Judge took a long and difficult trail to her seat on state court


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Last December, Allie Greenleaf Maldonado became a legal trailblazer in a turn of fortune that she never dreamed possible.

More than three months later, in a special ceremony in Lansing on March 13, dream turned into reality when Maldonado was officially sworn in as a judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, becoming the first Native American to serve on the appellate court. The oath of office was administered by Justice Megan Cavanagh of the Michigan Supreme Court, part of a memorable event that included a presentation of colors, a drum and honor song, and pipe and water ceremonies. Robyn McCoy, president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, served as emcee at the investiture.

Upon her appointment last winter, Judge Maldonado expressed her gratitude to Governor Gretchen Whitmer for the opportunity to serve the citizens of Michigan.

“I look forward to taking all of my professional experience and diligently applying it to the work ahead of me,” said Maldonado, who formerly served as the chief judge of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Trial Court. “This is a moment of importance not just for me, but for all of Indian country as the Governor’s wisdom in this appointment sends a message about the critical importance of the work of tribal courts. I am grateful to the Governor and her team, and I look forward to giving all of Michigan my best.”

At her judicial investiture at the Lansing Center, Maldonado said she never expected to “have the honor and responsibility” of the appointment, which was created when Judge Amy Ronayne Krause retired December 13.

“I am proud to be Native American, but growing up knowing who I could be and what I could achieve was difficult,” said Maldonado, who earned her juris doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School. “Like most of my Native American friends, my family was part of the federal government’s official policy of removing Indian children from their families and communities in order to assimilate them and prepare them for the station in life they were expected to hold.

“My grandmother, Lou Ella, was first taken to the Indian boarding school in Harbor Springs, and then finally to the Indian boarding school in Mount Pleasant, where she was taught to cook, clean, and sew because those were the skills she was projected to need to fulfill her place in society,” Maldonado remarked. “As part of that legacy when I was growing up, I never met or even saw a Native American attorney. Even today, there are fewer than 2,700 Native American attorneys in the United States. Dreaming of being an attorney was audacious, never mind being a judge!

“So, I dreamed in secret, with my eyes down,” said Maldonado, who served as assistant general counsel for the LTTB from 2002-12. “I fought my way to and through law school because I wanted to do my part to keep what happened to my grandmother, and all of the Native people in my community who were removed, from happening again. I feel fortunate to have gotten an education from the University of Michigan Law School, something I don’t think I would have been able to do without having my tribe support me and cheer me on.”

Following law school, Maldonado became just the 15th tribal citizen to be selected for the honors program at the U.S. Department of Justice, eventually becoming a litigator in the Indian Resources Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division and later worked as a staff attorney for Monteau & Peebles. Over the course of her legal career, Maldonado earned a national reputation as an expert on the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act.

Maldonado is a member of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, Anishinaabek Caucus of Michigan, Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice and Michigan Justice for All Commission, and the treasurer for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

At her investiture, Maldonado paid special tribute to former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who recently retired from the state’s highest court to become president and CEO of the American Arbitration Association.

“Over 20 years ago, she was my clinical law professor at the University of Michigan Law School,” Maldonado said of McCormack. “For whatever reason that I will never fully understand, she decided to take me under her wing and mentor me, for which I will always be grateful. Justice McCormack is a force of nature dedicated to justice for all and every after 20 years, I never stop being in awe of her. She set the bar as to what a jurist should strive to be and I will do everything in my power to make her proud.”

Maldonado, who one day after her investiture participated in her first case call as an appellate court judge, reserved especially warm comments for her family.

“I want to thank my family – my loving husband Jay, who for more than 30 years has been my best friend and who never stopped believing in me,” said Maldonado. “And my children, Riley and Ari – you inspire me to be the best version of myself. I love that none of this seems to phase you two. . . Being your mom is the most important role I have in this world and I love that to you I am the person who helps you with your math homework, plays Clue and chess with you, and listens to every detail of your day before bedtime. You three are what is most important to me in this life and I love you with all of my heart.”

In closing, Maldonado pledged to serve both tribal and Michigan communities to the “best of my ability” as a Court of Appeals judge.

“I promise you that in all of the decisions I make as a Michigan Court of Appeals judge, I will honor the law, and I will understand how my decisions impact the next seven generations,” she said, earlier reflecting that “because of this moment, the next seven generations of tribal children won’t have to look down at the ground before daring to dream.”


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