Michigan's Kethledge, a front runner for High Court, is 'no frills' judge

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau
Judge Raymond Kethledge

Washington — Friends, former clerks and co-workers describe Judge Raymond Kethledge as a humble, down-to-earth jurist whose straight-shooter sensibility reflects his roots in Michigan. 

Kethledge, who lives in Oakland County, is one of four federal appeals judges named as top contenders for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to news reports, as President Donald Trump zeroes in on his choice to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Trump said Sunday he has four finalists but hasn’t made his choice yet. 

Besides Kethledge, top contenders for the role have included federal appeals judges Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and, according to the Associated Press, Thomas Hardiman. The White House has been preparing information materials on all four, who were part of a longer list of 25 names vetted by conservative groups.

“But they’re excellent. Every one. You can’t go wrong. But I’m getting very close to making a final decision,” the president told reporters Sunday in New Jersey, where he spent the weekend. 

Trump will announce his pick at 9 p.m. Monday from the White House.

Michael Erwin, who co-wrote a book with Kethledge about leadership, said he spoke last week to Kethledge, who conveyed that he "did well" in his interview with Trump. 

"He’s very energized by the whole process. It’s just about the highest honor you can hope for in his profession," Erwin said. 

Kethledge, 51, has served on the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for 10 years.

"He is widely recognized as one of the best judges on the federal bench," said Christopher S. Yoo, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who shared an office with Kethledge when they both clerked for Kennedy. 

"He has the right combination of thoughtfulness and open-mindedness and commitment to principles that you hope for in a judge. He is the same conservative jurist that I knew 20 years ago." 

Legal experts say Kethledge interprets laws by sticking close to their text and reads the U.S. Constitution as it was understood by those who wrote it and its amendments.

In that way, he's reminiscent of Justice Neil Gorsuch — Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee and Kethledge’s fishing buddy, Yoo said. 

Kethledge is known for writing his own opinions, sometimes retreating to his office in a barn overlooking Lake Huron to think through a difficult case in solitude.  

An outdoorsman, Kethledge also goes up north to fish — steelhead trout, walleye and pike, said J.J. Snidow, who clerked for Kethledge and visited his property in northern Michigan. 

"I can fact check the description of the barn for you. It's the most rustic, bare office you've ever seen. A plain, pine desk and a wood-burning pot-belly stove," Snidow said. 

"That's also a one-sentence encapsulation of the kind of writer and judge he is: very spartan, to the point, direct, no frills. It fits his personality."

Personal history

Kethledge was born in Summit, New Jersey, in December 1966 to parents Ray and Diane.

His father worked in the auto industry, and Kethledge moved to Michigan in 1983, just before his junior year of high school.

He graduated from Birmingham Groves High School and the University of Michigan, where he studied American history. Pictures of World War II aircraft decorate the walls of his office down state and upstate, Snidow said.

Kethledge went on to UM Law School, from which he graduated in 1993. He clerked for Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. on the 6th Circuit and later Kennedy on the Supreme Court.

Rather than staying in Washington, D.C., after his clerkship, Kethledge returned to Michigan and private practice, including a stint as counsel to Ford Motor Co.

Kethledge and his wife, Jessica, were childhood sweethearts. They met at age 13 and will mark their 25th wedding anniversary this year.

The couple has two children, Ray, 20, a rising junior at the University of Michigan; and Ella, 17, who is in high school. Friends described Kethledge as a doting father.

"If he was in the car with his kids and his cellphone rings, he won’t take the call because he’s with his kids," said Cheryl A. Bush, who founded a law firm in Troy with Kethledge and another attorney in 2003. 

"Especially when you have that kind of job as a judge, or when you were a partner at a law firm, it’s a hard thing to do."

Kethledge, then 41, was among the youngest ever nominated to the federal appellate court when appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007. 

It was a surprise to some in the legal community but not anyone who worked with Kethledge, Cheryl Bush said. 

"Because he is brilliant and his writing style is approachable and direct. You read the first paragraph and want to keep reading the rest of it," she said.  

