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Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly Talks Effective Advocacy, Juvenile Justice with StudentsMichigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly Talks Effective Advocacy, Juvenile Justice with Students

By Jenny Whalen
April 24, 2015

A good lawyer is one who is able to use the details of a case to secure a favorable ruling. A great lawyer is one who has the ability to look beyond a single case and envision future application of the rule for which he or she is arguing.

"Effective advocacy is that which recognizes the big picture," Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mary Beth Kelly told students during an April 21 visit to Michigan Law. "Ineffective advocacy is one that wants to talk about the minutiae. At the Michigan Supreme Court, we want to talk about legal principles. We care about the big picture."

If a case appears before the Michigan Supreme Court, it is because the court has judged the issue in that case to have statewide importance, Kelly said. That issue, she added, goes beyond any individual case. "As justices, we must consider how your case impacts the legal landscape. How will the legal principles in this opinion shape the next 200 cases?"

The justice, who spoke at a lunch talk sponsored by the Federalist Society, encouraged students to always consider the lasting impact of their arguments and, as young lawyers, come prepared to answer questions to that effect from the bench.

Kelly also spoke at length about her own work on juvenile justice issues, first as a judge on the Wayne County Circuit Court and now as a Supreme Court justice and chair of the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

"My perspective on juvenile justice was shaped by years on the Wayne County Circuit Court in the Family Division," Kelly said. "I contend that the law should reflect the reality of adolescent brain development and other signs of legal responsibility."

It was this belief that Kelly said led her to pen a dissenting opinion in People v. Carp (2014), which would have applied retroactively the constitutional requirement that juvenile defenders must receive an individualized sentencing determination that considers the offender's youth, personal characteristics, and circumstances of the crime before being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Young people should be judged as young people, not as adults," she added.

Though of primary importance in her current administrative responsibilities, juvenile justice was not always an area of focus in Kelly's career. It is for this reason that Kelly advises law students to keep an open-mind in respect to their profession.

"You must be open to different opportunities in the law," Kelly said. "Decisions became apparent to you when your life changes directions and sometimes decisions are forced upon you. You have to be open to change. The legal profession offers many tremendous career paths and keeping yourself available to opportunity is the best way to explore them. You will find your niche."

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