MARCH 7, 1972
CHIEF JUSTICE THOMAS M. KAVANAGH: Preceding this session of Court this morning is a presentation that will be made by the President of the State Bar of Michigan to the Supreme Court. Some year or so ago, after the completion of the antechamber just outside of the Courtroom and the hanging of the pictures of the so-called Big Four, the Court which served from 1857 through 1875, with some changes, we felt that there ought to be something in that antechamber to inform the public generally who the pictures were and who they represented, and to give something of the history of the operation of that Court which admittedly was recognized throughout the United States as one of the outstanding Supreme Courts of the nation. We commissioned an individual to prepare a proper matter so that it could be hung in the antechamber and explain to the public generally who the members of that Court were and what they actually represented. The State Bar of Michigan was kind enough to undertake to have this done for us and to present it to us at this time, and I present the President of the State Bar, Fred Buesser, for that particular purpose.
PRESIDENT BUESSER: May it please the Court, the early history of Michigan’s highest Court is properly divided into four epochs. The first consisting of the years 1805 to 1823 witnessed a Court of three judges for the Territory of Michigan appointed by the President of the United States with the consent of the Senate. These judges sat on a Court of common-law jurisdiction. The second epoch began in 1824 and featured a Court whose members’ tenure was reduced to four years and whose power had increased to include cases in equity. The third epoch commenced following the convention in 1835 and the Constitution resulting therefrom which provided for a division of the state into three circuits and the appointment of three judges, each to hold court in the several counties of his circuit, and all of whom should sit together en banc to consider and determine appeals. The judges were appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate for a term of seven years. Finally, four men, each of common origin, but possessing outstanding character and ability, appropriately and somewhat ironically brought to the task of shaping the fourth epoch which would raise the Michigan Supreme Court to a place of ranking honor among the appellate tribunals of the nation.
The 1850 Constitution provided for an independent Supreme Court, composed of a quorum of four judges of the several circuit courts, who were elected thereto by popular vote. Of the first four members to sit on this new high tribunal, two, Judge ISAAC P. CHRISTIANCY and Judge JAMES V. CAMPBELL, were to become a part of the famous quartet known as The Big Four. The others, Judge BENJAMIN F. GRAVES and Judge THOMAS M. COOLEY, would take their respective places alongside CAMPBELL and CHRISTIANCY to form a Court recognized throughout the world for its wisdom.
Justice CHRISTIANCY was born in Johnstown, New York, March 12, 1812. His parents were of humble means and he acquired his education in country schools, a few months at an academy in Dow, New York, and through self-instruction. At age 13, following the death of his father, young CHRISTIANCY was burdened with the support of his family. In 1836, the year of his admission to the bar, Judge CHRISTIANCY came to Monroe, where he obtained a clerkship in a Federal land office. From 1841 to 1846, he was prosecutor in his county, and became well-versed in the criminal law. He was elected state senator, headed the Free-Soil ticket as a candidate for Governor in 1852 and, in 1855, he was one of the prime organizers of the Republican Party. In 1857 he was elected to the Supreme Court and by successive elections was continued a member of the Court until 1875 when he resigned to accept appointment as United States Senator.
Justice CHRISTIANCY’S wisdom is preserved for us in volumes 5 through 31 of the Michigan Reports. His opinions in Maher v The People, 10 Mich 212 (1862), Allison v Chandler, 11 Mich 542 (1863), [Lake Shore & M S] Railroad v Miller, 25 Mich 274 (1872), and [Grand Rapids] Booming Company v Jarvis, 30 Mich 308 (1874), give a fair impression of the master mind of this judge.
JAMES V. CAMPBELL was born in Buffalo, New York, February 25, 1823, and traveled to Detroit with his father. He was a graduate of St. Paul’s College and was admitted to the bar in 1844. At age 34 he was elected to the Supreme Court where he held an esteemed position for 33 years. During this tenure, he was an indefatigable worker and, simultaneously with his duties as judge, he distinguished himself as a professor in the law department at Ann Arbor. His opinions are preserved in some 70 volumes of the Michigan Reports beginning with volume 5 and ending with volume 79. His literary skills are further reflected in his outlines of the political history of Michigan, which to this day is considered one of the most authoritative works on the early judicial system in Michigan.
Justice CAMPBELL prided himself on his independent thinking, which resulted in opinions the strength of which became the sounding board of many later decisions. In People [ex rel. Detroit & H R Co] v Salem, 20 Mich 452 (1870), he displayed his independence by being the first Michigan judge to declare a statute unconstitutional. His opinions in Toms v Williams, 41 Mich 552 (1879), American Transportation Company v Moore, 5 Mich 368 (1858), People v Jones, 6 Mich 176 (1858), and Woodbridge v Detroit, 8 Mich 274 (1860), give convincing evidence of his keen ability.
Perhaps it was fate which prompted still another New York son to travel to Michigan destined to take his place in history along with CHRISTIANCY, CAMPBELL and GRAVES. THOMAS MCINTYRE COOLEY was born in Attica, New York, on January 6, 1824. He struggled with poverty and secured the means of obtaining his education by the sweat of his brow. At age 19, he commenced his study of the law in New York. In 1843, he moved to Michigan and took up residence in Adrian where he finished his law studies and was admitted to the bar.
