In college, Kyra Harris Bolden, the Michigan Supreme Court’s first Black woman justice, had plans to become a psychologist. But while studying at Grand Valley State University, her grandmother shared the story of her family’s history, changing Bolden’s entire trajectory.
In 1939, Bolden’s great-grandfather, Jesse Bond, was lynched in Tennessee, after asking a store-owner for a receipt.
“He was beaten and castrated and thrown into the local river,” said Bolden, 34, a Southfield Public Schools graduate.“And the coroner deemed it an accidental drowning. As a result of a coroner’s determination, his murderers walked free.”
Upon learning the history, Bolden pivoted away from psychology, and toward law, later securing a job with Lewis & Munday, a Detroit-based law firm founded by African Americans in 1972.
“I had to be involved in the justice system because of the injustice that happened with my family,” she said.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Where does your thirst for justice come from?’ It comes from the fact that government-sanctioned injustice was the norm in our country, and there has to be people that protect justice, or we can slip back into a government-sanctioned injustice at any time,” Bolden said.
Her appointment as a Michigan Supreme Court justice is significant in a judicial and political ecosystem where Black women historically have been vastly underrepresented. Nationally, Black lawyers make up just 5% of the attorney population, despite Black people accounting for approximately 12% of the country’s population. Black women specifically make up less than 1% of law firm partners in the United States. There’s never been a Black woman governor, and there are currently no Black women in the senate. Bolden is the sixth Black person ever to serve on Michigan’s Supreme Court.
This year was also the first in which a Black woman was tapped to serve on the United States Supreme Court. In February, Kentanji Brown Jackson was nominated by President Joe Biden and in June she was sworn in as an associate justice.
“(Barack) Obama should have done it before, he should have brought an African American woman to the supreme court,” said Adolph Mongo, a longtime political advisor to various Detroit politicians.
Mongo noted Bolden’s appointment is significant not only because she’s the first Black woman, but because of her age.
“There were some folks that thought she didn’t have the experience, but she’ll learn, she’ll grow into it,” Mongo said. “I really like what the governor did – put a young person in there. That’s what we need,” said Mongo, adding that during Bolden’s time as a lawyer at Lewis & Munday, she definitely “learned some things.”
Bolden earned a degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 2014.
Afterward, she worked at the Detroit law firm McLemore Law, and as an attorney for Lewis & Munday. She also was an assistant to a Wayne County Third Circuit Court judge, and, most recently, the Southfield Democrat served as a state representative for the 35th House District.
“Kyra is uniquely qualified in that she has worked for a judge, she has worked with a law firm, and she has been a state legislator,” Reginald G. Dozier, president and CEO of Lewis & Munday, told BridgeDetroit.
During her six years at Lewis & Munday, Dozier said Bolden was driven, thorough, and focused on going above and beyond in her work.
“I am overwhelmed with pride to know that someone who I know as well as I know Kyra, and someone who’s worked in our law firm, has worked under my guidance, has made such a historic impact,” he said.
Dozier said Bolden joins “a strong history” of judges coming out of Lewis & Munday, including Eric Clay, a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and the late Otis Smith, the first African American judge on the Michigan Supreme Court, appointed in 1961.
“It validates what we’re trying to do,” Dozier said. “It’s really a continuation of our legacy of being able to develop and help people become judges, and/or general counsel and high level executives,” he added.
At her alma mater, Bolden was a mentor and a part of several law associations, including serving as vice president of the Black Law Students Association.
The association’s current vice president Brianna N. Hines, a third-year law student, called Bolden’s appointment “inspiring,” noting that she herself has wanted to become a judge since shadowing a Black judge at age 15.
“Being a Black woman myself, it’s just even more inspiration to finish law school and then eventually, hopefully,become a judge like her,” Hines said. “I definitely think it is phenomenal that we’ll have a Black woman’s perspective on the Michigan Supreme Court bench. I’m sure she’ll be inspiring other Black students that may be interested in going to law school,” Hines added.
Bolden is replacing Justice Bridget Mary McCormack who announced plans to leave the court in September. The new justice is guaranteed a spot until Jan. 1, 2025 when McCormack’s term expires. To stay on longer, Bolden will have to run in the 2024 general election, which she told BridgeDetroit she plans to do.
“I’m excited and honored to have been named for this appointment, and I hope to make Michiganders proud,” Bolden said. “I’ve always believed that the Michigan Supreme Court as well as our judges, in general, our Legislature, should be reflective of the diversity of perspectives and experiences of Michiganders. With the governor’s appointment, it’s one more step towards achieving that.”
Beyond being a “thoughtful” judge, Bolden said that she hopes to educate Michiganders on the importance of the Michigan Supreme Court and the work it does with expungements and committees, for example. “I would like to be very involved with making sure that the community knows their justices and knows their impact, but also doing as much as I can from my seat to protect justice,” she said.
Bolden said that as a Black woman she represents different perspectives and experiences that “deserve” to be represented on the state’s high court. “It matters how you interpret the law, your lived experiences, your perception about things, but it can also perhaps call attention to things that other people may miss,” Bolden said.
“It’s important to make sure that we [Black women] are actively working towards positions of power because that should be represented in our country,” she added. “So I’m just honored that I was tapped for this appointment in order to bring that perspective and voice to the table.”