Mallett, Conrad Jr. 1953–
Conrad Mallett, Jr. 1953–
State Supreme Court Chief Justice
Conrad Mallett, Jr., native Detroiter and heavyweight in the Democratic Party for two decades, was elected in 1996 as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, making him the first African American ever to hold the position. Through his intelligence, decisiveness, and dedication, Mallett was unanimously selected by his peers of the seven-member court. Mallett’s humble response to a Detroit News reporter upon learning of his new position was, “I’m just honored and very, very pleased with my colleagues’ confidence in me to carry out this task.”
Conrad Mallett, Jr., was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 12, 1953. He is the son of Conrad LeRoy and Claudia Gwendolyn (Jones) Mallett. Mallett’s political leanings began at an early age on Boston Boulevard, where he and his two sisters grew up in middle class surroundings. He was actually recruited by his father to knock on doors in an effort to help re-elect Mayor Jerry Cavanagh. Mallett also carried “Ban the Bomb” and “End Racism” signs with his mother, Claudia, when he was eight-years-old and, as a teenager, held meetings in his living room to plan student walkouts at Cass Technical High School. A leader and hard worker from an early age, Mallett was a leader among his peers at Wayne State University. Mallett received his Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California in Los Angeles in 1975, going on to obtain both his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Juris Doctorate degree in law from the University of Southern California in 1979.
While studying for his bar examination, Mallett worked for United States Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit and the Democratic National Committee. He was a registered lobbyist for the Hertz Corporation and Avis Rent-A-Car, as well as a lobbyist in Lansing on behalf of the Bishop Moore Apartment Complex in Detroit and the Michigan Association for Equality in Practice of Psychology. Thereafter, Mallett continued to be actively involved in politics, serving as the legal adviser and director of legislative affairs for Governor James J. Blanchard from 1983-84. This position was the result of Mallett’s having successfully assisted Blanchard during his gubernatorial campaign.
At a Glance…
Born October 12, 1953, in Detroit, Ml; son of Conrad LeRoy and Claudia Gwendolyn (Jones); married Barbara Straughn, Dec 22, 1984; children: Mio Thomas, Alex Conrad, Kristan Claudia; Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, University of California, 1975; Master’s degree in Public Administration and Juris Doctorate degree in law, University of Southern California in 1979.
Career; State Bar of Michigan 1979; legal assistant to congressman Conyers, 1979-80; dep. pol. div. Democratic National Committee, Washington, 1980-81; associate at Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone law firm in Detroit, 1981-82; legal advisor and director of legislative affairs to Governor James J. Blanchard, State of Michigan, 1983-84; Political director and Senior Executive Assistant to Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit, 1985-86; partner in the law firm of Jaffe, Rait, Heuer & Weiss, Detroit, 1987-90; appointed Justice to the Michigan Supreme Court by Governor James J. Blanchard in December of 1990; elected to a two-year state Supreme Court term in 1992; re-elected to an eight-year state Supreme Court term in 1994; unanimously elected by peers as Chief Justice, 1997.
Member : NAACP, Kappa Alpha Psi; Democrat; Roman Catholic.
Addresses : Supreme Court Office, 500 Woodward Avenue, 20th Floor, Detroit, Michigan 48226.
Mallett and his father, Conrad Mallett, Sr. were close confidants of Mayor Coleman A. Young, with Mallett senior once heading the city transportation department, while Mallett junior served as one of Young’s major political operatives. Successful in selling an income tax increase to city voters in 1981 for Mayor Young, Mallett was approached by the Young administration to fill the executive assistant vacancy created by the death of Lester Morgan in November of 1984. Mallett resigned as Blanchard’s director of legal and governmental affairs in order to take the position as Young’s chief political adviser and liaison with community groups. He was also expected to run Young’s re-election bid in 1985, which he did with success. Mallett’s reputation for success under Blanchard and Young led Democrat Walter Mondale to tie his presidential hopes to a multimillion dollar voter registration drive coordinated by Young and Mallett, whose goal was to register at least 2 million voters. Mallett, confident in his abilities, credited himself and Young for Mondale’s increased voter registration efforts in the South.
