by Elyse Wild | photography by Brian Kelly
The courtroom buzzed with anticipation as the crowd pressed against the wall, craning their necks and standing on their tip-toes. A dozen judges sat fully robed in the jury box while camera flashes punctuated the historic scene: Judge Christina Elmore stood before the bench, her left hand resting on a Bible held by her father, her right hand raised as Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss swore her in to serve on Michigan’s 17th Circuit Court, making her the first black woman judge and second black person ever to do so in the court’s 180-year history.
“This is where I feel I am supposed to be,” Elmore said when describing her journey to the bench. She speaks with measured composure and carries herself equally with command and grace. When speaking with Elmore, it doesn’t take long to understand that she is exactly the type of person our community needs behind the gavel.
At Elmore’s investiture, her father described her as a fiercely precocious child, often found reading far past her bedtime, performing at the top of her class, and even raising and selling dalmatian mice to her classmates.
As a student at Ottawa Hills High School, Elmore was drawn to law, but was discouraged by her guidance counselors due to an “over-saturated market.”
Elmore earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and was working as an accountant — a career she found uninspiring — when her father called her and said, “Have you ever thought about going to law school? Why don’t you take the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test)?”
She heeded her father’s suggestion, took the LSAT and scored in the 96 percentile.
“I always liked standardized testing,” Elmore laughed. “As a kid, I loved having my pencil sharpened and filling in those bubbles. For me, the LSAT was very fun.”
Her outstanding score earned her a full ride to Tulane Law School in New Orleans. While attending Tulane, Elmore felt as if she found her calling. During her three years working as an accountant, she describes feeling as if she was in a rut.
“When I went to law school, it was as though a light went off,” Elmore expressed. “I thought, ‘This is what I am supposed to be doing.’ I really loved it.”
Elmore characterizes the law as a “living thing” that grows and evolves in time.
“There are so many areas of law, I found just about every area intriguing,” she said. “I enjoyed reading case logs and studying.”
Upon graduating, she went into the U.S. Air Force to work as a judge advocate general. Her interest in military law was elicited by a brochure in the student lounge at Tulane.
“That is how I do a lot of things I end up doing,” Elmore explained. “I do things as I feel spiritually led to do them. Something will generally prompt me
in that direction, much like running for the circuit court.”
Elmore was first drawn to the circuit court in 2014 when she applied for an appointment, for which she was turned down. She was appointed to the 61st District County by Governor Rick Snyder in 2016. She ran a successful campaign that same year to retain her seat. The 61st District Court seats six judges who handle cases that arise within the City of Grand Rapids. During her time there, Elmore dealt with misdemeanor cases, civil lawsuits and landlord-tenant disputes.
Elmore decided to run for an open 17th Circuit Court seat in 2018. The Circuit Court is a trial court that handles civil cases seeking damages of more than $25,000; all felony criminal matters; personal protection order matters; and all family matters (custody, divorce, paternity and child support cases). Additionally, it sits 14 judges three of which are currently women. According to an annual report, the 17th Circuit Court handled more than 15,000 cases in 2017.
While campaigning door-to-door, Elmore felt the sheer mass of Kent County, which has nearly half a million voters.
“It was very humbling,” she said. “In some neighborhoods where I was canvassing, I didn’t look I like belonged.”
Elmore’s experience with the law is extensive, along with working as a JAG for 13 years, she worked as the assistant attorney general at the Kent County Prosecutor’s office. She was an Assistant Attorney General for the Michigan Department of Attorney General and an adjunct professor of military law at Cooley Law School. On Nov. 6, 2018, an election day during which Kent County saw the highest voter turn out in two decades, Elmore garnered 26 percent of the vote, besting the closest runner up by more than 10,000. She was the only judge in the running.
“Different people had different reasons for supporting me,” she commented. “Some people voted for me because I am a woman; others because I am a veteran; and others because I am black. I felt that I was the most qualified person.”
Currently, Elmore is a judge in the family division, handling divorces, personal protection orders, paternity suits and more. In the future, she would like to handle criminal and civil cases. She notes that all of the women on the 17th Circuit Court currently serve in the family division.
Elmore’s election to the bench is historic, and she brings representation of African Americans onto a court that has had virtually none. The issue is not unique to Kent County; on gavelgap.com, a website by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy that measures state’s representation on the bench against population demographics, Michigan received a D on an A-F ranking system.
“The bench that is deciding so many important issues should reflect the county that it serves,” she said.
Elmore has experienced discrimination typical to that of any black American; her son was once stopped and searched by police while walking toward home in a predominantly white neighborhood. In several interviews, she describes having racial slurs hurled at her as a teenager.
“I can share some of my experiences with my colleagues, who have not been exposed to them,” Elmore expressed. “If someone comes into court, and if the judge sitting there looks like them, whatever the outcome may be, it makes a difference in their experience. It matters.”
Of her place in history, Elmore said, “I don’t know why it hasn’t happened until now, but I am glad it is happening, and I am proud to be a part of it.”