The Struggle Is Real
Fact: Kelly Ann Ramsey has been working in the judicial system for most of her adult life.
“The first time I ever received a paycheck in my life,” she states proudly, “was when I started to work at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office. I was in commission sales my entire life before that.”
When asked about her time doing direct sales, she laughs.
“I’ve always worked in an environment where I was one of three women, one of two women, the only woman…”
So, why direct sales, making commission?
“I was a single mother, and although my father was paying for my education, and although I would like to say that going to law school was the most important thing in my life…the bank didn’t think so. The person who wanted to pull the mortgage on my house didn’t think so. I still had to pay the house note, the gas, water, and electricity bills, my car insurance, never mind food.”
Fact: Ramsey is praised for her assignments folder.
The first thing in the folder of assignments Ramsey gives her litigants is an editorial by none other than Mort Crim, in which he makes an argument for struggle as being ‘a necessary ingredient for life itself’.
Ramsey knows about struggle. She identifies with the community of Wayne County.
“At the age of 19,” Ramsey laments, “I was a single-mother high school dropout.
“When I was in high school, I was dating a man ten years older than me, utterly stupid, and I ran away from home with him. He’s the father of my child. It was terrible. He was wild. It was an awful time in my life. A year and a half after I ran away I called my father, asked to come home, and he said ‘absolutely’. And I snapped out of it.”
This is not to say that Ramsey has a soft spot reserved exclusively for single moms.
“What I do to my child, and the expectations that I have, whether it’s educationally, or how she treats the elderly or the police, can’t be just to my child. I think you’ve got to level the playing field for all children,” Ramsey asserts.
The conversation then turns to her time in law school.
“I was exhausted,” she remembers. “I had a bleeding ulcer by the end of my last year. I really went to law school to be a prosecutor, it was the only job I applied for. I guess it’s a decision that I’ve always known. I just always knew that this is what I was gonna do. To be a prosecutor.”
Ramsey’s ‘I can do anything’ attitude compels her to place herself in positions in which she must meet a challenge.
“There was an ad on the bulletin board [at school] to apply to become a Student Prosecutor, and at one time I heard that three hundred people on average apply to be an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney. So I figured I may as well apply to be a Student Prosecutor, and if I get that job I’ll prove to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office that I was worth hiring.”
Having something to prove made Ramsey’s energy levels rise to the occasion.
“I had done two jury trials as a Student Prosecutor, and I had earned a reputation as someone who shows up to work on time and was good at their job. So it was a very easy transition to go from being a Student Prosecutor to being hired as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.”
But wasn’t law school expensive for a single mother?
“I graduated from law school debt-free thanks to my father. My mother died, and there were social security death benefits. My father never spent a dime of it, not to help out with the bills, or buy a new car, pay for a trip. Nothing. My education was the most important thing to him. I think he viewed the money as my mother’s gift to me.
“And just as my father brought me to court with him, I brought my daughter, Alexis, to law school with me,” she smiles.
While the circumstances surrounding Ramsey’s ability to graduate debt-free are tragic, she still has the capacity to recognize her position as fortunate, especially when compared to most Americans attending an expensive university.
“I agree with Bernie Sanders when he tells college students that they shouldn’t be a hundred thousand dollars in debt. I also agree with Bernie that education is way too expensive, but it’s not free. Someone has to pay for it.”
After graduating law school, Ramsey was formally hired at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. She didn’t know it at the time, but soon after her new job began Ramsey would make an impact which would reverberate throughout the world.
A Star Is Born
“The biggest case I ever had was Anthony Sawyer and Susan Barbier. Barbier had arranged to ‘sell’ the sexual services of her daughter to Sawyer to satisfy a sixty-dollar crack cocaine debt. The warrant against Barbier was originally denied by a thirty-year veteran prosecutor. I was an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney at the time, and Mary Ann Quinn, the referee who had handled the daughter’s neglect case, and to whom I had previously been assigned while serving as a student prosecuting attorney, figured out the setup between the mother and the third-time rapist. Upon discovering that the warrant to prosecute the mother was denied, Quinn was livid. She called me, told me the whole story, looked me dead in the eye and said ‘Do something about it.’”
Kelly Ann Ramsey pauses, and reflects.
“Some of my greatest legal lessons came from Quinn. I admire her. Quinn is nobody to roll your eyes at.” Ramsey’s voice becomes a near whisper, “But I had been a prosecutor for just a couple years, and she wanted me to buck a thirty-year prosecutor? And take it to a supervisor of the Child Abuse unit who doesn’t know me from the next person?”
What did Ramsey do?
“Well, I went in, knocked on the door of Nancy Diehl, the supervisor of the Child Abuse unit, and she told me to go order the transcript, read it, and write a memo. So, I listened to the tape of the court proceeding, and wrote a memo. I give the memo to Diehl, it ends up going upstairs, and I get called into the big office. ‘Sign the warrant,’ they said. ‘This case is yours.’”
The Sawyer/Barbier case became the defining moment of Ramsey’s career.
“Prosecutor-wise, it was the proudest moment of my life. I did several other very high-profile cases as a result.”
But Ramsey doesn’t take all the credit. It’s not part of her style.