In April of 1985 Mallett came out with the idea of volunteerism for combatting crime in Detroit, stressing the need for citizen cooperation with law enforcement officers. Mallett encouraged the participation of high school students as volunteers which served the dual purpose of recruiting volunteers while eliminating potential criminal perpetrators. Also in 1985 Mallett was named in the March issue of Ebony as one of the 30 Leaders of the Future. That same year Mallett served as the mayor’s liaison on state plans for twin 550-bed prisons in Northeast Detroit and he called the mayor’s 1985 re-election campaign the highlight of his two-year City-Council Building tenure. Mallett believed that while he helped the mayor to achieve re-election, the mayor possessed his own impressive political instincts. His high energy style helped to win him both friends and enemies during his time with mayor Young, and some people complained that he demanded too much from department heads. However, Mallett was always ready to give as much or more than he ever expected from others.
Steering away from politics and focusing his efforts on legal issues, on January 1, 1987, Mallett stepped down as Mayor Young’s chief political adviser. Mallett decided to become a partner in the Detroit law firm of Jaffe, Snider, Raitt and Heuer. He also served as the deputy director for Mayor Young’s 1989 campaign. Unexpectedly, the following year, Mallett was appointed to Michigan’s Supreme Court by exiting Governor James J. Blanchard, to succeed Dennis Archer who had resigned to enter private practice and possibly run for Mayor of Detroit. Upon news of Mallett’s surprise appointment to the Supreme Court, his credentials were widely criticized, with an emphasis on the fact that he had never been a judge and possessed little courtroom experience. Critics of the 1990 appointment also noted that Mallett had never argued a case in the state Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, and was not evaluated by the state bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee.
Governor John Engler saw Mallett’s appointment by Blanchard as a political partisan move rather than an appointment based on sound credentials and L. Brooks Patterson, former Oakland County Prosecutor, called the appointment a spiteful act by Blanchard, saying that Blanchard was penalizing those who did not re-elect him as governor. Patterson was further resentful of the appointment, thinking that it might create an exclusive black seat on the court from this point forward, since Mallett had replaced Archer, both of them black. However, the appointment did not require Senate approval and while Blanchard considered about ten other candidates, he said that he always saw Mallett at the top of the list. Henry Baskin of the state bar’s Judicial Qualifications Committee had positive things to say about Mallett, even though the appointment came as a surprise to him. Blanchard further stated in Mallett’s favor to a Detroit News reporter that, “He knows how laws are made, knows how they are interpreted, he knows what justice is, and he has good judgment.” Blanchard denied that the move was politically motivated and further noted that Justices James Brickley, Robert Griffin and Archer had no previous judicial experience when they were appointed to the Court. Additionally, certain onlookers gave Mallett the benefit of the doubt, stating that he was young, energetic and very intelligent, needing only to prove himself as a sound, responsible justice. Supporters also said that Mallett would bring sharp negotiating and analytical skills to the court.
Mallett, just prior to joining the seven-member court, told Detroit News reporters that he would “… use the proper mixture of toughness, compassion and legal expertise necessary to render just and fair judgment.” Mallett had learned politics from his parents, with several political victories of his own during his years with Governor Blanchard and Mayor Young. Additionally, Mallett was described by his friends as a ball of energy who worked long hours at the Jaffe law firm, running several miles each morning and returning to his home at the end of a workday around 9:00 p.m. Mallett, known for speaking frankly and honestly, could make others uncomfortable, as he was unafraid to tell them when they were wrong, especially if they were his friends. While Mallett stated up front that he was pro-abortion and anti-death penalty, he said that otherwise, he needed to take a look at the nuances associated with the law and facts of individual cases. Shunning labels, Mallett said that he intended to apply the law to the facts, with no set judicial philosophy. By the following year, Mallett exclaimed to a Detroit News reporter regarding his job, “I love this job! I just love it! The (Supreme) court is even more exciting and fulfilling than I ever expected…” And in view of the harsh criticism he faced upon his appointment, “I think I’ve proved so far that I deserved to be appointed. Now the task is to prove that I deserve to be elected. That’s the ultimate confirmation,” he continued.
