Sense of direction: Judge guides court through series of challenges


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Upon graduating from Hillsdale College, a nationally known institute of higher learning that has produced more than its share of notable judges and lawyers, Chris Murray considered pursuing a career in journalism until his interest collided with the harsh realities of making a living.

Particularly as an editor of an outdoor magazine based in west Michigan that was owned by a nonprofit entity.

“I’ve had a lifelong love of fishing and when I was offered a job to be an editor of a fishing magazine in Michigan, it seemed to be just what I was looking for as a first job,” said Murray, who was raised in the lakeside community of Grosse Pointe.

And then he was confronted with the fact that he would need to move cross state to the tiny town of Paw Paw and would be paid the worldly sum of $15,000 a year.

So instead, Murray elected to stay closer to home, taking a job with a local magazine selling ads and helping with circulation until his stepfather, Grosse
Pointe attorney Daniel King, recommended that he consider attending law school.

“He thought I had the aptitude for it and encouraged me to give it a shot,” Murray said of the life-altering suggestion from his late stepfather, who enjoyed a successful legal career in banking and estate planning before eventually retiring from Howard & Howard at age 70.

The decision to switch career paths would lead Murray to the University of Detroit School of Law, where he only could dream of what was to come: eight years in private practice with an insurance defense firm, two years as deputy legal counsel for Governor John Engler, two years on the Wayne County Circuit bench, and now 21 years on the Michigan Court of Appeals, including two terms (2018-22) as chief judge of the 25-member appellate court.

“Back then, it was hard to picture it unfolding like it has,” Murray said of the arc of his legal career that has earned him the respect and admiration of his judicial colleagues.

Especially a U of D Law classmate, Judge Michael Riordan, a former federal prosecutor who has served on the state appellate bench since 2012.

“Frankly, he was the best chief judge the Court of Appeals ever had,” said Riordan. “Everyone on the court holds him in such high regard for how hard he works, and for his fairness, temperament, writing skill, and sound judgment.

“He also is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, who is always friendly and upbeat, even when times were tough during COVID and there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding how the court system would operate,” added Riordan, who like Murray was a charter member of the Federalist Society at U of D Law. “He is such an asset to the court.”

Riordan’s comments were echoed by Judge Thomas Cameron, who will mark his sixth year on the Court of Appeals in July.

“Judge Murray deserves enormous credit for steering the court through the difficulties of the pandemic, helping modernize our operation through the use of remote technology and video recording of court proceedings,” said Cameron, a Wayne State University Law School grad who served on the Wayne County Circuit Court before joining the Court of Appeals. “Historically, courts are not known to be at the tip of the spear when it comes to innovation, but Judge Murray helped change that narrative.”

Cameron also credited Murray for taking on double duty during his eight years of service as a judge on the State Court of Claims.

“I believe he is the longest serving judge in the history of the Court of Claims, which is a volunteer position without any extra pay or extra glory,” Cameron indicated. “He has done it out of a sense of duty, hearing a number of high-profile cases that had political implications. He had plenty of additional responsibilities as chief judge, but during that time he continued to serve on the Court of Claims.”

A native of New England, Murray spent part of his childhood in the Boston suburb of Westwood, where at the age of 4 he experienced the first taste of tragedy when his father committed suicide.

“My mom was pregnant with her third child when it happened,” said Murray, who was the middle child in the family. “Evidently, my father had struggled with mental health problems for years, even though he had a good corporate job in human resources.”

In the wake of the death, the family moved back to Grosse Pointe where Murray’s mother, Susan, was raised and where her parents still lived. Some three years later, she remarried, a move that Murray would term as “the greatest thing that could have happened to her and our family” at that stage.

“Dan (King) was an absolutely wonderful man and a highly respected lawyer who brought love and stability to our family,” Murray said of his late stepfather who died in 2013 at age 83. “He was an old-school lawyer who was admired by everyone and was a member of the State Bar for more than 50 years. He set a great example of how you should operate in life and always did his best to do the right thing.”

