Dedication Of An Historical Marker Commemorating The Old Supreme Court Courtroom 1879-1970


CHIEF JUSTICE RILEY: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My colleagues and I welcome you this morning to this formal session of the Michigan Supreme Court on the occasion of the dedication of a bronze marker commemorating the old Supreme Court chambers.

This was the home of sixty justices who served on the Court from January 1, 1879, when this Capitol building was completed, until January 6, 1970, when the Court moved to its present quarters in the Law Building. You will hear more shortly about the history of the Court.

However, before the presentation, I would like to acknowledge the presence this morning of former Chief Justices BRENNAN, KAVANAGH, COLEMAN and FITZGERALD, and former Justices SWAINSON, SOURIS and RYAN. In addition, we are delighted to have with us leaders of the House and Senate, members of the Judiciary Committee, representatives from the Governor’s office, our Supreme Court Administrator, members of the Supreme Court staff, and distinguished members of the bar.

I am certain that my colleagues are as grateful as I am for this day. Earlier this morning we were delighted to have more than one hundred trial and appellate judges in the House gallery for the State of the Judiciary Message, and now somehow I cannot help but feel that there is a heavenly gallery of nearly one hundred departed justices watching over us, for the presence of justices past is keenly felt by all of us on the Court this morning.

Our historian today was to have been John Wesley Reed, Dean of the Wayne State University Law School. I have just been advised that scheduling problems interfered with his arriving today, and I am very sorry. But I can direct your attention to the Wayne Law Review, Volume 33 (1987), The Ablest Court: The Michigan Supreme Court Before 1885. It’s a very fine history of the Court, and I would hope that you read it. I am going to ask someone here that actually served in these quarters to say a few words about the Court as he knew it, the very Honorable THEODORE SOURIS, former justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

 THE HONORABLE THEODORE SOURIS: Chief Justice RILEY, members of the Court. I am flattered at the request, that comes so unexpectedly, to share with you some of my very fond memories of this room and of this Court.
One of the things that strikes me immediately is the absence of the photographs and paintings of the justices who served in this lovely room. They were scattered throughout the chamber on virtually every inch of wall space, and added a sense of humanness to the room where so many important issues affecting human beings were being decided.
There was another difference that I hasten to point out to you. There were eight seats on the Court, instead of only seven, so we were a bit closer to one another than you are today.

I was reminiscing earlier about things that happened in this chamber during the almost nine years I served here, and one that sticks in my mind is an embarrassment for me, but it served to underscore for me ever since its occurrence the importance of this room to the history of this state.

I was attending a State Bar dinner the night before a session of the Court was to begin, and the speaker for the evening was Whitney North Seymour, a very prominent New York lawyer, who took the occasion to address the State Bar of Michigan on the subject of judicial selection. He was an advocate of a selection process with which I was in direct disagreement. Mr. Seymour spoke on the basis of his experience with New York judges and the necessity for reform because of the way in which New York judges function. What he had to say about New York judges simply was not applicable to judges in the State of Michigan, which had been absolutely free of scandal or any taint of misconduct by Michigan’s judiciary. At the end of that speech, I undertook privately to brace Mr. Seymour about his address to Michigan lawyers and judges; it was a rather vigorous debate in which we engaged for five or six minutes.
The following morning the first case called was a case in which Walter Nelson, some of you here will remember the flamboyant Walter Nelson, an extraordinarily able lawyer, rose and said only one thing. “Members of the Court, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you my colleague, Mr. Whitney North Seymour, who will present the argument for the appellant today.”

I wrote a little note, the first time, the only time I had ever done such a thing, to Mr. Seymour which said something like this, “I apologize to you for our encounter last night. I want to assure you that it will have no bearing whatever in my judgment.” And I had the Crier take the note to Mr. Seymour immediately after his argument was ended. He wrote back a little note which simply said, “I think this is one of the most beautiful courtrooms I have ever been in.” Period.