"He loved taking issues apart and looking at them from all angles, and then concisely and right to the point saying what he’s got to say." 

Bush described Kethledge as a "genuinely humble" individual who tells others in social and professional settings to call him "Ray" instead of "Judge Kethledge."

"I would not say you would find that a lot among federal appellate judges," Bush said. 

She recalled a court reporter working in the Ann Arbor federal court who recounted how Kethledge knows the first name of every court staffer and federal marshal and often asks about their kids.

Kethledge could have made a lot more money staying in the private sector but chose public service instead, said Erwin, an Army reservist who teaches each summer at West Point.

"He really views it much like I do in the military and as teachers and others who are servant leaders for the country," said Erwin, CEO of the Character and Leadership Center. 

"This is the highest form of public service that a lawyer can perform. With that, I know he's deeply honored to be considered." 

Judicial philosophy

As far back as his 2008 confirmation hearing, Kethledge expressed disdain for judges who impose their policy views or opinions, rather than interpreting laws by closely examining their text.

At the hearing, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, asked whether Kethledge viewed the Constitution as a "living document" or as a strict constructionist. Kethledge declined to label himself. 

"What I would say is that, obviously, first and foremost I would follow Supreme Court precedent. I would make sure that the values that I would be enforcing if I were a judge are not just my values, that I am not striking something down simply because I don't like it," Kethledge said. 

"That is a counter-majoritarian aspect of our system of government. I would start with the text."

Another senator inquired about any bad debts, late payments, overdue taxes or tickets. 

Kethledge replied that he was not aware of any issues except "a few speeding tickets a long time ago." 

Critics such as New York U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who leads the Senate Democrats, are already targeting Kethledge. 

In a series of tweets Thursday, Schumer noted that Kethledge worked as counsel for then-U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, an Auburn Hills Republican, when the Michigan senator was pushing for a federal ban on partial-birth abortion as a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“Anything he would have done for me would not have been in his own capacity. He might have been on my staff, but I was the policy maker. They were not,” Abraham said of Kethledge.

Abraham, an attorney, stressed that Kethledge is a conservative "who believes in upholding the rule of law."

"But he’s also somebody who writes his own opinions from scratch and is very contemplative in doing so. He's not going to be influenced by others," Abraham added.  

Schumer also said Kethledge has “repeatedly sided against workers in cases dealing with the right to organize, fair wages, age discrimination and sexual harassment.”

Schumer also raised a 2016 dissent by Kethledge in a case brought by victims of the Flint water crisis against the civil engineering firms responsible for upgrading Flint's municipal water system.

The issue before the court in Mason v. Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam was whether the class action belonged in state or federal court. 

Kethledge said the federal courts had jurisdiction. In doing so, Schumer said he “sided with the corporations who contributed to the crisis rather than standing up for those who suffered as a result.”

Democrats may sour on Kethledge as a critic of what's known as the Chevron doctrine, worrying (as they did with Gorsuch) that he might seek to eliminate or weaken it on the court. 

Chevron is named after a 1984 decision and calls on courts to defer to reasonable interpretations of a statute by an administrative agency on issues where Congress has been silent or ambiguous.

Federal agencies have relied on the doctrine to fight challenges to environmental and other regulations. Some Republicans have sought to curb its use. 

In December, Kethledge gave a speech at UM Law School in which he said Chevron has led to "sloppy work" as well as reduced accountability at some agencies.

"There is no getting around the fact that Chevron deference has created a palpable sense of entitlement among executive agencies, particularly when they show up in court," Kethledge said. 

"At times, it seems that some lawyers in agency cases (though not all) regard their task as not so much to persuade us as to put us in our place."

On a lighter note, Kethledge is not without a sense of humor. In the same speech, he recalled showing up for a law school presentation in the same auditorium in a T-shirt and jeans. In that moment, he said he felt like Bill Murray in the comedy "Caddyshack."

"Well, I'm wearing a suit today, and I've written some opinions in the meantime, so I hope I can make amends now," Kethledge said. 


The Associated Press contributed