Despite his partisan background, Mallett drew financial and political support from a wide range of groups. In June of 1992, he went up against Michael Talbot, who claimed that Mallett was too liberal for the state’s highest court. Supporters of Mallett endorsed him as progressive and pro-feminist, while Governor Engler spoke in favor of Talbot’s conservatism. Both crime and abortion became major issues of the campaign, with Mallett upholding a woman’s fundamental right to privacy, having voted to overturn the state’s Medicaid abortion bill and speaking against the death penalty.
In September of 1992, the campaign for Supreme Court justice turned somewhat bitter when the candidates made their first joint appearance together. As they struggled to control their tempers, Talbot referred to Mallett as “Blanchard’s revenge,” accusing him of having little knowledge of criminal law, while Mallett pointed out that Talbot was often reprimanded for his courtroom conduct by the Court of Appeals. Mallett, with little courtroom experience, faced Talbot, who had served on the Wayne County Circuit Court with 14 years of experience as a trial judge. Additionally, Talbot had the support of 60 of Michigan’s 83 prosecutors, including six Democrats, and the support of Governor Engler and former Democratic Lt. Governor Martha Griffiths. Mallett was joined by Chief Justice Michael F. Cavanagh in his defense of his 18-month judicial record and independent court decisions, including criminal cases. At that time the Supreme Court was currently split with three Democrats, three Republicans and one Independent, and it eventually remained the same when Mallett won the election for another two-year term, despite Talbot’s formidable position. Again in 1994, Mallett was elected to the high Court, this time for an eight-year term. Mallett had well proven his abilities and earned the public’s trust.
Not only has Mallett earned the respect and trust of the public, but of his peers as well, evidenced by his unanimous election to Chief Justice in 1997 by the seven-member court. Mallett acknowledged that he came from a partisan background. His widely admired father was a department director under mayors Coleman Young and Jerry Cavanagh before he became a university administrator and then college president. However, Mallet noted his priority, in accordance with the goal of the Supreme Court, is to rise above partisanship. As Chief Justice, Mallett is in charge of administering the $ 197 million state court system, comprising 617 judgeships and 244 courts. Mallett said that he appreciates being the first African American appointed as Chief Justice, though he does not feel unduly burdened by the position. Republican Governor John Engler congratulated Mallett on “making history,” while Victoria Roberts, president of the State Bar of Michigan, noted the significant milestone of Mallett’s achievement.
Mallet, however, remains humble, even sensitive to the relationship between lawyers and judges. In addition to being the first black Chief Justice, Mallett is just one of three African American justices in history to serve on Michigan’s Supreme Court. Mallett succeeds James Brickley who was Chief Justice when Republicans dominated the court. Now the 60th Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice, he formerly served as chief administrator of the high Court. Mallett’s esteem and regard among the public and professional world has increased considerably, clearly marking him as not only qualified to serve as a Justice of the Supreme Court, but as one of the most qualified, as recognized by his peers.
The Detroit News, Sep 16, 1984, p. IB; Dec 13, 1984, p. 4B; Apr 15,
1985, p. 3A; Nov 19,1986, p. 4B; Dec 22, 1990, pp. 1A, 8A; Dec 23,
1990, p. 1C; Jul 5,1991, p. IB; June 23, 1992, p. 4B; Sep 28, 1992, p. IB;
June 3, 1994, p. 14A; Jan 3, 1997, p. 1A; Jan 16, 1997, p. 3E.
Jet, Feb 3, 1997, v. 91, p. 34.
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