Judge Karen Fort Hood, known for career of firsts, dies at 68

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Judge Karen Fort Hood was a trailblazer with impressive firsts on her resume, said Michigan Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, but "what was first in her mind was being fair and impartial."

Hood, the first Black woman elected to the state Court of Appeals and later the first Black woman to chair the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, died Sunday night, according to the Appeals Court's chief judge, Christopher Murray.

"It is difficult to imagine this world — and our court — without Karen’s laugh, smile, and warm heart," Murray said. "Judge Hood was, quite simply, a wonderful colleague and true professional who will be greatly missed by all here at the Court of Appeals."

Judge Karen Fort Hood

Hood was 68. Details of her death were not immediately available.

Hood was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2002 and had overseen the Judicial Tenure Commission since December. She had been the Appeals Court's representative on the commission, which investigates complaints of ethics violations and judicial misconduct involving judges, since 2017.

A Detroit native, Hood was a Detroit Public Schools teacher and a probation officer before becoming an attorney. She obtained her law degree in 1989 from the Detroit College of Law after earning an undergraduate degree at Regents College of the University of the State of New York at Albany.

"Some lawyers are lawyer's lawyers, and she was in that group," said Birmingham attorney Henry Baskin, one of her predecessors as tenure commission chair.

As a judge, Baskin told The Detroit News, "she was the kind of person you enjoy spending a couple of days with at trial, even if you lose."

Before becoming a judge, Hood practiced in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. She won her first judgeship in Recorder's Court in 1992, then became a county Circuit Court judge in 1997 and presiding judge over that court's criminal division in 1999.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Hood "treated each of the parties and litigants who came before her with respect and dignity, and I will always remember her kindness and compassion from my own experiences appearing before her countless times."

Judge Hood spent her career shattering racial barriers. Her impact, and this loss, is felt well beyond the bench," Nessel said.

McCormack said Hood "brought to the appellate bench the knowledge and experience of a prosecutor and criminal court judge, but gave us so much more — a profound understanding of what ‘justice for all’ means and how to achieve it as both a judge and a community leader.

"My sincere condolences to her family. Michigan has lost a trailblazer who made a difference for so many.”

Hood told The News in 1999 that her experience as a teacher at Denby High in Detroit prompted her career change.

"The classes were so large but I never felt tremendously affected because there was so much disciplining and so many obstacles to actually being a teacher that I decided to go to law school," she said. "I love the whole criminal justice setting."

Despite her disillusionment with the classroom, she advocated greater educational opportunities as a crime prevention tool.

"We are putting our money at the back end of these young people's lives," she said. "We are investing in prisons, privatizing prisons and making money off of our young people and off of people, period. What should be happening is putting much, much more money into prevention and education.

"Most of the people warehoused in these prisons are under-educated ... and unskilled. We need to start early on — almost from the womb — from preschool days to teach and educate these young people."

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn