In Memoriam Honorable Nelson Sharpe

JANUARY 7, 1936

Upon the coming in of Court in the afternoon of January 7, 1936, Chief Justice WALTER H. NORTH spoke as follows:

This session of the Supreme Court has been convened in honor of the memory of our former associate, Mr. Justice NELSON SHARPE, who departed this life October 20th of the past year. Relatives, friends and former associates of Justice SHARPE are here in attendance. It would be highly fitting that those of you who will should make such remarks as are suited to the occasion.

 HON. GEORGE M. CLARK: May it please the Court:

It is considerate of the members of this court that they should set a time and pause in their arduous labors to pay tribute to the memory of the late Justice NELSON SHARPE who so long and so ably served the people of this State as a member of its judiciary. It is fitting and proper that this be done. In seeking to honor the memory of Justice SHARPE the court but honors itself, for by this occasion public attention is called again to the high character of the men who grace this, the highest tribunal in the State; to the confidence of our people in this court, and to the high esteem to which it is universally held.

Justice SHARPE served 16 years on the bench of this, the Supreme Court of the State, and 26 years on the circuit bench of the 34th judicial circuit–in all 42 years of judicial service. The opinions written by him while a member of this court speak eloquently of his fairness, his ability and his devotion to duty. There have been few men to whom equity had a stronger appeal. He, of course, was bound by the settled bench law and by the statute law of the State. He was distressed at times when fixed rules conflicted with his idea of equity. No man strove more earnestly for the right. His life was consecrated to service. He was proud of his membership upon this bench. He loved his work. He was extremely fond of his associates and his happiest days were spent in social and official intercourse with members of this court. By his life of service, rectitude of conduct, faithful and intelligent devotion to duty, he contributed much to the esteem and respect in which this court is held by the people in this State and other States. He gave to each case the best that was in him. He has written many notable opinions. It was said by a former member of this court, after service of nearly seven years upon the bench, and after writing a great many opinions, that he had made but one constructive contribution to the law of the State; that all of his other opinions were merely decisions of law suits. That statement is probably correct. It seldom comes to one to make any great contribution to the body of the law. Justice SHARPE enjoyed several such opportunities and he embraced them with great ability. If he had been asked his outstanding contribution to the law of the State I believe he would have selected the case of Melconian v. City of Grand Rapids, reported in 218 Mich. 397, relating to the rights of municipalities to the reasonable control of their streets. This case has been widely quoted, commented upon and cited in decisions in this jurisdiction and elsewhere. If I were asked the greatest contribution made by Justice SHARPE to the body of the law in this State I would select the case of Quarton v. Barton, 249 Mich. 474, wherein Justice SHARPE overruled some former decisions and settled a controversy respecting the construction of wills which had persisted, unfortunately, in this State since Jones v. Jones 25 Mich. 401. Of all the opinions written by the late Justice SHARPE I think these two are outstanding. They alone characterize him as one of the greatest justices ever to grace this bench.

His contributions to the law of the State were not confined to his years of service upon this bench. He was an outstanding trial judge for many years. In fact, he attained such eminence that without political influence he was selected for the Supreme Bench on merit alone. No political considerations tainted that appointment. As a trial judge he rendered a very distinct service in contributing to the bench law of the State, especially upon the questions of negligence, contributory negligence and proximate cause.

Justice SHARPE has left an important and enduring contribution to the law which will stand throughout the years as a monument to his industry, fidelity and ability. However, it may be that his greatest achievement was not in the field of the law. It was my privilege to have him as a friend, and to see him and know him among the people of his home circuit where he lived so many years. They loved him, trusted him, sought his counsel and aid in their many and varied problems and difficulties. By generous hand, by cheerful word, by kindly smile, by wise counsel, by precept and example, he molded the character of his people whom he regarded as his brothers, his sisters, his children. To them he was an apostle of peace and of good will. No one can calculate his influence upon their lives, their character, and the lives and character of those who come after them. Certainly it is far reaching, perhaps to the farthest shores of time.
Great as was his distinction in the law, I like to think his greatest work in life was as a friend of man. He was devoted to his family. He loved to talk of his son Don, a lawyer of Kalamazoo, and his wife Betty, and of his son Lee, a lawyer of Philadelphia, and his wife Blanche. He maintained a large apartment that they might be comfortable in case they chose to visit him. Here his lovable qualities were also plainly manifest to his many and loyal friends. A noble soul has gone into the great beyond. Perhaps if we strive to follow in his footsteps we shall see him again.

