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The Honorable Chris Kelley L'85 Has Found Constant Intellectual Challenge and Stimulation in Legal Career

By Kenneth Stratton '19 WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, 2019 - 12:00 PM WNE100

Besides continuing to work as a judge for as long as she is able, The Honorable Chris Kelley L’85 is not sure what comes next for her in life. But she’s guided by an approach which, to this point, has led her to exciting opportunities.

“I have never been the type of person who charts a career path with defined steps required to achieve goals. Instead, I have always pursued work that I was passionate about,” Kelley said. “I suspect that pattern will continue,” the Judge added.

Growing up, Kelley says she was influenced by an “amalgam of parental influence,” with a politically active father insistent on providing his kids with a Catholic education, and a mother who fostered a feminist worldview in the midst of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Though my political philosophy differs from my father’s, I credit my strong commitment to public service to him,” Kelley said. She explained that her mother, a pianist, gave up a scholarship to the New York Conservatory of Music, and later nursing school, to marry, as many women of her era were expected to. It would be her mother’s feminism, humanitarian efforts, and life experiences that most informed many of her own life choices.

In college, Kelley studied English Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. By her junior year she was already thinking about law school.

“I wanted a career that would provide constant intellectual challenge and stimulation, while enabling me to be self-supporting,” Kelley said. “I was attracted to the legal profession because of the myriad possibilities of advocating for impactful positive outcomes in people’s lives,” the Judge added.

Western New England popped up on her radar while reading a review of law schools. Familiar with “beautiful” Western Mass and enticed by the low cost of living, Kelley decided Western New England College’s School of Law was right for her. After graduating from Stony Brook in 1981, she made her way to Springfield, MA.

“I had a difficult time adjusting to law school during my first year,” Kelley admits, especially considering her part-time work schedule. “I found the style of teaching, combined with the legal language and analysis, required that I deviate from the type of analysis and style of writing I had mastered as an undergraduate,” she added. But with great support, her experience improved in the second and third years.

“I am grateful that I attended an institution that provided me with scheduling flexibility and access to professors who provided critical guidance to me at a difficult time,” Kelley said of Western New England. “I also was privileged to form important friendships, which continue to be an influence on my life today,” the Judge added.

After earning her J.D., Kelley went right to work, first as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, New York. She says the experience refined her litigation skills. For the next 14 years, she would work as a sole practitioner, focused on family law, matrimonial law, and criminal defense.

“Additionally, I spent a significant amount of time representing indigent litigants in family court and criminal proceedings and served as a law guardian representing children in family court proceedings,” Kelley said. “The work is consequential, as the judicial decisions have an immediate impact on the families we service,” she explained. The Judge added that the work is compelling because of the intersection between law, psychology, medicine, and social welfare policy.

In 2002, Kelley was named Court Attorney-Referee in the newly formed Supreme Court Integrated Domestic Violence Part in Central Islip, NY.

“I was empowered to hear and determine contested matrimonial issues, conduct case conferences, research complex civil and criminal issues, and prepare decisions for the presiding justice,” Kelley said of her role as Court-Attorney Referee. Later, she would also hold the same title for the Suffolk Family Court. “It was during this time that my goal of becoming a judge crystallized and through a series of unexpected and somewhat miraculous events, I was given an opportunity to run for District Court Judge in 2007. I won that election and was subsequently re-elected in 2013,” she said.

During her tenure as District Court Judge, Kelley presided over “a calendar of misdemeanor criminal matters,” but has also served as an Acting County Court Judge in the Domestic Violence Criminal Part.

Kelley describes the New York state court system as somewhat complex, and she should know – she was appointed to the New York State Court of Claims by Governor Andrew Cuomo, and serves as Acting Justice of the Supreme Court in Suffolk County. If that weren’t impressive enough, Kelley has also taught selected topics in Criminal Justice at Touro Jacob D. Fuschberg School of Law. She founded the first LGBTQ Law Committee of the Suffolk County Bar Association. And, she plans to continue her work on an informal committee whose mission “is to determine whether a Human Trafficking Court should be established in the Family Court to mirror the work already underway in the criminal arena.”

Kelley might not know exactly what her next step in life is, but she’ll surely stay busy, as she shows no signs of slowing down her commitment to service.