By Jacquelyn Zeman – Managing/News Editor
When Sara Smolenski enrolled at Grand Rapids Junior College in the fall of 1975, she arrived on campus with a plan.
Smolenski decided in fourth grade she wanted to pursue a career in law when she would volunteer to read aloud in class for her shy friends who dreaded being called on.
“I think what sparked that interest was I have always had a knack for wanting to be able to speak for people who could not speak for themselves,” Smolenski said. “I was never a shy child…I was always outgoing and much of an extrovert. I felt called to be an advocate of others…and that to me was being a lawyer.”
A Grand Rapids native, Smolenski, 57, will soon be celebrating her 25th year as the 63rd District Court judge and credits her time at GRJC, now Grand Rapids Community College, with helping her along on the path to success.
Smolenski grew up in a family of 10 children and was introduced to the legal profession by her father and brother who started as lawyers and went on to serve as judges. Her father, J. Robert Smolenski was judge for the 61st District Court, and her brother Michael R. Smolenski ended up as judge for Michigan’s Court of Appeals.
“I will not be done until I am done with law school,” Smolenski said about her college plan. “So as a result, in 1982 I was through with law school, and I was 24 years old,”
Smolenski attended Grand Rapids Catholic Central, and graduated in 1975. She knew she wanted to go to the University of Michigan eventually. Two years at GRJC was a natural stepping-stone and provided her the opportunity to play college sports.
“Intercollegiate athletics was really a wonderful experience for me in both women’s basketball and softball,” Smolenski said. “The coaches were such wonderful people. They gave you an idea that you could believe in yourself, and the aspirations that you had became a real possibility.”
Marcia Tiesinga, Smolenski’s coach for basketball and softball, enjoyed Smolenski’s presence on her teams.
“Sara was a joy to have as a player,” Tiesinga said. “She was an exciting player, and she had a lot of pep, as she still does now…she made practices a lot of fun for everyone because she had a great sense of humor.”
Joyce Buckley, Smolenski’s assistant coach for basketball and softball said she had a great work ethic.
“She was not fooling around,” Buckley said. “When she was at practice, she was at practice. She always was assisting her teammates, and she knew when to put the spotlight on them.”
Smolenski graduated from GRJC in 1977 and is proud to be an alumna.
“They used to say going to GRJC is like going to a bigger high school, you get that stigma,” Smolenski said. “It is like so many stigmas. It is based on ignorance…GRCC will prepare you for any occupation you choose to endeavor. Grand Rapids Community College helped me become the person that I am today…I think that students that say that, it’s a cop out. Because you are measured against students from any other four-year institution, and GRCC measures right up there.”
Smolenski said GRJC prepared for her studies at U of M, and that her biggest challenge with the transition there was dealing with homesickness.
“I was a real homebody,” Smolenski said. “When you are one of 10 kids, home was really the place. I was homesick even as a junior in college moving to Ann Arbor. It took me a while to adjust.”
Smolenski knew she always wanted to go into law, so continuing her education was a natural pattern for her. She enrolled at Thomas M. Cooley Law School after graduating from U of M in 1979.
“It was a challenge because I had never been in school where you studied so much,” Smolenski said. “(In) law school I studied more than I had ever studied anywhere.”
She graduated from law school in 1982 and went on to work for her brother’s law firm, a private practice in the Alger Heights area called Smolenski and Quinn. Smolenski worked there for about a year, before she went to work at the Grand Rapids City Attorney’s office for three years.
“I worked there because you could go against attorneys who had been out for years,” Smolenski said. “You really learned a lot, going against people who had been doing things for years, with far more experience.”
She went on to work for Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge where she did civil and criminal defense work until leaving to run for office in 1990.
“I really always knew I wanted to be a judge at some point, but you never really know when you can run for judge,” Smolenski said. “The judge that had been here before me was retiring after 35 years, that pretty much made it clear to me that I better try to take this shot, or you never know. I was 32 years old, the only female, the youngest candidate, and probably the least experienced. But I knew I believed in myself. I knew I could do the job, if given the opportunity.”
Smolenski ran for office against four men. She came in second in the primary and won the general election in November of 1990. She started her new job as judge in January of 1991.
At the same time Smolenski ran for office, her brother, who had been a district court judge in Grand Rapids, ran for the circuit court judge. Both siblings were on the ballot at the same time, and were elected.
Smolenski said being a female in a male dominated field has proven challenging at times.
“I don’t think there are going to be any women around that started back when I did that wouldn’t say there is some discrimination that they have experienced,” Smolenski said. “I can remember one time I was mistaken for the court reporter when I went to take a deposition at a law firm. You might not say that’s discrimination, but it shows people’s ignorance, that they don’t recognize that a woman would be a lawyer.”
