Justice Cavanagh received a bachelor's degree from the University of Detroit in 1962 and his law degree from the University of Detroit Law School in 1966. He began his career as a law clerk for the Michigan Court of Appeals. In 1967, Justice Cavanagh was hired as an assistant city attorney for the City of Lansing and thereafter was appointed as Lansing City Attorney, serving until 1969. He then became a partner in the Lansing law firm of Farhat, Burns and Story, P.C. In 1972, he was elected judge of the 54-A District Court and served from 1973-1975. Justice Cavanagh was then elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where he served from 1975-1982. At that time, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals. Justice Cavanagh was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1982 and was re-elected in 1990, 1998, and 2006. He served as Chief Justice from 1991-95. Justice Cavanagh's current term expires January 1, 2015.
The son of a factory worker and a teacher who moved to Detroit from Canada, Justice Cavanagh worked on Great Lakes freighters during the summers to help pay his tuition at the University of Detroit. During his years in law school, he was employed as an insurance claims adjuster and also worked for the Wayne County Friend of the Court as an investigator.
Justice Cavanagh has participated in numerous community and professional activities, including Chairman of the Board of the American Heart Association, Past President of the Incorporated Society of Irish/American Lawyers, Board of Directors of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and the Commission on the Future of the University of Detroit Mercy . He is a Member of the Institute of Judicial Administration, New York University Law School. He has served as Vice President of the Conference of Chief Justices, Chair of the National Interbranch Conference of Funding the State Courts, and member of the National Center for State Courts Court Improvement Program. Other appointments include the Michigan Justice Project, Chairman of the Judicial Planning Committee, Michigan Crime Commission, Judicial Coordinating Committee, and Chair of the Sentencing Guidelines Committee. Justice Cavanagh is the Supervising Justice of the Michigan Judicial Institute. Justice Cavanagh was instrumental in the planning, design, construction and eventual completion of the Michigan Hall of Justice. He has served as Supreme Court Liaison, Michigan Indian Tribal Courts/Michigan State Courts since 1990, and has attended many national Indian Law conferences and participated in Federal Bar Association Tribal Court symposiums.
Justice Cavanagh and his wife, Patricia, are the parents of three children, and have three grandsons and two granddaughters. The Cavanagh family resides in East Lansing.