The Kelley Lecture, Featuring Judge Judith E. Levy

I have been fortunate to find work that is in harmony with my beliefs – where my work is simply a part of my DNA and the fabric of my life.

The Hon. Judith E. Levy

The annual Kelley Lecture, which honors the legacy of the late Attorney General Frank J.E. Kelley through a discussion of current ethical issues facing attorneys, took place via Zoom on April 6th. The well-attended talk featured remarks from Interim Dean Melanie B. Jacobs and Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession Director Brian Gilmore.

Kelley Lecturer Judge Judith E. Levy has served as a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan since 2014, following previous service in the Eastern District as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and as Chief of the Civil Rights Unit.

Her talk centered around a thoughtful discussion of the ethical challenges she faced as a judge during the pandemic. Any defendant she had sentenced over the course of her seven years on the bench could send a letter requesting the judicial review of a motion for compassionate release, and she described these decisions as “excruciating.”

She considered requests from ICE detainees, high-level drug dealers, and Medicare and unemployment fraudsters. Inmates described shocking prison conditions: facilities were overcrowded, prisoners lacked access to masks, and had to use their own commissary funds to purchase soap. She noted that there was no available hand sanitizer, as it had been deemed too risky to supply in an environment with many addicts. Judge Levy weighed critical ethical questions – what is the specific health risk to the prisoner? have the purposes of sentencing been met? what is the risk to the community? – and noted that her choices have had life-and-death consequences for prison inmates.

While this pandemic year has been intense, Judge Levy maintained that her profession is still a pleasure and a privilege. She encouraged her audience to take time off from the hard things, and reminded students to solicit the opinion of ethics officers, trusted advisors (like law school professors!), or a law firm’s general counsel when presented with questions regarding the rules of professional conduct.