Cornelia G. Kennedy Papers

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Cornelia G. Kennedy papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Cornelia G. Kennedy manuscript collection held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Cornelia G. Kennedy, “First Lady of the Michigan Judiciary,” was the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Michigan and the first woman to become a chief judge for a United States District Court. Judge Kennedy was nominated to U.S. District Court in 1970 and to U.S. Circuit Court (Federal Appeals Court) in 1979. Although never actually nominated to the Supreme Court, she was mentioned in connection with vacancies there during the administrations of three different U.S. Presidents. This online collection includes biographical materials, photographs, sound recordings, and transcripts created as part of an oral history of Justice Kennedy conducted by Allyson A. Miller as part of the Women Trailblazers in Law Project in 2012.

Cornelia Groefsema Kennedy, the third of four sisters, was born on August 4, 1923 to Elmer and Mary Groefsema. The whole family had strong ties to the University of Michigan as well as an interest in the legal profession. Elmer Groefsema, was a 1917 graduate of the UM Law School who became a distinguished trial lawyer in Detroit. Cornelia’s mother had also attended the UM Law School; however, Mary’s attendance at law school was interrupted by her untimely death when Cornelia was nine years old.

The three Groefsema sisters to survive infancy all graduated from Redford High School in Detroit and remained close throughout their lives. The youngest sister, Christine Groefsema Gram, earned her Ph.D. in economics; she became a professor at, then president of, Oakland Community College, Auburn Hills campus.

Both Cornelia and her older sister, Margaret, studied law and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. Cornelia and Margaret practiced law with their father in Detroit until his death in 1952. Both Cornelia and Margaret later became judges, Margaret Groefsema Schaeffer in Michigan’s 47th Judicial District Court.

Kennedy graduated from law school in 1947 then served as a law clerk for the Honorable Harold M. Stephens, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was one of the first women to serve as a law clerk in that court and considered it a prestigious appointment. In 1948, she returned to Detroit where she practiced law for 18 years.

By 1965, she was a wife and mother as well as a partner in the private law firm Markle and Markle. Encouraged by her husband, Detroit advertising executive Charles S. Kennedy, Jr., she ran for judge in the Third Judicial Circuit of Michigan (i.e., Wayne County Circuit Court, which includes the City of Detroit). Although she lost that election, she ran again successfully the following year. She was elected a Wayne County Circuit Court judge in December of 1966 for the term beginning January 1967.

In September 1970, as the women’s movement was enjoying political support throughout much of the nation, President Richard M. Nixon nominated Judge Kennedy to United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan where she also chaired the Bankruptcy Committee for a time. When confirmed by the Senate on October 6, 1970, she became the first woman to be appointed to the federal bench in Michigan, for which she has been called the “First Lady of the Michigan Judiciary.”

In spite of heavy workloads in her district court as elsewhere in the federal court system, Kennedy was well-regarded by judicial system administrators in Washington, D.C. as well as by her fellow federal judges. In 1977, she became the first woman to become a chief judge for a U.S. District Court. Kennedy’s strength in correspondence with colleagues, prior courtroom and rules committee experience, and perspective as a woman uniquely qualified her for a role both in the development of ethical standards for federal judges and in the improvement of operational procedure in federal courts.

In November 1973, Chief Justice Warren Burger appointed Kennedy to the Judicial Conference of the United States committee known originally as the Advisory Committee on Judicial Activities. This appointment acknowledged her prior experience and marked the beginning of her many future years of service to the federal courts in judicial conferences and councils dedicated to improving judicial practice.

In the spring of 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated Judge Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to fill one of the many new judgeships created by Congress the previous year to ease overwhelming backlogs of cases throughout the court system. The Detroit News reported Kennedy’s nomination on March 14, 1979.

However, in spite of her ‘well-qualified’ rating by American Bar Association (ABA) standards, and much public support, her confirmation was opposed by groups including the NAACP, the Wolverine Bar Association, and others who questioned Kennedy’s record on civil rights issues during lengthy hearings throughout the summer.

Judge Kennedy was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on September 25, 1979 and received her commission as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the Sixth Circuit the next day. According to newspaper accounts, both of Michigan’s senators had been absent for the vote as Kennedy became the second woman judge in the 6th Circuit Court’s history. (Florence E. Allen, the first woman judge in the 6th Circuit, had been nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934). Some of the editorials published at the time of Kennedy’s confirmation complained that her nomination had been appraised on political rather than judicial grounds.