CHIEF JUSTICE RILEY: Now you have seen new evidence of why Justice SOURIS was such a great justice, and what a loss he was to the Supreme Court of Michigan, to the people of Michigan, when he left to go into the private sector. Thank you, Ted.

The history of the Supreme Court in these chambers ends in January of 1970. On March 3, 1970, the young Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court presided over the ceremonies closing this courtroom. Those ceremonies are reported in volume 383 of the Michigan Reports, and thus we have a record of those who participated and what they said. The words of THOMAS E. BRENNAN, Chief Justice on that occasion, bear repeating. Who better to repeat them than their author, and so I ask the former Chief Justice and President of the Thomas Cooley Law School, THOMAS E. BRENNAN, to step forward.

 THE HONORABLE THOMAS E. BRENNAN: Madam Chief Justice, justices of the Supreme Court, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished senators and representatives.

I am doubly honored this day. I am honored, first, that the Chief Justice has asked me to speak, and, second, that she has asked me to repeat what I said here when, as Chief Justice, I was privileged to preside at the final session of the Court held in these chambers. My remarks, reported as she notes in the Michigan Reports, were as follows:

We have come here to mark this occasion; to observe this event with appropriate ceremony. It falls to me, as the Chief Justice, to make this opening statement. While the office I hold dictates that I should do this, I am warmly conscious of my poor measure to the task, for this is a time that fairly begs to be given over to nostalgia and filled with remembrances of other days and other faces; days before I came here, and faces which I never saw. It is a time when the oldest man in this room should be able to recall with unseasonable clarity his earliest appearance at this bar. It is a time when names once familiar, but long unspoken, should be made to resound again upon these walls, so hallowed by their service, so honored by their lives. It is, in short, a time when men of sentiment and a sense of history are wont to look and listen for ghosts—and be most apt to see and hear them. For there is a continuity to human affairs and a life in human institutions which is more real than musty records and printed volumes can hold. And, this is a place—and a mourning—in the life of the Michigan Supreme Court which needs to be seen with human eyes, and heard with human ears, and recorded in the mortal hearts and the immortal souls of human beings.

It is good for us to do this and to remind ourselves that this old courtroom we close today has been the chambers of the Court and not the Court itself, because a Court is not a room or a building: it is people. This courtroom is old at 90 years; the Supreme Court is young at 133. Good men, brave men, wise men, strong and studious, dedicated and independent men, have in those 133 years interchanged their ideas and entwined their lives to weave the fabric of Michigan’s decisional law, and to bestow the gift of ordered liberty to generations of free men yet unborn. It is in homage to them, to those generous men, departed Justices and living former Justices who have graced this Bench, that our Court sits today in formal session. [383 Mich xci-xcii.]

Madam Chief Justice, I am loath to sit down without one further comment. The glorious past we mark in reverence here today is both glorious and past. It should be fondly remembered, but not slavishly imitated. Nothing more pointedly reminds us of the progress of the Supreme Court, and indeed the advance of western civilization in the last eighteen years, than the one-gender syntax of my remarks in 1970. These words were proper then, and, indeed, no female ever sat on the bench in this old courtroom. But they fall far short of the mark today. In 1988, the homage we owe to justices past is due both to men and to women. The contributions which you, and Justice BOYLE, and Chief Justice COLEMAN have made to our jurisprudence already echo through the bench and bar as they have resounded in every community of our beloved State of Michigan.

Your appearance before the Legislature this morning, Madam Chief Justice, and the numerous women judges in attendance there and here, give cogent testimony that Michigan’s One Court of Justice is graced by talented women whose leadership and service deserve to be recognized and appreciated. So let us mark this place and remember what happened here. But let us also rejoice that the past is past, that more history is being written in other rooms, by other people, and that the warm glow of our yesterday is becoming the bright beauty of our tomorrow.


