Judging with Clinical Attitude

Justice Bridget McCormack '91 of the Michigan Supreme Court hopes to make courts function efficiently for the people they serve.

As a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Bridget McCormack ’91 contends with the state’s most complicated legal problems. Since joining the court in January 2013, McCormack has considered cases on matters including employment law, sentencing guidelines, and parental custody. As she grapples with these and other issues, McCormack still draws on lessons she learned as a student in NYU Law’s clinics.  

Bridget McCormack ’91As the only lawyer in her immediate family—or even among her 51 first cousins—McCormack credits her godmother, Lisa Blitman, who worked for Legal Aid in New York, with inspiring her choice of career. “I would go into the city to visit with her, and go to work with her, and it had a really lasting impact on me, ” McCormack, who grew up in central New Jersey, says.  

McCormack pursued her interest in public service as a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar at NYU Law. She was particularly drawn to clinical work, and names Randy Hertz, vice dean and professor of clinical law, and Martin Guggenheim ’71, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law, as among her chief mentors. 

“She was a truly exceptional clinic student,” says Hertz. “She worked on more cases than any other student because she kept volunteering for more. And the work she did on each case was flawless.”

Guggenheim’s seminar on Child, Parent, and the State held particular resonance for McCormack when the case In Re Sanders came before the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014. McCormack authored the majority opinion, which held as unconstitutional a long-term practice of taking away parental rights from a parent when the other parent was judged unfit. “I still remember very acutely the constitutional lessons I learned in [Guggenheim’s] class,” says McCormack. “In Sanders, I felt that our court made an important decision that affects parents throughout the state, and that grew directly out of my time at NYU.” 

Following law school, McCormack worked first as a staff attorney with New York’s Office of the Appellate Defender, then as a senior trial attorney with the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society, before transitioning into academia. After serving as a Cover Fellow at Yale Law School, where she taught clinical law, McCormack moved to Michigan Law School in 1998, where she founded nine clinics including the Michigan Innocence Clinic, the first non-DNA innocence project in the country. She eventually became associate dean for clinical affairs. 

Her experience in academic administration, McCormack says, helped prepare her for the administrative nature of her role on the Michigan Supreme Court. “It’s always fascinating to me how much you can get done on that administrative docket—you really can make our courts function more efficiently for the people they serve. I happen to like that part quite a bit,” she says.

It was that desire to help the courts better serve the people that inspired McCormack to run for a seat in 2012—a decision, she says, that she might not have made had she understood what running for state election entails. One high note of the campaign—which was the most expensive state judgeship race in the nation that year—was the assistance of her sister, actress Mary McCormack, who gathered former cast-mates from The West Wing to act in atelevision spot that served both as a public service announcement about voting in judicial elections and as an endorsement.

McCormack is still getting used to being a public figure (“I was not a politician before I landed on this court, and I don’t want to be one,” she says), but she whole-heartedly enjoys her work as a justice—particularly the multi-member nature of the court. “I’m actually proud that the court has achieved a very noticeable level of collegiality,” says McCormack. “We’ve had more unanimous opinions in the last couple years than ever in the court’s history, and we’ve had no cases divide along traditionally partisan lines.”

“Being on a Supreme Court is being a member of a committee. You need to be somebody who can work well with others who may come from very different places—and to learn how to persuade them to your perspective,” Guggenheim says. “Bridget is perfectly well suited to accomplish that. She’s just someone you want to work with because she’s going to make you better.” 

Posted January 5, 2016