November 19, 2012 at 1:00 am

Passion for social justice leads Bridget McCormack to Michigan Supreme Court

McCormack rises from humble roots, faces conservative majority on panel

Bridget McCormack is leaving U-M for the high court after a campaign that used videos featuring “West Wing” actors. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Bridget McCormack was in middle school when she came home to find a stranger in the house. A woman who was beaten and bruised from domestic violence was sleeping on the family couch.

"My mother had some shelter she was a volunteer in and took her in to live with us for some period of time," McCormack recalled in a recent interview. "Back then, I don't remember the words 'domestic violence' exactly, but we knew this woman wasn't safe to go home, and she was going to live with us."

McCormack saidthe experience opened her young eyes to the importance of social justice and fairness.

"That story had a powerful effect on me, and I (realized) my mother was someone who was committed to … figuring out how to give back and improveyour community."

That experience helped shape McCormack, 46, who will be sworn to the Michigan Supreme Court on Jan. 1 after winning in one of the most bitter and costly Supreme Court races in memory. McCormack was nominated for the nonpartisan eight-year position by the state Democratic Party.

GOP-backed Justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra were re-elected to the court, maintaining the 4-3 conservative majority on the bench.

Michigan's Supreme Court race was the most expensive in the nation this year at an estimated $10 million, marked by mudslinging and accusations by Republicans and Democrats anxious to have their interests represented on the state's highest court. Supreme Court justices in recent years have rendered decisions on stem cell research, affirmative action and other divisive and important issues.

The Michigan Republican Party battled McCormack, the dean of clinical affairs at the University of Michigan Law School, accusing her of defending a terrorist while supervising students at U-M. She denied the charge, saying a defense was never mounted because the defendant was extradited and never tried in the United States.

With McCormack poised to join the state's highest court, the atmosphere has become conciliatory.

"I'd like to give her a chance. She's a very smart professor," said Stu Sandler, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman who campaigned against McCormack. "I disagree with (McCormack's view on) what rights enemy combatants should receive, but it was just a disagreement."

McCormack said her interest in social justice comes from her mother and godmother, New York City attorney Lisa Blitman, who worked in legal aid for many years and continues to serve the poor as a solo practitioner.

The future justice "was always very charming, very smart, interested in the world and fun," Blitman said, noting McCormack spent a day in court with her godmother when she was in high school. "Even as a child she had an interest in the outside world and public issues.

"She has a very strong sense of fairness, and she has an excellent sense of humor, which I think is helpful."

'Always the brains'

McCormack was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the New York City bedroom community of Plainfield, N.J. Her father owned a number of small businesses while her mother became a social worker when her three children, Bridget, Mary and Will, were nearly grown, and then worked as a counselor.

Plainfield is "a small community that suffered economically at the end of the '60s and early '70s," said McCormack, who attended Catholic grade school and private high school.

"Like Newark, there were race riots, and the downtown was kind of decimated," McCormack said of the civil disturbances in 1967 that were followed by massive white flight, similar to what happened in Detroit. "We were definitely middle class, not upper middle class."

Her actress sister, Mary McCormack, 43, is the star of USA Network's "In Plain Sight" and a former cast member on "The West Wing." It was Mary McCormack who convinced the "West Wing" cast to reunite and produce two campaign videos on her sister's race that caught the attention of the Washington Post and other national media. Both reminded voters to mark the nonpartisan races on the ballot, but only one mentioned Bridget McCormack's campaign for the court.

Bridget McCormack was a stereotypical "oldest child" who studied hard, never got in trouble and baby-sat a lot, her sister said.

"She was always the brains of the operation. She was brainy and pretty but always so sensible," Mary McCormack said. "She started the calculus club in high school — which only had, like, four members, because who likes that?

"She had a file cabinet, and she'd cut articles from the paper and put them in it. She'd file them under issues, like 'The President,' or 'The Arms Race,' or 'Social Justice.'"

McCormack attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., on a scholarship and earned her law degree at New York University Law School.

She started her career as a legal aid attorney in New York City.

Preparing for new career

After five years, McCormack accepted a teaching fellowship at Yale Law School, followed by her job at University of Michigan.

In Ann Arbor, McCormack met her second husband, Steven Croley, the Harry Burns Hutchins professor of law at U-M Law School. Each had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old — children who all are now in public middle school in Ann Arbor.

Croley works in Washington, D.C., as deputy White House counsel and deputy assistant to President Barack Obama, and comes home on weekends. He will resume his position in Ann Arbor in January.

McCormack bears the brunt of the parenting duties for now, she said.

"They're all teenagers (so) I live in a middle-school locker room, pretty much," McCormack said. "My house smells like smelly socks."

Looking ahead to her term on the court — where she'll earn $164,610 a year — McCormack said she's interested in many areas of law and she cares deeply about ensuring equal access to justice for all citizens. She would like to work on streamlining the court system to make it more efficient.

In her office in South Hall on the University of Michigan campus last week, McCormack prepared for a new career.

"It's actually quite melancholy being here this last week because I will have to resign," she said.

"I've been here almost 15 years and that's a really long time to spend in one job, and it's a pretty amazing job. There's definitely some sadness."

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