I believe that it was our late President, Harry S. Truman, who said, “There is nothing new under the sun, except the history we don’t know.” Well, there is more history about our Court to know. And, thus, while the primary purpose of this ceremony is to mark and set aside for permanent honor and protection this historic chamber which has unusual historic significance for the people of Michigan, the second purpose is to institutionalize the history of our Court and the members who have served. For this latter purpose, I am pleased to present my good friend, and relative by marriage, Wallace D. Riley, President of the newly created Supreme Court Historical Society. Mr. Riley.

 THE HONORABLE WALLACE D. RILEY: Chief Justice, associate justices, former justices, representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government, and distinguished guests, and all of you friends of the Michigan Supreme Court.

I suppose that there are those who might opine that much, perhaps too much, has been written and said about the Michigan Supreme Court over the past 152 years. But I think all of us would agree that what has been said, good or bad, general or specific, judicial or political, has been in the media and not in the history books or law journals. There have been some exceptions, such as an unpublished doctoral dissertation in 1940 at the University of Michigan by Clark F. Norton entitled, A History of the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan, 1836-1857. And there are several more historical articles about the Court and its members and its decisions by Mr. Norton as published in Michigan Academic Papers, Michigan History, and the Michigan Law Review.

A very recent article, to which the Chief Justice referred, was in the special issue of the Wayne Law Review, volume 33, number 5, by Wayne State Law School Associate Dean Edward M. Wise. It gives an account of the Court from its beginnings through 1885. It is done in very good detail, and it really is a good and interesting, and lengthy, history of the Court.

There have been others who have written and who have lectured about the history of the Court, such as Michigan law professors William Wirt Bloom, and Charles W. Joiner, not to mention many of the justices themselves who have from time to time written something about the Court and its history. But all of these efforts from time to time, inspired as they may have been, have been scattered and invisible to the public and to most of the bar.

So today, I hope, marks the beginning of a record-keeping history of the Michigan Supreme Court. I am pleased to announce to you the formation of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, a domestic, nonprofit corporation, organized on a nonstock directorship basis, to be made up of members of the bar, law students, and the public at large. The corporation is organized to carry on exclusively educational and other charitable activities within the meaning of § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. That is important, because the annual and the life membership dues set forth in the bylaws for individuals, for firms, for foundations and other entities, are deductible for income tax purposes.
The society’s main purpose will include the dissemination of information regarding such historic, scientific, literary and other documents, records, objects and memorabilia of, or relating to, the Michigan Supreme Court and the justices thereof; acquiring information concerning the history of the entire judicial branch of government in the State of Michigan; and making the information and materials acquired available to scholars, historians, the public, and the like.

Our effort to sort out the history of the State Supreme Court is not a first. The Florida Supreme Court Historical Society and the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society have been about their good work for a number of years, and there have been other societies in other states.

I suppose that many of you here are members of the Supreme Court Historical Society founded, as you know, by our own Elizabeth Gossett, wife of American Bar Past President William T. Gossett, and the daughter of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Some of the planned early activities of our Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society will include research necessary to the ultimate publication of the history of the Court, commencement of an oral history project, efforts to locate and obtain memorabilia of persons connected with the Court, needed restoration and obtaining of portraits of former justices, and the efforts to build, most importantly, a solid membership base of lawyers and the public.

The objective of the oral history project will be to interview and record the knowledge and recollections of people who have been members of the Supreme Court or who have played significant roles in cases or events involving the Court. Such recorded recollections will provide a valuable primary source of knowledge of past events, and will be of assistance in understanding and writing about the earlier events and people of the Court. I hope that each of you here will want to support, and will want to join, the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society.

But enough words about the society, rather, I report to you something tangible to evidence its existence. As the first official act of the society, I direct your attention now to the unveiling and the presentation of a bronze marker. That marker identifies these old Supreme Court chambers for a parade of eyes yet to visit the Capitol. Accepting the marker for the State of Michigan, the Legislature, and the Senate is Senator John M. Engler, Majority Leader of the Senate, member of the State Bar of Michigan, and a friend of the Michigan Supreme Court. Senator Engler, if you will step forward.

[At which time the bronze marker was unveiled.]