Justice COOLEY’S makeup seemed to better suit him for literary rather than legal endeavors but, as history has shown, he was ably suited for both tasks. He was country editor, in 1850 he was elected Adrian’s court commissioner, and in 1857 he was chosen to compile the Michigan statutes. Following that accomplishment, he served as official court reporter for this Court for the years 1858 to 1864. He had already written his Constitutional Limitations, Constitutional Limitations Upon Legislative Power, and a history of Michigan. Finally, in 1864, his legal and literary skills recognized, he was elected to the Supreme Court where he would sit for the next 21 years.
Justice COOLEY’S first opinion was pronounced in Laing v McKee, 13 Mich 124, (1865); his last in the case of Selleck v Lake Shore Railway, 58 Mich 195 (1885), which involved the question of proximate cause in a railway injury. He took part in the famed People v Salem case mentioned earlier, and wrote perhaps his strongest opinion in Sutherland v The Governor, 29 Mich 320 (1874). His celebrated teaching career included his appointment as dean and as Jay professor of law at the University of Michigan.
Justice BENJAMIN F. GRAVES, the last element necessary to create the historic Big Four was born in Rochester, New York, in 1817 and, like his colleagues who had cast their eyes westward, he too ventured to Michigan. Before his journey, young GRAVES studied in the country schools and was confined to rather basic academic horizons. After it was demonstrated that his health was not suited to the toils of his father’s farm, he had to struggle to overcome the insufficiencies of his schooling and the lack of support from his family in order to secure his legal education.
In 1843, after work in New York, he traveled to Battle Creek and engaged in law practice there until 1857 when he was elected judge of the fifth circuit. In June of that year he was appointed by the Governor to serve the residue of Judge PRATT’S term as a member of the old Supreme Court, which expired December 31 of that year. The opening of 1858 found him sitting on the circuit where he remained until his supposed ill health forced him to resign in 1866. In 1867 he was elected one of the four judges of the reformed Supreme Court, and at that moment the intellectual and judicial power of The Big Four were united.
There is an excellent, scholarly and delightful article in the March 1967 issue of the Michigan State Bar Journal by this Court’s own Don Winters describing in substantially more detail the character and accomplishments of the members of The Big Four. Suffice it to say that almost a hundred years after the zenith of their careers, a lawyer of this state, Frank Mixter, and his wife, made a contribution to the State Bar to employ the services of the celebrated John S. Coppin to do an almost life-size portrait of those four justices which is the centerpoint of the main lobby of the State bar building in Lansing. That painting has been a source of inspiration to all the lawyers of this state since it was dedicated in 1966, and we think it entirely appropriate that this Court have a reproduction thereof which, as the Chief Justice has indicated, will aptly indicate to visitors to this building the reason for the particular four portraits which grace the outer lobby.
The State Bar over the years has enjoyed an excellent relationship with this Court; one which we are proud to have and one which we believe is of service to the people of this state and to the Court.
The Big Four faced difficult times and difficult problems when this country was torn by civil war, wracked by the problems of reconstruction, and was a young nation emerging into greatness. I suggest today that this Court faces problems which are no less serious than those which faced those four famous Justices whom we honor today. It would be my hope that a hundred years hence, the people and the Bar of this state will find that this Court, in the exercise of the leadership which it is undertaking today, will be worthy to be inscribed along with The Big Four as having been the moving force in a time in the history of legal profession when it needed great leadership and it got it from this Court.
It gives me great pleasure to present on behalf of the 12,000 members of the State Bar of Michigan the portrait of The Big Four, Justices CAMPBELL, CHRISTIANCY, COOLEY and GRAVES.
CHIEF JUSTICE T. M. KAVANAGH: Thank you very much, President Buesser. On behalf of the Supreme Court, it is my privilege to accept this portrait and to express our appreciation to the State Bar of Michigan for making it possible. I would only add to what has been said that these were all men of exceptional scholarly attainments, who possessed to a high degree the fairmindedness essential to a jurist and who were capable of expressing their views in opinions marked by vigor and clearness of expression.
Gradually it came to be recognized throughout the nation that Michigan possessed a strong bench, equal to the best in the land. It worked with a new Constitution in the early formative years of the state when her foundations were to be laid and her judicial system rounded and her constitutional limitations prescribed.
Who coined the phrase is not known; its origin is lost in the mist of history, but to this day these men–COOLEY, CAMPBELL, CHRISTIANCY and GRAVES–have been known to the bench and bar of Michigan as The Big Four.
I might say that one of the cases which has not been mentioned, which I think is an historical one, is the matter of the People v Hurlbut, and is recorded in 24 Michigan beginning at page 44 (1871). In this instance, the Legislature undertook to appoint several members to the board of public works of the City of Detroit as permanent officers for a term fixed by the Legislature. The Big Four held that the Legislature did not have that authority; that the Constitution of 1850 did not confer any home-rule privileges and, as a result of this decision, the–it was a forerunner to the provision in the 1908 Constitution that provided for home-rule for cities. In saying that perhaps there was a comparison between that Court and this, Mr. Beusser, I am sure that you did not have in mind the fact that in this case there were four opinions written and on only one particular disposition point did they all agree. So that there is some resemblance even with the present Court in that respect.
I accept this generous offer of the State Bar of Michigan and the remarks of this morning will be spread upon the record and will be published in the next volume of the Michigan Reports.