Former Wayne Co., appeals jurist Maureen Reilly 'exuded class'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
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Maureen Pulte Reilly spent nearly a decade on the state appellate court after serving on the Wayne County Circuit Court.

Long before tackling cases as an attorney or ruling from the bench, Maureen Pulte Reilly was committed to forging a fruitful path through the law.

“She wanted to do things that were helpful to the larger society and make a contribution to her community,” said her daughter, Kathleen Reilly.

Mrs. Reilly, a former Wayne County Circuit jurist and state appellate judge, died Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, at Tidewell Hospice in Venice, Florida, after a series of strokes, her family said. She was 84.

Throughout her long legal career, the Michigan native left a mark.

As an attorney with the city of Detroit’s Law Department, she helped draft a zoning ordinance restricting the location of adult movie theaters in the city — a measure Mrs. Reilly successfully defended before the United States Supreme Court in 1976, according to a resolution that state lawmakers approved upon her retirement in 1998.

“That case … has become a landmark case on First Amendment rights,” the piece read.

While on the Wayne County Circuit Court, she ordered Detroit Public Schools officials and striking teachers to review the district’s finances and return to the bargaining table, leading to a settlement of the 1987 teachers’ strike, relatives said.

“She just wanted everyone to stay until they came up with something,” her daughter said. “I remember her saying everyone there moved forward, and she felt good about that.”

While on the Michigan Court of Appeals, notable cases included hearing arguments in a dispute over whether General Motors' acceptance of $13.5 million in tax breaks in the 1980s amounted to a promise to operate the Willow Run plant.  In the 1990s, she wrote a unanimous decision in a high-profile sexual assault case involving a Southfield security firm and was on a panel that upheld a second-degree murder conviction for a Warren man in the boating death of a St. Clair County sheriff's deputy, Detroit News archives show.

Mrs. Reilly's jurisprudence stood out with her even-mannered approach.

“She was just a judge’s judge,” said colleague Maura Corrigan, a retired Michigan Supreme Court justice who served on the court at the same time as Mrs. Reilly in the 1990s. “She was dignified. She never lost her cool. She exuded class.”

Early on, she positioned herself for life in the legal field.

Born in Ann Arbor in 1934, Maureen Pulte lived in Grosse Pointe Park and attended Detroit’s Dominican High School, where she once portrayed Portia, the heiress who disguises herself as a legal apprentice, in the Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice.”

A famous line the character recites referencing the “quality of mercy” was a favorite, Kathleen Reilly said. “She could recite it into her very old age.”

While attending the University of Detroit law school, she met James Reilly. They wed shortly after graduating in 1958 and relocated to New York City, where she worked at the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison firm. The couple later divorced.  

Mrs. Reilly joined Detroit’s Law Department in 1971. Then-Gov. William Milliken later appointed her to the city’s Common Pleas Court and the Wayne County Circuit Court, where she won two election bids, relatives said.

In 1988, Mrs. Reilly was elected to the state appellate court.

Among the few female jurists at the time, she imparted her wisdom to others, Corrigan said. “She was incredibly generous in giving of her time and insights. Maureen was excellent not only at the art of judging but helping others to become good judges.”

Her character informed daily interactions.

“She was ethical to a fault,” said her son, Chris Reilly, who also became an attorney. “She said as a lawyer, as a judge, all you have is your reputation.”

Mrs. Reilly long was active in professional groups, including the Michigan Judges Association, which she led as president,  and the Incorporated Society of Irish American Lawyers, lawmakers noted. She also served on boards for the Michigan Women’s Foundation and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, relatives said.

Honors included the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Alumni Association “Time and Talent” award.

When receiving accolades, Mrs. Reilly often had an unexpected response, her son said: “She was most proud of being a mom.”

Outside work, Mrs. Reilly was a talented seamstress who could sew her own suits and other items. “It was professional-level quality sewing,” her daughter said. “She was amazing.”

She also enjoyed golf and had previously played softball with associates, Chris Reilly said. "It was so great to see her out with the gloves."

After her second husband, William Sheahan, died in 2008, Mrs. Reilly relocated to a senior living community in Florida, where she acted in skits and joined many activities, her daughter said.

“She was known for her joke telling,” she said. “Everyone just loved her because she was warm and kind.”

Besides her children, other survivors include another son, William; three stepchildren, Daniel Sheahan, Tom Sheahan and Maureen Gillhouse; a granddaughter; seven step-grandchildren; and brothers Patrick, Michael and Robert Pulte. 

In addition to her husband, she was predeceased by two brothers, William and Timothy.

A memorial service is scheduled for noon April 6 at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church, 157 Lake Shore Road, Grosse Pointe Farms 

Memorials may be made to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit. 

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