A Judge's Journal

Turbulent time at the Michigan Supreme Court

By Thomas E. Brennan

Partisan Judges

Used to be, judges were either Republicans or Democrats in Michigan.

Then along came 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States by a wide margin. Michigan went Democrat big time.

Not everyone was ready for it. A couple of old time Dems woke up to find that they had been elected to the office of state representative and bought railroad tickets to Washington, D.C. instead of Lansing.

One group that got a rude awakening was the judges. Michigan had been a Republican state and most of them were staunch members of the majority party. But in the 1932 landslide, a number of incumbents were ousted.

What to do?

Change the constitution. Make judges non-partisan. Give incumbent judges the benefit of a designation on the ballot that would let the voters know who they were.

The system has worked pretty well. Incumbent judges and their challengers are welcome in the halls of both political parties, and while the “us and them” mentality of American politics is still at work, there is a certain aura of civility associated with non-partisan elections, which is suited to judicial office.

The one exception is the Michigan Supreme Court.

Unhappily, when the constitution was amended to make judicial elections non-partisan, it left the matter of nominating candidates for the Supreme Court to the legislature.
And what did they do?

They did what legislatures do best. Nothing. They did nothing at all. They simply left the matter of nominating candidates for the Supreme Court the way it was under the old, party convention method.

So while candidates for the Supreme Court are rotated alphabetically on the non-partisan ballot, they must first be nominated by the political parties.
And they never forget it.

Even when, as incumbents running for re-election, they are entitled to get on the ballot by a simple affidavit nominating themselves, they still go back to their party conventions. That’s where the money is.

As a result, justices of the Michigan Supreme Court are commonly regarded as Republicans and Democrats. And they tend to act that way.

Back in 1982, the court consisted of four Democrats, two Republicans, and a maverick.

The maverick was a man named Charles Levin.

His father had been a federal judge in Detroit. Two cousins, Sander and Carl were successful members of the United States Congress. Both Democrats.

But Charles never got into partisan politics. He wanted to be a judge like his father. So he ran for the Court of Appeals, where candidates are nominated by circulating petitions.

He was elected, served several years and then decided to run for the Supreme Court. He couldn’t get the nomination of the Democratic Party so he circulated petitions and
started his own party, held a convention in his basement and got himself nominated.

And was elected.

The Democratic majority on the Supreme Court back in 1983 did what majorities always do. They elected their own guy as chief justice.

His name was G. Mennen Williams.

He would preside over the Supreme Court of Michigan on the darkest day in its history.

Bow Tie Politics

Everybody called him “Soapy.”

His real name was Gerhard Mennen Williams. His father was a minister, his mother CEO of the Mennen Company, which manufactured shaving cream and other toiletries.

As a boy, he had been sent to a ranch in Wyoming one summer along with his two brothers. The cowboys nicknamed them Suds, Lather, and Soapy. Soapy stuck.

Soapy was from Grosse Pointe. The old Grosse Pointe, before it was overrun with newly rich automobile makers.

At age 14, he was shipped off to Salisbury prep school in Connecticut, where he was seen as an oddity: a Midwesterner with breeding. At Salisbury, Soapy earned the highest grade point average of any student, before or since.

Then it was off to Princeton in 1929. There he skied, wrestled, played basketball, rowed on crew, won two varsity football letters, made Phi Beta Kappa, and….
And was elected president of the Young Republicans.

At the law school of the University of Michigan in the mid 1930s, the talk was all about the New Deal. Idealism was the mood of the day. Utopia was on the horizon.

Soapy was converted. He became a Democrat. He would go into politics. He would make a difference.

His rise in Michigan politics was meteoric. The protégé of Governor Frank Murphy, he was on the inside track even before enlisting in the Navy, where he earned 10 Pacific battle stars and the Legion of Merit, mustering out in 1946 as a lieutenant commander.

By the summer of 1948, as the Democratic nominee for Governor of Michigan he made his national television debut as a feisty opponent of the Dixiecrats at the national convention.

Always a great campaigner, his enthusiasm for pressing the flesh was matched by his knack for calling square dances. The unions delivered the big cities, while Soapy charmed the farmers and the small town Republicans.

And he won. At a time when Michigan governors served two-year terms, Soapy amassed six consecutive victories from 1948 through 1958.

On September 15, 1952, the cover of Time magazine featured the handsome face of Soapy Williams, his patented green polka dot bow tie, broad toothy grin and steely blue
eyes surrounded by champagne bubbles.

The cover story called him a prodigy and recounted how people had predicted he would one day be President of the United States.

In fact, he went to the 1952 Democratic convention at the head of a Michigan delegation, which had adopted him as its favorite son. When the choice came down to Illinois
Governor Adlai Stevenson or Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, Williams and Michigan opted to support the senator.

Perhaps he thought he had a better chance of being tapped for vice president by someone who didn’t come from just across Lake Michigan.

He served his country and his party in various capacities during the Kennedy years.

Finally, he decided to cap off his career as a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. He was elected in 1970.

I first met Soapy Williams in 1959. I was hosting an Irish fund-raiser on Saint Patrick’s Day to boost my unsuccessful campaign for judge in Detroit. Soapy stopped by to greet a group of Young Democrats who were gathering down the hall, and I went down and invited him to come and meet our people.

He came, was gracious, and made a big hit.

We served together on the court for three years from 1971 through 1973. I found him to be a warm and thoughtful colleague.

More than that, he was a man of sound morals, dedicated and committed to public service. He was a leader in the classic Protestant mold; ambitious for power and authority, but solely for the purpose of doing good as he saw it.

Soapy was a good man and he knew it. Being conscious of his own rectitude gave him a certain messianic determination to be the boss.
In the Supreme Court that meant being chief justice. And Soapy wanted it.
Brennan’s account of one of the Michigan Supreme Court’s most turbulent periods continues next week.
Thomas E. Brennan is a former trial and appellate judge, and youngest chief justice of the Supreme Court in Michigan history. He is the founder of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the largest accredited college of law in the United States, formerly serving as its dean and president before retiring.