Over Kennedy’s more than thirty years as a judge in federal appeals court she became an expert in appellate advocacy, also traveling frequently to attend Moot Court sessions at law schools and speaking engagements on the topic at professional meetings. Judge Kennedy assumed federal senior judge status in 1999, continuing to serve as a visiting judge until her retirement from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012.

During her pioneering career on the federal bench Kennedy achieved some notable ‘almost firsts’ as well as many ‘firsts.’ Her name had been put forth in the news media as a possible first woman nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first such occasion came in the fall of 1971, at a time when accomplished women were enjoying improved opportunities for career advancement to positions formerly held only by men.

However, in spite of growing political support for an Equal Rights Amendment (which passed both houses of Congress in 1972), perhaps the nation was not yet ready to accept a woman on the Supreme Court. President Nixon’s two nominees who joined the Court in that era were Harry Blackmun (1970) and Lewis Powell, Jr. (1972). When the next Supreme Court vacancy occurred, President Gerald Ford was also urged by many to nominate a woman but declined, instead choosing John Paul Stevens (1975).

By 1981, a decade had passed since the public first became aware of Kennedy’s eligibility to be the first woman justice. That year, Kennedy was one of two women nominees under final consideration by President Ronald Reagan for the Supreme Court vacancy created by the resignation of Justice Potter Stewart.

In nominating Sandra Day O’Connor, President Reagan finally achieved the objective of nominating the first woman Supreme Court justice. However, for Judge Kennedy, his choice represented personal disappointment for a third time. With characteristic grace when the announcement was made, Judge Kennedy congratulated the new justice, thanked her own many supporters, then resumed her busy work schedule.

In addition to her court caseload, Kennedy continued to serve the legal profession through its bar associations and law schools and the judiciary through its many committees, conferences, and councils. She served on the Board of the Federal Judicial Center from 1981 to 1985, and as a Supreme Court Fellow from 1982 for more than a decade. In 1985, she was appointed by President Reagan to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, serving there for six years.

Kennedy’s years as an active federal judge coincided for the most part with the terms of two Supreme Court Chief Justices: Warren E. Burger, 1969-1986, and William H. Rehnquist, 1986-2005. Although considered ‘too conservative’ by some of her critics, she reportedly held herself to a high standard of impartiality, ‘bound by the law’ rather than influenced by political trends or popular opinion. Her admirers considered her to be well-prepared, fair-minded, and consistently successful at maintaining public trust, and sometimes admiration, in her courtroom.

Judge Kennedy assumed senior federal judge status in 1999 and continued to share the workload of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals until her retirement from the court in 2012. As reflected in an abundance of continuing correspondence, she was remembered fondly by her law clerks as well as by her colleagues on the bench. Judge Kennedy died on May 12, 2014 in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan.

The University of Michigan honored Kennedy with a Distinguished Alumni Service Award and Sesquicentennial Award in 1967. She received Honorary LL.D. degrees from Northern Michigan University (1970), Eastern Michigan University (1971), Western Michigan University (1973), the Detroit College of Law (1980), and the University of Detroit (1987).

In addition to the State Bar of Michigan and Detroit Bar Association, Kennedy was an active member of the ABA’s Judicial Administration Division and a fellow of the American Bar Foundation. She was a founding member of the ABA’s National Conference of Federal Trial Judges and the National Association of Women Judges.

Although never herself a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, she has been credited with being the first to support omitting any reference to gender or marital status in addressing members of the high court. (By tradition to date, the U.S. President has been addressed as ‘Mr. President’). When acting as a Supreme Court Justice during a university law school moot court session early in her federal career, Kennedy stated her preference to be addressed simply as ‘Justice,’ rather than ‘Mrs. Justice,’ and the practice became an accepted one for actual Supreme Court justices as well.

In 1971, the Women’s Economic Club of Detroit had recognized Kennedy’s ground-breaking career role as a federal judge with its “Women Who Work” award. In 2000, she received the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame Life Achievement Award. Her portrait as a federal judge was dedicated in 2002.

Judge Cornelia Groefsema Kennedy died on May 12, 2014 in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. She was 90 years old.

Please note:

Copyright is held by the Women Trailblazers in Law Project.

Access to digitized sound recordings may be limited to the reading room of the Bentley Historical Library, located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

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