 HON. CHARLES B. COLLINGWOOD: May it please the Court:

A distinguished man should have a distinguished person to pronounce his eulogy. My only excuse for appearing before this great court is that NELSON SHARPE was my friend. However, if all his friends were here, this room would be inadequate.

NELSON SHARPE was fortunate in being well born. Nature endowed him with a strong, well-balanced mind in a strong body.

It is not unimportant that he was born in Northumberland county, province of Ontario, Canada, in 1858, and received his elementary education in the public schools of that province, and later that he entered Albert College, Belleville, Ontario. After deciding to enter the legal profession, like so many men of that time, he attached himself to the office of an eminent attorney, Hon. JOHN A. KERR, Crown Attorney, at Cobourg, Ontario.

His real education, however, commenced when, at the age of 24, he moved to the little town of West Branch, among the pine forests of Ogemaw county. There, in partnership with his brother Albert, he published a newspaper and practiced law.* There he carried on his work among the sturdy pioneers of that region, making friends who clung to him through life. It was there he married, there his children were born. He always called West Branch home.

Because he wished to do his part as a citizen he was naturalized in 1888, adopted the traditions of this country, and became in every sense the best type of an American citizen. His law practice constantly grew, enlarging his circle of acquaintances and friends. NELSON SHARPE soon became one of the foremost citizens of northern Michigan.
In 1893, the 34th judicial circuit, consisting of six counties, was created by an act of the legislature. Governor RICH, with his usual good judgment, appointed NELSON SHARPE to be the first judge of this vast circuit. Few men ever entered on the duties of a circuit judge with a finer equipment. His well trained mind, his broad legal training, his industry, his keen sense of justice, his almost infinite patience, and best of all, his intimate knowledge of human nature, made him eminently fitted for the duties and responsibilities of that high office. His circuit covered a wide extent of territory, and contained a people peculiarly individualistic, and who were particularly jealous of their rights and privileges. At the close of his first term and at the close of each succeeding term he was reelected without opposition.

In court he presided with dignity and courtesy. Justice was tempered with mercy, and yet he never hesitated to rule in such a manner that the dignity of the court was maintained. The common man, as well as the learned counsel, respected his decisions.

He held four terms of court each year in each of the six counties forming his circuit. He also held court in many circuits where the judge was disqualified or the work too heavy for the court. He presided in many important cases in Wayne county, broadening his experience and enlarging his acquaintance.

In his own circuit, in each of the county seats, the opening of court by Judge NELSON SHARPE was recognized, by all the people, as the coming to them of a wise, benevolent and just friend.

And so passed the years, more than a quarter of a century, in an endless routine, which to a lesser man would have been wearisome. NELSON SHARPE kept the forward look, he never became pessimistic, he never became stale. He gave to each case, and to each individual who cam before him the same clear, unprejudiced investigation as he gave to his first case.

NELSON SHARPE was not ambitious. He has often told me that he was satisfied with his work and his friend in his own circuit. It was to him a good life.

When, however Justice OSTRANDER passed away and Governor SLEEPER offered him an appointment to the highest court in the State, he accepted, and immediately took up the duties of his new office.

His first opinion appears in volume 207 of the Michigan Reports, his last opinion in volume 273. These 67 volumes contain more than a thousand opinions written by him, on every phase of the law. There they stand, a perpetual monument to his industry and integrity. No one can add to it, no one can detract from it.

When a case came before him for review he apparently studied it from the viewpoint of one who felt that the circuit judge who heard the case was an honest conscientious jurist, who had some reason for reaching his conclusion. His first effort seemed to be to gather a correct knowledge of the facts on which the case was founded, not always an easy thing to do. He studied the briefs of each side carefully, reviewing every citation. Then he applied the law, as he saw it, to the facts, and wrote an opinion that was not only a legal masterpiece, but was written in simple, appropriate language, clear and concise.

His opinions clear up many complicated legal situations and bring light into dark places.

It is safe to say that no layman, and few lawyers, appreciate the vast amount of patient labor necessary to write an opinion in a court of last resort. Nothing can be taken for granted, every statement and every citation must be checked and double-checked. The method adopted by Justice SHARPE was simple and direct. He merely devoted all his time to his work in systematic, patient investigation. This is not exaggeration, and will be confirmed by his close friends. Many of Justice SHARPE’S opinions read like a text-book, and will stand as landmarks for the future students of law.