“It was simply the right case, right subject, right time — crack was just coming into being.”
Luck did play a part, to be sure: Sawyer, the defendant in the criminal sexual assault case, ran his mouth in the pre-sentence report — “What’s the big deal? She set it up.”
Sawyer was full of himself. He expected a slap on the wrist, two to five years, tops. He didn’t count on two live news cameras being in the courtroom, forcing the judge to consider the political ramifications of handing a light sentence to a third-time rapist. Anthony Sawyer got a 40 to 60 year sentence, and upon the judge’s reading of the sentence, passed out in the courtroom.
Because of the leak to the press of Sawyer’s “What’s the big deal?” comments, and the sensationalism of him collapsing in court, when Susan Barbier went to sentencing there were twenty-eight cameras from around the world to capture the event.
“It was one of the most frightening days of my life,” Ramsey recounts. “My father and my daughter sat in the front row. I bucked a thirty-year prosecutor, went to a boss I didn’t know, wrote as brilliant a memo as I could, and took it all the way to the top. And won.”
When Ramsey talks about the case, it’s as if she just finished prosecuting it yesterday.
“I made a name for myself as a three-year old little baby prosecutor. I was on numerous news programs. They interviewed me on CBS This Morning. I still have a pink ‘While You Were Out’ slip that says ‘Ted Koppel, second call’.”
Ramsey is used to a woman being in charge, due not only to the dynamic of her parents, but also her years of self-sacrifice, self-discipline, and making the conscious effort to become her best self. She owns her decisions on a daily basis, and is her own worst critic, silencing those who would seek to criticize.
Following her high-profile work as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which she held for over five years, Kelly Ann Ramsey was appointed as a Referee to the Wayne County Circuit Court Family Division – Juvenile Section, and began work on the first Monday in January 1992. “‘What do you mean your son’s curfew is 10 PM, and I’m looking at all F’s on the report card, and he’s frequently skipping school?’ That’s what I saw, day after day after day,” she recounts.
During her tenure as referee, Ramsey taught the same things to the children who stood before her that her father taught her, and she, in turn, taught her daughter. “One of the proudest days of my life,” she recounts, “was when my father sat in the back of my courtroom and he heard me use his words to guide these children to find their talent and abilities.”
Ramsey has witnesses.
“I had the privilege of being assigned to Referee Ramsey’s courtroom for almost four years,” writes Maryann Bruder, a Guardian Ad-Litem for the Michigan Children’s Law Center, in a letter to Governor Rick Snyder. “I learned more and worked harder while assigned to her courtroom than at any other time in my fifteen-year career as an attorney. I have been before a lot of judges, and I have seen and been subject to the impact of their decisions and work ethics.
“I struggle now to explain Referee Ramsey,” Bruder continues, “her keen legal mind, her courtroom control and efficiency, her well-thought-out and thorough opinions, the fact that she gets to work on time and spends all day working hard to serve the public. Further, she knows and follows the law. I can attest to all of these facts.”
Bruder’s attention turns to the very public whom Ramsey serves.
“People would beg to have their child’s case placed on Referee Ramsey’s docket. For one reason or another, the court foolishly moves cases from one referee to the next, and I have experienced time and time again people who pleaded to return to her docket. When their request was denied, I often watched those clients lose hope in themselves and begin to struggle again, occasionally returning to the very behavior that brought them to the attention of the court in the first place.”
Justin Moscarello, a neuroscientist from New York University’s Center for Neural Science, posits, “Believing you don’t have control over your own life can lead to depression, while believing that you have a voice and can influence a situation can lead to positive feelings.”
To Bruder’s point, Ramsey says, “Never once has a mom or dad or respondent child said ‘Referee Ramsey cares too much,’ ‘Referee Ramsey took too much time with me,’ ‘Referee Ramsey spent too much time discussing the importance of my education and my future, talents, and abilities.’”
Ramsey may talk fast, but when it comes to reprogramming the brains of the families of Wayne County, she takes her time.
“I recently received an award for Justice in the Neighborhood, presented to me by State Representative Rose Mary C. Robinson, at a packed event. Not one, not two, but three adults in their thirties came up to me with tears in their eyes. ‘You were my judge. You saved my life.’ One of them got up on the microphone and said, ‘Vote for this woman, she was my judge.’ One couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to speak.
“‘You saved my life.’ That’s what I do for this community.”
The second item in Ramsey’s assignment folder is a photo of Albert Einstein, and a quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
“I’ve been told that I ‘take too long’. The criticism isn’t coming from the people, who pay taxes in order for me to serve,” Ramsey asserts, “the criticism is coming from the system.”
How can she be so sure?
“There are two common responses in my courtroom — ‘You’re right.’ And ‘Amen!’”
Ramsey is able to get individuals to hold themselves accountable, ending cycles of self-harm and destructive behavior. She does so by warming their hearts and freeing their minds, ‘upgrading the human operating system’, so to speak, to its most natural and effective state.
And she seeks to make an impact from beyond the bench and gavel.
“I started writing a book around ten or fifteen years ago…about rules, taking care of children, basic fundamentals of life, just as I discuss in my courtroom. Basic fundamentals, just like my father taught me.”