John R. Dethmers was born in Plessis, Iowa, on October 5, 1903, and grew up in Orange City. He enrolled at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, then went on to the University of Michigan Law School and began to practice law in 1927. Dethmers was a member of various judicial associations and was a family man with three children. He died November 1, 1971, in Lansing.
Dethmers served on the Michigan Supreme Court for 25 years, including nine years as Chief Justice. He was 42 years old when Governor Harry Kelly appointed him to the Court in 1946. By then he had already accumulated 13 years of experience in government as City Attorney for Zeeland, Prosecutor for Ottawa County for four terms, Legal Advisor to the Governor, Chief Assistant Attorney General, and as Michigan’s elected Attorney General. He mixed freely in Republican Party politics during this time, rising to his party’s state chairmanship as an “anti-boss” candidate.
Dethmers, rugged individualist that he was, scorned staff help when he could do without it. He was proud that in his last 17 years on the Bench he worked without the assistance of even one law clerk, and with the thrift characteristic of his Dutch ancestry, he declined the privilege of driving a state-assigned car.
For a while in the 1950s, it appeared that he might win advancement to the United States Supreme Court. His admirers were disappointed when President Dwight Eisenhower chose Potter Stewart rather than Dethmers to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Harold Burton. This choice was said to be the result of a speech Dethmers made when attending a meeting of the Chief Justices in Los Angeles. He made remarks in which he criticized judicial legislating because he felt that it was inappropriate. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was very displeased. Dethmers had spoken his mind and said what he felt needed to be said. (Michigan Supreme Court. Michigan Reports: Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of Michigan. Rochester, N.Y.: Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Co., 1949 – 1998, Vol. 408.)
Portrait presented on:
May 20, 1980
Breton, Lucien L.
Oil on canvas
100.33cm X 74.93 (39 1/2″ X 29 1/2″)
State of Michigan
Hall of Justice – 4th Floor:
Clerk’s Office Lobby
Portrait photo by:
Douglas Elbinger – June 1996