 THE HONORABLE JOHN M. ENGLER: On behalf of the Michigan Senate, Madam Chief Justice, justices of the Supreme Court, former justices, and my legislative colleagues, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, we accept proudly this remarkable marker and the history which it signifies.

As the Majority Leader of the Senate, and as someone who, with my colleagues Senator Gast, Chairman of our Appropriations Committee, Senator Binsfeld, Senator Nichols, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, I am pleased to be part of this dedication in this most historic room, which served as the Supreme Court chambers for 91 years.
You can feel the history here since the original justices assumed the bench on January 8, 1879, just one week after the dedication of what was then our new Capitol building. Nearly 38,000 cases and almost 10,000 oral arguments were heard in this room. I suspect since the Senate Appropriations Committee took over this room a similar number of arguments have been heard.

In the years that this room served as the Supreme Court chambers, the law has been changed a number of times with regard to the composition of the Court. Justice SOURIS mentioned that earlier. The number of justices have at times been four, five, eight, and now the current number of seven. The length of terms has changed. It has at times been four years, seven years, six years, and the current eight-year term. It seems that over that time the law has been quite eager to change the Supreme Court. Those of us in the Legislature are eternally grateful that the Supreme Court has shown considerable restraint in changing the laws that we have passed.

In any event, this room has resonated with the opinions of some of the greatest legal minds of our time: Justice THOMAS COOLEY, a cofounder of the University of Michigan Law School, and the namesake of my alma mater, Cooley Law School, is nationally regarded for his spirited legal writings. Justice JOHN VOELKER, who after leaving the Court gained fame as an author. Justice ISAAC MARSTON—he was kind of a favorite when we were preparing for this today. His is one of the compelling success stories of the Court. He was a poor Irish immigrant with no formal education. He was such a bright and promising young man that Judge COOLEY agreed to waive the academic requirements and admitted him to the University of Michigan Law School. MARSTON went through in rapid succession—justice of the peace, city attorney, prosecuting attorney, state representative, Supreme Court justice—all within a span of fifteen years. The irony is that MARSTON sat on the high court bench with his mentor, Justice COOLEY. So this room has as much historical significance as this building does. I can tell you today with some pride that the Senate, and I think a number of the legislators and members of the state government, are convinced that this significance must be preserved. It is our intent, and you can see that on the fourth floor with the committee restoration that has been done, and outside the Senate chambers. We hope that some day this building will suitably be restored so that this plaque can be appropriately and proudly displayed, and that this room itself can be restored to the grandeur that made it acclaimed architecturally as one of the finest in the United States.

Of significance, and Justice BRENNAN mentioned this, is the history that we are witnessing today because for the first time in this Supreme Court chamber a black justice and two women justices are sitting together as equal members of our state’s highest court. Our Court’s current makeup is testimony to the advances our society has made in the area of civil rights, advances in which this Court has played a major role.

In summary, I just want to say that I am honored on behalf of the Senate to welcome the Supreme Court back today to its original chambers and to join this celebration of the illustrious history of the Michigan judiciary. I am grateful to join and remember the contributions made by the former justices that are here, and all who have served in this room as justices. The marker is a lasting testament to the esteemed treasury of judicial thought that has shaped Michigan history, a treasury we rely on today and shall continue to rely on for generations to come.

We wish the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society much success and congratulate Wallace Riley on the formation of it. I am honored that my first appearance before the Supreme Court should come on such an auspicious occasion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RILEY: Before closing our ceremonies this morning, I would like to again acknowledge the great help we did receive from Senator Engler, Senator Binsfeld, and Senator Gast, and their staffs, in planning this program and making the program possible at all. I would also like to thank Secretary of the Senate Willis Snow and his staff members John Beutler and Martin Selfridge for actually putting this room back together, and making the necessary arrangements so we could conduct these ceremonies this morning. This is a beautiful courtroom.

And finally, for all the justices of then and now, I would like to thank you for coming.

[At which time the special session of the Michigan Supreme Court was adjourned.]