Judge Jacob James Cunningham
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jacob James Cunningham didn’t expect he would have a “traditional” legal career. The Bloomfield Hills native, Cranbrook Kingswood alum, and current Ferndale resident is the son of two lawyers, so “law school was always on my radar.” However, during his first few semesters, he had doubts as to whether or not this was the right career path for him.
“Something clicked midway through. It does fascinate me,” Cunningham recalls. When he obtained an internship with Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Potts, Cunningham was able to learn about what goes on behind the scenes of the courtroom. “Being involved in trials lit up my brain. I loved being here. I loved solving problems, the research. It totally excited me, and I knew I wanted to keep doing this.”
Upon graduation, he became Judge Potts’ law clerk, followed by a staff attorney for Judge Mary Ellen Brennan. In 2018, he was elected to the same court where he had spent his entire legal career, becoming one of the youngest judges ever elected to the Oakland County Circuit Court at the age of 33. He began his tenure in January 2019, where he was assigned to the family division. In May 2022, he officially became part of the civil/criminal division. He continues to preside over the juvenile drug treatment court in a volunteer capacity, where he “gets to work with citizens and families in a different capacity and with different tools than are available in a traditional juvenile case.”
Mere months into his new role on the general bench, Cunningham saw himself thrust into the national spotlight when he was assigned as the judge presiding over Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s challenge to abortion rights legislation. He upheld the injunction blocking Michigan’s 1931 anti-abortion laws, which now heads to a statewide vote this November. Cunningham could not comment on pending litigation.
Regardless of the case in front of him, Cunningham’s work is firmly entrenched in his home state. “It’s such an honor to have grown up in a place with so many great people and then make my way as a career path helping our citizens and serving our citizens,” reflects Cunningham.
This epitomizes his approach to the job. “Whenever I drive to the courthouse, I drive past Lady Justice, and I’m reminded that this is a really important space that means so much to the citizens who have their cases here and need to have their literal day in court. Especially with the pandemic, they’ve waited a long time. There’s an awesome responsibility for the 20 judges who are responsible for the almost 1.3 million citizens of Oakland County.
“The last few years, a lot has changed on our bench,” he describes. The judges “look a lot like what the community is comprised of. It’s very diverse in terms of ages, race, gender.”
As the first openly LGBTQ judge on the court, Cunningham recognizes his own part in representing the community.
“A lot of times people in the gay community flock to other parts of the country,” he notes, having thought he would have done the same. Instead, when he was sworn in, his “then long-term partner, now husband,” held the Constitution at his investiture.
Story: Hillary Brody Anchill
Photo: Mackenzie O'Brien