In 1934 the University of Michigan, in recognition of his service to the State of Michigan, conferred upon Justice SHARPE the degree of Doctor of Laws.

Few men have had a more distinguished career then NELSON SHARPE. He served the State of Michigan faithfully and well. For 26 years as circuit judge of the 34th judicial circuit, for 16 years as a justice in the highest court in Michigan.

It is impossible to exaggerate the value of his services to the State of Michigan as a useful and distinguished citizen. This distinction did not come to NELSON SHARPE by chance. It came because of his well-trained mind, his love of truth and justice, his patient, methodical, unremitting labor.

Emerson has said: “It makes a difference in the force of a sentence if there be a man behind it.” May I paraphrase by saying that: “It makes a difference in the force of a judicial opinion if there be a man behind it.” In every opinion written by Justice NELSON SHARPE there was a man behind it, and that fact is understood and appreciated by every lawyer in Michigan.

CHIEF JUSTICE NORTH: The senior of the present members of this court, both in point of years and of service, is Justice WIEST. He was associated with Justice NELSON SHARPE in the work of this court for a considerably longer time than any other present member of the court. It is, therefore, highly fitting that Justice WIEST should speak for the court on this occasion.

 JUSTICE WIEST spoke as follows: In the passing of Mr. Justice NELSON SHARPE the State has lost a sterling citizen, the bench a learned jurist, and the legal profession an outstanding member.

He was in the line of judicial duty upon this bench when stricken, and he quietly retired to his quarters and there awaited the decree of highest authority.

When the summons was served by the angel of death, reverent hands conveyed the remains to his old home city and there, attended by his former fellow townsmen, they were laid at rest on the brow of a hill overlooking the valley and plains he loved so well.

This hour we pause and, in remembrance, express appreciation of the splendid qualities of the man, his ability as a jurist and his helpfulness as an associate in the work of this court.

He came to this court after long experience upon the circuit bench, and with well-garnered legal lore, and this was ever at his command and at the service of his judicial associates.

He was an earnest, careful and helpful member of the court and worthily earned the lasting regards of his associates. He was strong in his convictions but considerate of the reasoning of others. He was quick in sensing equities and strong in denouncing transgressions.

Quite 15 years in daily converse with him in judicial work and problems gave me insight of the splendid mental powers and legal attainments possessed by him.

We miss, and shall continue to experience the loss of his presence, exactitude, attainments and aid.

He has left his impress upon the jurisprudence of this State, for his opinions, appearing in 67 volumes of the Reports and amounting to about a thousand in number, carry continuing guidance.

He had the splendor of a useful life. Of him we say: “Well done.”

 MR. GEORGE BRAND, former president of the Detroit Bar Association, then spoke as follows:

Your Honors:

An occasion such as this, quite naturally, I think, impresses one with the difficulty of attempting to paint a word picture of a long and usefully devoted life. Nor does it seem necessary to do so. To those of us who knew the beloved Justice NELSON SHARPE, words are not required. Our thoughts of him are, and will remain, in the heart. Those who did not know him have been irrevocably deprived of a great privilege.

As a member of the Bar of Detroit, I join in this official evidence of respect to the memory of a former member of this court. Others have spoken appropriately of his fine character and his splendid judicial service. I shall attempt to give but a glimpse of our vision of him.

Carlyle said: “There is a perennial nobleness and even sacredness in work. Blessed is he who has found his work.”
Mr. Justice SHARPE, if Your Honors please, was such a man and he leaves with us a lasting conviction that the fruits of his labor were among his greatest pleasures.

 MR. ROBERTS P. HUDSON, President of the State Bar of Michigan, then spoke as follows:

If Your Honors Please: In behalf of the State Bar of Michigan, I bring our respectful tribute to the memory of a great jurist, an unfailing and unvarying friend and a gallant gentleman.

CHIEF JUSTICE NORTH concluded as follows: I am sure that all of the members of this court deeply appreciate the attendance here today of relatives, friends and former associates of Mr. Justice NELSON SHARPE. That which has been said and done on this occasion will be made a part of the permanent records of this court. In token of the deep appreciation and the great esteem in which we hold the memory of Justice SHARPE, the work of this court will be suspended and its session adjourned until tomorrow morning.