Kyra Harris Bolden Discusses Her First Year on Michigan’s Supreme Court

One year ago, Kyra Harris Bolden became the first Black woman to ascend to Michigan’s Supreme Court, all while juggling new motherhood and unexpected challenges.
Photograph courtesy of Kyra Harris Bolden

On an early morning in January, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kyra Harris Bolden is doing a Zoom interview with Hour Detroit from her home with her 1-year-old in the room. Sippy cup in one hand, the toddler is watching Ms. Rachel on YouTube TV while flipping through books as she patiently awaits her mother’s attention. As the first Black female justice in Michigan history, her mother, only 35 years old, is in high demand.

Besides, little Emerson Portia Bolden was quite literally born into this; her mother was pregnant for half of her campaign for office.

Bolden describes her first year in office as a “whirlwind.” The former state representative was not only getting settled into her new role as a justice but also learning the ropes of being a first-time mother. “It was like being back in law school,” says Bolden, a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, “getting up to speed very quickly with the amount of reading and the number of conversations that I had to have in order to understand the material and make the best decisions as possible.”

She had “a lot of shifting at the beginning of last year,” the Southfield native says. “I had a 4- or 5-month-old; I was still learning how to be a new mom; and then I have this incredibly important job where what I think, in my opinion, really makes a difference for the lives of millions of people.”

On the bench, Bolden is continuing the work she began while serving in the Michigan House of Representatives for the 35th District from 2019 to 2023, focusing on equity, social justice, and criminal justice reform.

This makes sense, considering she was inspired to attend law school by terrible injustice. Bolden was attending Grand Valley State University, with plans to be a psychologist, when her grandmother told her a story. In 1939, Bolden’s great-grandfather was lynched in Tennessee — beaten, mutilated, and thrown into a river, his death ruled “accidental drowning.” He had made the mistake of asking a store owner for a receipt.

“His murderers walked free,” Bolden told CNN in 2023. “Once I realized that was something that happened in my own family, I felt the need to be a part of the justice system and go to law school.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pose in 2019 with Bolden (then a Michigan House rep) after signing Bolden’s first bill, HB 4132. // Photograph courtesy of Kyra Harris Bolden

In 2014, she earned her law degree and started practicing civil litigation before winning two terms in the House of Representatives. She was pregnant when she launched her campaign for the state Supreme Court, promising equal justice under the law. She accepted the Democratic nomination six days after giving birth to Emerson.

Her husband, dentist Gregory Bolden II, took leave from work to care for the baby, but Bolden struggled with “mommy guilt” while running against an incumbent Republican. Though Bolden did not win, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack stepped down soon thereafter, opening a seat on the state Supreme Court. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did the rest, appointing Bolden to the court to complete McCormack’s term.

“In 185 years, we’ve never had an African American woman on the state’s highest court,” Whitmer said at the swearing-in. “It’s about damn time.”

A year into her term, Bolden calls the job “unlike anything else you can do. The stakes are so much higher because we have very complex cases.”

In addition to her work, there has also been some controversy. Last January, fellow Justice Richard Bernstein criticized Bolden for hiring a formerly incarcerated person as a law clerk. The clerk resigned, and Bernstein apologized publicly to Bolden for “overstepping [her] hiring process.” She accepted his apology.

All the while, Bolden maintained her equilibrium. She is gracious and composed, hard to ruffle, but admits that maintaining balance in her life requires a significant investment of time, energy, and personal growth. “I definitely went through a time where it was a lot,” she says. “I had to make sure that I was getting up to speed and [maintaining] diligence in my home.”

In describing the delicate act of managing professional duties and family life, Bolden rejects the term “balance.” “I like to use the term ‘juggling,’ because I don’t know if there is a balance. And if there is, I haven’t found it.”

From left: Gregory Bolden II, Whitmer, Gilchrist, Chief Justice Elizabeth T. Clement, retired Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, and Bolden (center) with Emerson. // Photograph courtesy of Kyra Harris Bolden

A support system has helped her succeed. “My mother is really helpful with child care; she takes my daughter five days a week. That has been really refreshing for me, and I’m very blessed and fortunate to have that because I don’t have to worry.”

But she admits it’s not always that easy.

“There have been times where I had to bring my baby on a Zoom call with the justices,” she says. “I told them I would mute my phone if she started to scream if we were on a late-night call while I was getting her ready for bed.”

All this juggling isn’t going to end any time soon, considering Bolden must run in 2024 to keep her seat on the state Supreme Court.

Her hope is “that we can get to a place where jobs and careers are supportive of family. I hope I’m making a positive change — at least in the legal world, where it’s extremely hard to have a work-life balance.”

As the first Black woman to be a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, the charismatic Bolden recognizes the importance of her position. She actively engages with the community, attending church gatherings, speaking engagements, and educational programs. She chuckles as she recounts a period during the summer when her calendar was overflowing with events: “My assistant had to tell me to slow down.”

This story is from the March 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.