Smolenski thinks there is no question that more diversity is needed on the bench.
“I was not the first woman judge in Kent County,” Smolenski said. “There were a few before me. But even now, we are underrepresented. It is getting better, but it is not where it should be…I have not suffered the discrimination that some friends have suffered…being treated poorly, or harassment in the workplace.”
Even though working in a court is not always a fun job, Smolenski does her best to make sure people feel like they have been treated fairly, and they understand their situation fully in her court.
“I really think at the district court level you are really on…the front line,” she said. “You are talking to people who have never been to court before, they are intimidated, they are nervous. It’s not always a happy place to be. Sometimes they don’t want to be here, it’s not like going to Disneyland.
“I really strive on treating everyone with respect and courtesy, and make sure that they feel like they understood what had occurred, even if they don’t agree with your decision.
“We are a little bit like the umpires,” she said. “You’ve got to apply the law to the facts…I like people leaving my courtroom to know what just happened.”
Smolenski likes to stay involved with the local community.
“Part of our code of ethics is that we give back to our community,” Smolenski said. “While we are no different than anyone else really, I think it is our responsibility for us (as judges) to go into the community, and educate people on the court. What do judges do? What is the court about? What do the different courts do?”
Debra Bailey, GRCC board of trustees member, has had the opportunity to work with Smolenski on community events for the college.
“Judge Smolenski has not only been an outstanding professional woman role in her professional achievements,” Bailey said “But she has also modeled a deep commitment to community service and working on behalf of those not as fortunate for many community organizations. She has also shown the incredible power of humor to inspire others as an emcee of many, many community events. She is incredibly proud of her status as an alumni.”
Smolenski encourages students interested in pursuing political science as a career to go for it.
“I think that it is a situation that you have to believe in yourself, and you really have to put education first,” Smolenski said. “I am sure there are people who are very successful and they never have (received) a college degree, but the far vast majority of people who are successful have a college degree.
“I am saying that people need to get in the mindset that education is very important. We should take advantage of every educational opportunity we have, because there is so much to learn. With being a judge for 24 years, I still learn everyday. I say to those students, stay in school, go for the top, study hard, be serious about your school work. It is a job…the payoff will be great. Believe in yourself. We all question ourselves a little bit…we are all a little hesitant sometimes, especially when we try something new…It is not abnormal to be stressed out when you are a student, but find a balance. Have some fun.”
Smolenski said it’s important that everyone does their part to make sure everyone else is being treated equally and fairly.
“Truthfully we are a long way from equality in a lot of respects,” Smolenski said. “You have to do your part to make sure everyone is treated equally, and fair, and really stick to that.”
As told by Judge Smolenski:
“I made the (basketball) team at the University of Michigan as a walk-on, and they played their games at Crisler Arena, which holds about 11,000 screaming Wolverine fans, but for the women’s games in the mid-’70s it held about 50 people,” Smolenski said. “Of those 50 people about 35 of them were my family members from Grand Rapids…they all came.
“It was my debut playing basketball for the women’s team, and I so wanted to play and to make my family proud. I am a real team player, but I was used to starting at Grand Rapids Junior College…so when I got to U of M I was not starting.
“We had our maize and blue sweatpants, and our maize and blue jackets (on), and we had leather high top converse tennis shoes that we were assigned…It was so fun because it was so exciting to get a free pair of tennis shoes.
“When the game started I was not in the game, but I was cheering for my teammates, and after a while the coach called in the first player, and that was Sheila, my teammate that was next to me, and she was trying to take her sweatpants off, without unzipping the ankles of her sweatpants. She was trying to pull her pants off inside out over the those high leather Converse high top tennis shoes, and there was no way her pants were coming off, they were getting more and more stuck…the coach is like ‘What is going on?’ she looks down the bench and she sees Sheila in this pretzel twisted on the floor, trying to get her pants off, and then all I remember is she yelled, ‘Smolenski!’
“As soon as I heard my name called, this desire, this determination, this drive just (went through) every pore of my being, I just needed to get in that game, and I knew I had to get my pants off before Sheila did, or if I didn’t I was not going to get in this game.
“So without a moments hesitation I stood up, I put my hands on my hips, I grabbed my sweatpants, I yanked them to the ground as fast as humanly possible, and without realizing it I took my shorts right with them. So my debut at the University of Michigan Crisler Arena is me standing there in my underpants with my sweatpants around my ankles, and my shorts around my ankles.
“For a second or two I did not realize it, until my family was kind of laughing…then I felt the cool breeze. So I quickly pulled my shorts up and ran into the game.
“Whatever it is you are going after, you have to have the desire. You have to really want it. You have to have the determination, which is the commitment. You have to have the drive, which is the energy. But you’ve got to keep your pants on.”