Two paths diverge in a wood, and Regent University School of Law alumnus Justice Daniel Kelly ’91 took the road that led to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
The newly appointed justice calls his life a “winding road,” after growing up in Santa Barbara, California and just outside of Denver, Colorado. He landed in Wisconsin to pursue his undergraduate degree, where he met his wife.
“I’ve been terribly blessed by the places I’ve been able to call home,” said Kelly. Another one of those places? Regent University. Kelly returned to campus for the first time this fall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Regent Law Review – he served as the publication’s first-ever editor-in-chief.
“It’s phenomenal, this campus has changed so much it was hard to recognize,” said Kelly. “Except for the library, of course, I spent nearly all of my time there.”
Kelly’s professional path follows a roundabout pattern as well, returning to Wisconsin as a clerk for the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin. Then he and his growing family ventured to Washington, D.C. to clerk in the Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and serve as a staff attorney.
Then, it was back to Wisconsin, and he’s been there ever since.
“There’s nothing like Wisconsin, the people there are remarkable,” said Kelly. “I’m not one to ascribe characteristics to people, but my experience with Wisconsinites has been extraordinarily welcoming from the very beginning.”
He describes them as a people with “open hands and generous hearts.” He accepted the nomination for his new role on the bench of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the summer of 2016 after a lengthy interview process.
“I have to say I was very pleased to be in the company I was in with the other applicants,” said Kelly. “I knew most of them and I knew them to be intelligent, and of outstanding character and capability. When I’d see my name in print alongside them, my reaction was, ‘Wow, I get mentioned in the same breath as them, how fun is that?’”
Throughout the initial interview process, Kelly found wisdom in many counselors, and asked for his most trusted inner-circle to speak the truth with him, even if it would be uncomfortable for him to hear. The feedback? Overwhelmingly positive. But admittedly, the most important voice who spoke into the mix was that of his wife’s.
“I think she might’ve said something along the lines of, ‘if you don’t do this, I will slap you, something like that,’” joked Kelly. “She was extraordinarily supportive.”
This support in particular was crucial to Kelly, who explained that the position oftentimes comes with exposure and a risk for “unkind commentary.”
“There was potential for that to wash over on my family, and I wanted to make sure that they were aware of the potential,” said Kelly. “My wife and children have been delightfully supportive.”
But in the midst of the nomination and the whirlwind of taking on a new, public role, Kelly is careful to remember that as he approaches the judiciary, it’s not about him.
“There’s a reason judges wear black robes,” he said. “It’s meant to convey uniformity, that the law you are to answer to is the same regardless of which court you walk into and which individual serves as judge. That’s just as true on the Supreme Court as it is in any of the other courts.”
This “smallness,” this reminder helps him to walk his out through his work by walking humbly, loving unconditionally and speaking soft word that turns away wrath. And though he’s unsure if Regent taught this expressly, he knows this attitude was a “necessary consequence” of his law degree.
To those who are still in the trenches of their own legal education, he encourages prayer and seeking the plan God has for their lives, and to enjoy each fleeting moment.
“This not what real life is like and the privilege to study and to study here in particular is immense, and it’s not something they’ll ever be able to do again,” said Kelly. “It’s meant to be enjoyed, and it’s a place of preparation, not a place of refuge. It’s to train us to be able to wrestle well with life. So, they should study hard – I’m sure they do.”
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