State and an ardent desire to help it accomplish its mission to provide an excellent education for its students and better serve the community,” she wrote in announcing her candidacy.

Last month, Kelly was unanimously chosen to serve as chair of the Wayne State Board of Governors, hoping to usher in a new era of cooperation and collegiality, much like she did when she served as chief justice of Michigan’s top court.

“The start of 2021 is the perfect time to reflect on the past and frame intentions for the future,” Kelly said after she was chosen chair. “To that end, I’ve consulted in recent weeks with every member of the Board of Governors. Each of us has pledged to renew our efforts to work together in the best interests of this great university.”

Her ties, of course, to her legal alma mater are strong. She is a past recipient of the University’s Outstanding Alumni Award, and received an honorary doctorate from WSU, where she also has been named its Distinguished Jurist in Residence. She has served as co-chair of the law school’s capital campaign and also established an endowed scholarship for law school students “who are dedicated to public service.”

A former French teacher, Kelly has been elected to public office seven times during her illustrious career, including five at the statewide level. She served two terms on the State Board of Education, eight years as a judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, and two terms as a Supreme Court justice, including two years as its chief.

It was some 14 years ago when I first crossed paths with Kelly, shortly after she had “gone to the dogs.” Figuratively speaking, of course.

I was hot on the trail of a feature story about Kelly’s interest in dog showing, an avocation that she shared with her late husband, Don Newman, a physician. For several years, she and her husband spent much of their free time on the dog show circuit, entering their West Highland White Terrier, Duff, in contests around Michigan and various neighboring states. The after-hours interest was more than a mere hobby for the veteran state jurist, who admitted that it began to take on a “life of its own” as her prized dog pranced his way into the winner’s circle on several occasions.

Outside her career in the law, Kelly seemingly was always in motion, enjoying such interests as scuba diving, downhill skiing, traveling, gardening, sailing, writing, and even acting. She has been mindful of the words of her grandmother, who implored her family members to “learn at least one new thing every day.”

Her thirst for learning led Kelly to Cape Cod nearly a decade ago for a weeklong class in writing fiction, an interesting departure from the well crafted and tightly reasoned legal opinions she churned out as a member of the state’s highest court. Not surprisingly, Kelly won an award at the writing workshop for one of her works, a short essay describing a “young idealistic lawyer’s first day on the job.”

Kelly may have drawn upon her own experience as an up-and-coming lawyer, a time in the early 1970s when the courtroom doors didn’t exactly swing wide open for women. She was just one of six females enrolled in the class of 100 at Wayne State Law School.

She began bumping up against gender barriers at an early age, hoping as a young girl to enter the Soap Box Derby, a venerable contest that attracted racers across the nation.

“At the time, I wanted more than anything to compete in the Soap Box Derby, but I couldn’t because I was a girl,” she lamented in an interview near the end of her Supreme Court tenure. “It was very upsetting to run into a roadblock there, but I wasn’t the type to settle for a consolation prize.”

Now, as we embark upon a second year of COVID-induced challenges, expect Kelly to meet those obstacles with full force, utilizing her special combination of smarts, skill, and savvy to the tasks at hand.

There, she undoubtedly will take heed of the importance of honesty and transparency, insisting that ethical clouds not cast a shadow over effective governance. Kelly said as much many years ago during an address at a local Inn of Court meeting, long before she contemplated service on the WSU Board.

“As so often is the case in the other parts of our lives, the most insidious ethical dilemmas seldom present themselves as the gun on the desk,” Kelly told a group of young lawyers at the meeting. “Rather, they come at us over time, wrapped in practicality, familiarity, and the stress of trying to do much with little. So being ethical, in addition to being a matter of choice, is also a matter of habit. It is what we do not once or twice in our careers, but every day in hundreds of small, mundane acts.”

Such wisdom is a Kelly trademark, reason alone to look favorably upon her chances to help Wayne State succeed in a most unforgiving time.


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