The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend prompted me to review Michigan’s history of justices who have passed away while still in service to the Court.
In the early part of the last century, there was an unprecedented string of deaths of sitting Michigan Supreme Court justices. Beginning with Justice Frank Hooker’s death in 1911, ten justices died from 1911-1929. In fact, half of the justices who were sitting on the Court in 1905 would go on to die while in service to the Court. Besides Hooker, this list includes Justices Charles Austin Blair, Aaron McAlvay, and Russell Ostrander.
Of the justices who died at the end of this period, four — Ernest Snow, John Bird, Richard Flannigan, and Grant Fellows — died in the three year period of 1927-1929. Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of the day that Justice Flannigan died, and his memorial notes the unusual circumstances of these many deaths.
The last person to die as a sitting justice of the Michigan Supreme Court was Justice Blair Moody Jr. on November 26, 1982. The appointment of Moody’s successor by Governor Milliken would later be contested by incoming Governor James Blanchard, resulting in the ouster of Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley after two months and one week on the Court.
Michigan’s connections to the current Supreme Court don’t end there. Jack Lessenberry has proposed that the President appoint Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack to the vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death; click here to listen. If it were to happen, Justice McCormack would be the third person from Michigan to ascend to the U.S. Supreme Court following Justices Henry B. Brown (1891-1906) and Frank Murphy (1940-1949).
On this date in 1928, Justice John E. Bird passed away unexpectedly at his home in Adrian, Michigan. It was another four months before the beaver felt top hat he had ordered would arrive at Mifflin’s Department Store in Lansing. Last spring, the Society acquired this hat and the box it came in.
To read more about Justice Bird’s career, visit his biography here and memorial/portrait dedication here.
Learn more about the history of the top hat here.
And to see a literal “bird in a top hat” visit this Etsy shop here.
On this date in 1988, the New York Times published the obituary of G. Mennen Williams. The former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice had passed away the day before.
Williams served as Governor of Michigan from 1949-1960. He was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970.
While Governor of Michigan in 1954, Williams appeared on an episode of the popular game show What’s My Line?
You can read his biography here.
Portrait dedication here.
On this date in 1903 Justice Eugene Black was born in Marine City, Michigan. Black graduated from Port Huron High School and studied law briefly at the Detroit College of Law and later the University of Michigan Law School. His legal education was primarily undertaken in the office of a former circuit court judge, and Black is notable as one of the last justices of the Michigan Supreme Court to have “read the law.”
To learn more about Justice Eugene Black and view his official portrait, visit his biography here. You can read the transcript of his portrait dedication here.
Justice Black died on August 4, 1990. His obituary can be found here.
Peter Moody stands beneath the portrait of his father, Justice Blair Moody, Jr., on Wednesday, January 20. Mr. Moody was at the Hall of Justice for a seminar.
Peter Moody was only 17 years old when his father, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Blair Moody, Jr., passed away unexpectedly. Mr. Moody is now a father and attorney who aspires to live with as much energy and dedication as his father before him.
Justice Blair Moody, Jr. was born in Detroit on February 27, 1928, but grew up in Washington D.C. His father, for whom he was named, was the Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News and later a U.S. Senator, appointed by Governor G. Mennen Williams. Justice Moody studied at the University of Michigan and worked as a reporter for the Detroit News and Washington Post during the summers. He married Mary Lou Kennedy and the couple had five children: Diane, Blair, Susan, Brian, and Peter. As a father, Justice Moody coached his children’s teams and was involved in all of their activities.
To learn more about Justice Moody’s career, please visit the following links:
Thomas M. Cooley was born on this date 192 years ago — January 6, 1824. Like many of Michigan’s early justices, Cooley was born in New York state and moved here as a young man. Cooley settled in Adrian, Michigan, in 1843, and was admitted to the bar in 1846.
Read more about Cooley in the fall issue of our newsletter here, including the December 1883 letter that he wrote to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller.
Justice John Voelker’s best selling novel-turned-Academy Award nominated film, Anatomy of a Murder, will air on Turner Classic Movies at 5 p.m. Wednesday, December 16.
It is part of an entire day dedicated to law & order on the classic film channel. Other features include Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. For the full listing of what airs when, visit the TCM website here.
To read more about Anatomy of a Murder and watch a clip, visit IMDB here. The film poster at left is available for purchase here ($$$).
Learn more about John Voelker’s time on the Michigan Supreme Court by reading his biography here; his role in the Verdict of History here; and oral history here. He even has his own Foundation here.
Will you be watching??
Long before Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Dorothy Comstock Riley was lighting the way in Michigan as the first Hispanic woman to be elected to a state supreme court.
A new exhibit at the University of Denver, called Luminarias de la Ley, features Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley and other notable Latina women in the law. You can read more about the project here.
Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley was born December 6, 1924, and achieved many firsts as a woman practicing law during the middle of the twentieth century. In 1976 she became the first woman on the Michigan Court of Appeals. She was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1982 and elected in 1984. She was selected by her peers to become the second woman to serve as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1987, and was part of the first female majority court in 1997 (four of the seven justices were women).
Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley died on October 23, 2004. Her legacy lives on in the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, which she founded in 1988, and in a new permanent exhibit about the First Women on the Court in the Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center. You can schedule a tour of the Learning Center here.
Read more about Dorothy Comstock Riley’s life and career here.
The Bench, written by former Chief Justice Thomas E. Brennan and first published in 1997, is an alternative history of the Michigan Supreme Court. The novel tells the stories of fictionalized justices Edward Breitner, Alton Henry, Doris Templeton, Frederick van Timlin, Bob O’Leary, Hilda Germaine, Julia Hudson, and Jim Malloy.
The Bench is now available from the Society for just $10.00, with proceeds benefitting our work to preserve the real history of the Michigan Supreme Court. Reply to this post if you want a copy. It makes a great beach read!
Elizabeth Weaver was the 98th justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, and the fifth woman to serve on the state’s highest court. She was elected to the court in November 1994, replacing Justice Robert P. Griffin who had retired. Both resided in the Traverse City area, having been born elsewhere (Griffin in the Detroit area and Weaver in New Orleans, Louisiana). Justice Weaver’s death on April 22nd followed Justice Griffin’s by just six days.
To learn more about Justice Weaver, read her biography and investiture ceremony on our website.
Additional details can be found at the Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home and the SBM Blog.
Rest in peace Justice Weaver.