At 90 years of age, Judge Cornelia Kennedy died on May 12, 2014, in Grosse Pointe Woods, MI. The judge was a pioneer. She must not be forgotten.
Elaine Mittleman, a federal criminal defense lawyer with a national practice, is good friend of this blog. She is also a very proud graduate of the University of Michigan law school. Judge Kennedy graduated from that law school too.
What is fascinating to me is that Elaine began chronicling the judicial life of Judge Kennedy when Mittleman was a law student. In the October 15, 1979 issue of Res Gestae, the University of Michigan Law School Student Weekly, Elaine wrote a long piece about Judge Kennedy, her many accomplishments, the fact that the judge was viewed as a judicial conservative, that President Carter nominated her to the Sixth Circuit, and that the judge’s confirmation hearing was prolonged as liberal groups commenced a “formal investigation” into the judge’s work as a federal district judge and her suitability to serve as an appellate judge.
This long ago article is worthy of preservation for historical purposes, particularly as it chronicles the inception of the transformation of the judicial confirmation process from an inquiry into legal competence into an inquiry dominated by blatant political considerations. You can read the remarkable article here: Res Gestae Michigan Law School 10.15.79. Many thanks to Elaine for permission to reprint the article and for her suggestion that Judge Kennedy’s passing deserved attention by the blog.
Here are just a few of the highlights of the life and times of Judge Kennedy:*
- Cornelia Groefsema was born to Elmer and Mary Groefsema on August 4, 1923, in Detroit. Her father was an accomplished lawyer in Detroit, and her mother later became a law student at the University of Michigan Law School. When Cornelia was just nine, her mother, then a second-year law student, died prematurely. Elmer Groefsema then raised his daughters himself, and he “instilled in them a deep love of the law.” One might honestly say that Judge Kennedy was born a lawyer.
- Upon graduating at the top of her class from the University of Michigan Law School, Kennedy served as a law clerk for the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was the first woman to serve as a law clerk at that prestigious court. (Kennedy’s sister Margaret was the first woman to serve as a law clerk on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.)
- The judge was a real lawyer, practicing her craft for 18 years. She was then elected to the state bench, only the third woman elected to a court of general jurisdiction in the state of Michigan.
- Just four years later President Nixon appointed Judge Kennedy to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
- In 1977, after serving as a district court judge for seven years, Judge Kennedy became chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan. She was the first woman to become a chief judge of a United States District Court.
- During her tenure as a state circuit court judge and federal district court judge, Judge Kennedy was the director of the Detroit Bar Association, a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States, and chairperson of the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges—and she was the first woman to hold every one of those positions.
- President Carter nominated Judge Kennedy to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 1979. During her confirmation hearings, Senator Orrin Hatch commented, “by damn you have a lot of qualifications[.]”
- While on the Sixth Circuit, she also served on the Judicial Conference’s Advisory Committee on Codes of Conduct, the Board of Directors of the Federal Judicial Center, the Supreme Court Fellows Commission, and as a founding member of the National Association of Woman Judges. In 1985, President Reagan appointed Judge Kennedy to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, where she served for seven years. After 13 years on the Court of Appeals, Judge Kennedy presided over the first all-female, three-judge panel to sit as an appellate court in the circuit.
- Judge Kennedy’s service to the Sixth Circuit spanned a long period time. Nominated by Jimmy Carter on April 9, 1979, to a new seat authorized by 92 Stat. 1629, the judge was confirmed by the Senate on September 25, 1979, and received her commission on September 26, 1979. She assumed senior status on March 1, 1999 and remained so until she retired in 2012.
- in 2011, the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary compared her to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. “‘Word in Cincinnati [the home of the Sixth Circuit] is that she is one, tough, demanding and principled jurist’ who is universally admired and respected by her colleagues even when they disagree with her. ‘Her attitude and values permit no gray areas, and they are too keenly developed to be reshaped by the political process.'”
- In 1981, Judge Kennedy was one of just two judges seriously considered to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court caused bythe resignation of Justice Potter Stewart. The spot ultimately went to Sandra Day O’Connor, who later wrote of Judge Kennedy:
She has been a shining example to women across the land in every area. Her work on the bench has been marked by excellent analysis overlaid by common sense. Her volunteer service has spanned every aspect of legal service. She has been a wife and a mother, and a friend and mentor to countless young lawyers, both male and female. She has been a most impressive model for me for a very long time. She is deserving of the highest tribute for her splendid service on the bench for more than 30 years.
(Personal letter to Derek J. Sarafa and quoted in Michigan Lawyers in History–Judge Cornelia G. Kennedy: First Lady of the Michigan Judiciary. Link provided below.)
In sum, there is no doubt that Cornelia Groefsema Kennedy was a pioneering judge of the highest caliber. We should not forget her.
*Much of this information is derived from a wonderful article written by Derek J. Sarafa, Michigan Lawyers in History–Judge Cornelia G. Kennedy: First Lady of the Michigan Judiciary, published by the Michigan Bar Journal.