Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association Alumni of the Year recipient Justice Michael P. Donnelly ’92 considers the opportunity to work on criminal and civil justice reform initiatives to be the highlight of his first 2 1/2 years on the bench as an Ohio Supreme Court Justice. Justice Donnelly works with the Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review, which seeks ways to prevent and remedy wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system. He is also passionate about the need to gather relevant data to create meaningful sentencing reform and advocates for the creation of a statewide sentencing database at the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission.
“We have so many talented and dedicated individuals working in our criminal justice system,” explained Justice Donnelly. “Systemically, however, the criminal justice system can always be improved. The more processes we can implement to provide transparency in the system, the more people will have confidence that the system is performing as intended; always seeking truth and resolving disputes in ways that are consistent with the principles of fairness and justice.”
The opportunity to work with all stakeholders in the Ohio criminal justice system on systemic criminal and civil justice reform was one of the chief reasons Justice Donnelly ran for his seat on the Ohio Supreme Court in 2018, now serving as one of three CSU Cleveland-Marshall College of Law graduates on the seven-justice Court along with Justice Melody Stewart ’88 and Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor ’80. He had served the previous 14 years as a Judge on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Justice Donnelly began his legal career as an assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor and has also worked in civil ligation, where he represented plaintiffs and injured workers in asbestos litigation, personal injury lawsuits, and workers’ compensation claims.
“When I graduated from law school there was no way I could have imagined my career unfolding as it has,” said Justice Donnelly. “My career path has instilled in me a great appreciation for the invaluable place lawyers hold in our society in resolving disputes, achieving justice for the public and achieving justice for their clients.”
Justice Donnelly’s commitment to justice was passed down to him by his mother, Ellen Donnelly, and father, Judge John J. Donnelly. His father, a 1969 CSU C|M|LAW graduate, served as a Cuyahoga County Probate Court Judge for 26 years and was also a recipient of the CMLAA’s Alumni of the Year award.
Like his father before him, Michael attended CSU C|M|LAW’s evening program. While working full-time at the Cuyahoga County Auditor’s Office limited the number of extracurricular organizations he was able to participate in, Michael forged friendships with evening and day students that remain a meaningful part of his experience in the legal profession.
Justice Donnelly has stayed involved with Cleveland-Marshall through the years, including as a mentor to this generation of students. He has visited multiple C|M|LAW classes as a guest lecturer, including a Civil Procedure course for a talk on transparency and the plea bargaining process. He also spoke to a Law, Literature and Film course that focused on a passion of Donnelly’s – connecting legal-based dramas to real-world legal proceedings. His favorite film is A Few Good Men, which he has viewed over 50 times and has even used as a theme in legal scholarship.
“I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude to Cleveland-Marshall because it laid the foundation for what has been, so far, an immensely satisfying career,” said Justice Donnelly. “It is very important to me to help keep the law school strong, so it continues to produce the excellent attorneys it has over all these years.”
Justice Donnelly is involved with his high school alma mater as Chair of Saint Ignatius High School’s Bellarmine Award Committee. He also serves on the board of the Cleveland Baseball Federation, which helps inner-city boys and girls play baseball and softball in the summer at no charge, and has been involved with the Western Reserve Fire Museum.
Justice Donnelly is a resident of Cleveland Heights, where he and his wife Nancy raised their two children. He also plays guitar and sings with the local rock band, Faith and Whisky. The band plays several benefits including the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s annual event, Jam for Justice.
What does being named CMLAA Alumni of the Year mean to you?
“Words simply cannot express how honored and humbled I am to receive this recognition from an institution that has had such a profound impact on my life. Cleveland-Marshall formed the foundation of a legal career that has been more satisfying and rewarding than anything beyond my wildest dreams. I am extremely humbled to receive this award with my most deserving co-honorees, Tim Collins, Judge Michelle Paris and Chief Magistrate Greg Clifford. We have all been friends for many years and I look forward to celebrating this great honor with each of them.”