Oakland County Corporation Counsel Judy Cunningham has been named the new president of the Oakland County Bar Association, becoming the first public servant to hold that position in the organization’s history. A Waterford native, she attended what was then known as Waterford High School before getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Central Michigan University. She taught “radical feminist literature” before attending the Detroit College of Law. She has worked for the county full-time for almost 30 years. She has a daughter who currently teaches Spanish at Waterford Kettering High School, a son who is a lawyer in Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Potts’ chambers, and a grand-daughter.
You have been with the Oakland County government for more than 25 years. Please tell us a bit about your job as the county’s corporation counsel. What types of cases and issues do you typically handle? Please share with us some of your most memorable cases.
JC: It’s almost 30 years. This fall, it will be 30 years full-time, and I was part-time before that when I was in law school. As the county’s corporation counsel, I manage and direct the operations of our civil legal department, and we represent all the county elected officials, all the county offices, committees, agencies, boards, authorities, councils, etc. in regard to their civil matters… For example, we have a few attorneys that work on contracts from the Information Technology Department. I have two full-time litigators on my staff. We do almost all of our litigation in house to contain costs rather than sending it out to private law firms. We handle the county’s real estate legal matters. We do issues for the airports – out at (the Oakland County International Airport), as well as our two other smaller airports. We do full range of civil law issues, all the municipal law issues for the county.
I sort of gravitated to (law). I worked for the Circuit Court as a part-time clerk when I was in law school. And when I was finished law school, I was offered the job of the deputy court administrator. So I worked with the court as the deputy court administrator for a few years. Then I became the court administrator, and then in the November of 1999 I came to work in Corporation Counsel at the invitation of County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. So I started out in the Circuit Court and then moved toward the Corporation Counsel 12 and a half years ago.
We’ve had some very memorable ones. We have sued Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants, in federal court in downtown Detroit. And the judge assigned to the case, the Honorable Victoria Roberts, granted our motion for summary judgment back in March. We have a considerable claim against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for their failure to pay (the) transfer tax on deeds and other property conveyance documents that were filed and recorded, I should say, with our Register of Deeds. So that is one of the cases we have going now. And no doubt the mortgage giants who are under a conservator will be appealing, or they are in the process of appealing. But we won the first round, and that is very significant for us.
We had a contract case with our insurance provider a few years ago. We prevailed on that one. Generally the county is not the plaintiff in litigation. Generally the county is defending cases. But I am proud to say that our defense efforts generally result in no payment of money on the part of the county. And we get cases dismissed on motions or dismissals or other non-trial legal proceedings.
You were recently named the head of the Oakland County Bar Association. Please explain for our readers what the Oakland County Bar Association does and what your duties will be as the head of that organization. How did it feel to become the OCBA’s 80th president and the first public official to serve as one? What type of initiatives do you hope to lead as its president?
JC: My term starts July 1. I have been on the bar of the Oakland County Bar Association since 2004, and I have been active in our bar since 1982 or 1983. I guess it was 1983 when I became a lawyer. I will become president for a one-year term July 1, and I’m very excited about this new activity in my life.
Our Oakland County Bar Association is the largest voluntary bar association in Michigan. All Michigan lawyers, to practice, have to be members of the State Bar of Michigan, and you have to pay your dues and all that. But the county bars — the local bars — are voluntary. Ours is the largest voluntary bar, and we do continuing legal education projects, seminars, we do collaborative efforts with our courts and judges. We try to improve the lives of our lawyers, both in terms of their professional lives and networking opportunities. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful group of lawyers who are dedicated to improving the judicial system, the legal system, and the role of lawyers in society. Our bar association does these clinics where we help people who can’t get access or can’t afford legal services. We’ve had them at many different settings throughout Oakland County, and we try to help people that can’t afford lawyers and can’t get access to legal services. There’s a lot of tough times going on in Michigan right now.
Now what I will do in my capacity as president is lead our bar Board of Directors in hopefully a strategic way so we can continue to improve and move forward and serve our members and serve the legal needs of the larger Oakland County community. So I get to wear my two hats as the county’s lawyer and the bar’s president. They’re copacetic. They’re in tandem, if you will. I’m very much looking forward to leading the bar.
I’m the first government lawyer to be the president of the Oakland County Bar (Association), and I’m the seventh woman… I probably think that I’m the first grandma, too. That’s kind of a fun factoid. I was elected on the board three times, and then eventually you move up through the chairs. It’s humbling. It’s a privilege.
Another publication reported that you once taught radical feminist literature. When and where was that? What led you to teach that particular topic? Is there any advice or wisdom you would like to impart to women today?
JC: I was a community college teacher — an English teacher — and I started out teaching writing classes. Then I moved into literature by and about women in the early 1970s. It’s a constant joke between me and Brooks Patterson that he has a professor of radical feminism on his staff — or, I should say, former professor of radical feminism on his staff. I was an early feminist in the early 1970s. I just got interested in reading Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood and some of these early feminist writers. I had an opportunity to teach those authors as an English professor, so I jumped on it.
I would say have a plan. Even if you don’t stick to it, have a plan. Plans change, but have a plan in terms of a career. I would also say follow the things that really make you happy. Follow your passion. I know that sounds trite. I encouraged my daughter, for example, who teaches in the Waterford Schools, to take Spanish classes and at one point she wanted to quit Spanish. I think it was when she was in middle school. And I said, “No, you got to stick this one out.” And I remember her saying to me when she got done with college, “Mom, I’m so glad you wouldn’t let me quit Spanish.” And her passion is to teach Spanish. And maybe you need to be nudged a little bit by your moms or other women that you can depend on. Listen to your mentors and follow your passion. Get a mentor. Ask for help. This is the thing. Ask for help. People, especially people who are perhaps a little older than you are or who perhaps have more experience at something, generally people want to be helpful. They just need to be asked.
Lately, women and women’s issues have been an important topic in the national news with this year’s election fast approaching. What is your opinion on continuing to have a national debate on topics such as contraception and abortion — especially when panels discussing the issue sometimes consist exclusively of men?
JC: I think that women’s health issues should be issues between women and their physicians. That’s my view.