Murray could say the same about his 86-year-old mother, whom he called “the strongest person I know.”

Said her son: “She is an inspiration to all of us and is the unquestioned leader of the family whose wisdom and advice is always valued.”

Her resilience was tested a second time 13 years ago when her oldest child, William, took his own life at age 48 after years of battling the effects of alcoholism.

“The sadness we all felt was profound, but especially so for my mom in light of what she had experienced with my dad,” Murray related. “She has never been one to dwell on a situation, but rather is of a mind to see the reality that life moves on. She has recognized that everyone suffers some sort of tragedy
in life, but it’s how you handle it that helps define your character.”

Murray’s own strength of character began to develop as a junior at U of D High School, where he transferred after attending public schools since his childhood. It was further melded at Hillsdale, a bastion of conservative values and principles, and then at U of D Law where he took joy in helping start the Federalist Society chapter, playing goalie on the fledgling hockey team, and debating the finer points of constitutional law.

After spending the first five years of his legal career with the Keller Thoma law firm, Murray took a risk, accepting a job in the Engler administration as a deputy legal counsel to the governor.

“It was a great experience in which I touched a lot of different legal and political areas,” said Murray, whose boss was Lucille Taylor, the wife of Cliff Taylor, the former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. “I learned a lot from Lucille, whom I will always consider to be one of my mentors.”

Following two years working in Lansing, Murray returned to Keller Thoma for the next three years before he was appointed to an opening on the Wayne County Circuit Court, where he served from 2000-02 in its Family Division.

“It was a very interesting experience to suddenly be presiding over divorce cases and custody disputes since no one in our family had ever been divorced,” said Murray of the legal change of pace. “It was new, but I really enjoyed the challenge and all the lawyers were just great as I got up to speed on my docket.”

Murray particularly remembers one of his last cases on the Wayne County bench that involved a change of domicile motion.

“It was a tough decision involving one good parent attempting to move her high school age daughter across the country and away from another good parent,” he recalled. “The mother had remarried and wanted her daughter to move with them to Colorado, and in the process made some promises in an attempt to convince her to do so. That, and the fact there was a stipulation in the divorce agreement about moving out of state, made my decision to deny the motion somewhat easier, but it was still tough making those type of family decisions for others.”

And speaking of difficult, Murray’s 21-year time on the Court of Appeals included the challenges of navigating the pandemic during his four years as chief judge.

“At times, it was a very stressful four years, particularly when we had to shut down the courts and switch to remote technology,” said Murray. “In some respects, we were learning on the fly, adjusting our policies and procedures as we got accustomed to seeing what worked and what didn’t. All in all, I was very proud of how everyone pulled together to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

His time as chief judge also was punctuated by his service on the Michigan Court of Claims, which was a flash point for several hot-button cases involving the 2020 presidential election and the series of executive orders Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued during the peak of the pandemic.

“It seemed like everyone was asking for injunctive relief, which accelerates the decision-making process for judges serving on the Court of Claims,” Murray explained. “It was a pressure-packed time.”

As a release valve for some of that job pressure, Murray will turn to the water, especially the soothing array of trout streams in northern Michigan.

“Fishing has been a lifelong passion and there is nothing better than enjoying the beauty and solitude of fishing on one of the rivers up north,” said Murray, who also has relished pursuing trout and salmon in the waterways of Montana and Alaska. “In Michigan, the Pere Marquette is probably my favorite stream with the Boyne and Boardman rivers also ranking at the top. Those are among my happy places.”

As is his home in Grosse Pointe, where he shares a special love with his wife of 32 years.

“Bridgette has been a wonderful wife and mother to our three children, and she also has enjoyed an impressive career of her own in the field of education,” Murray said of the Albion College alumna who is an English teacher and Assistant Head of School at Grosse Pointe Academy. “She absolutely loves teaching, and derives a lot of joy out of helping students develop their learning skills.”


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