Special Session Acknowledging The Loan Of The Portrait Of The Big Four

MARCH 8, 2005

CHIEF JUSTICE TAYLOR: Welcome. It is my pleasant task to welcome all of you to this very special session of the Michigan Supreme Court. A particular welcome to Nancy Diehl and John Berry from the State Bar and to Wally Riley, from the Supreme Court Historical Society, who will serve as master of ceremonies today.

Before I turn the proceedings over to Mr. Riley, I would like to say a few brief words on what this painting represents to the Court today. The casual observer would look on this painting, fine as it is, as just an image of four gentlemen who are wearing quaint old clothes and sporting whiskers. What possible interest, they might ask, does this image hold for us today?

Obviously, this painting reminds us of the origins of our Court, and also of the distinguished lawyers and scholars who comprised “The Big Four.” Their fair-mindedness and learning not only led to national recognition of this Supreme Court as one of the best in the country, but also set a very high standard for all the justices who would follow them.
Even more importantly, the calm faces of these four justices remind all of us how essential a role the law plays in maintaining democracy, especially in uncertain times.

And the world in which these men lived and worked was one beset by uncertainty. The United States had recently been torn by a bitter and devastating war in which over 3.8 million men, representing over ten percent of the nation’s population, participated.(1) Of those, 970,000 young men(2) died or were maimed. It bears noting that the Michigan contribution to that war paid testament to our abolitionist heritage. Consider this when attempting to appreciate it: At Spotsylvania, in the overland campaign commanded by General Grant, the 17th Michigan Infantry lost 190 out of 225 men in a single attack.(3) In the same campaign at Petersburg, six regiments of Michigan infantry were victims of the slaughter in the crater formed by the tunneling explosion(4) depicted in the recent film Cold Mountain. In all, 14,700 Michigan men gave their lives.(5) The war changed the American economy also. For example, we are informed by Professor Willis Dunbar in his book Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State that between 1860 and 1870 the number of manufacturing establishments increased by 174 percent and the amount of capital invested by 201 percent. In this atmosphere of upheaval, both during the war and in the postwar years, people longed for restored stability.

That was the world inhabited by Justices THOMAS COOLEY, ISAAC CHRISTIANCY, JAMES V. CAMPBELL, and BENJAMIN F. GRAVES. And they met the challenge of uncertain times by affirming, through their professional discipline and fidelity, the stability provided by our Constitution and laws.

This was not an easy or, at times, popular course. For example, in 1865, the Court, which at that time included Justices CHRISTIANCY, CAMPBELL, and COOLEY, was called upon to decide whether Michigan’s election laws violated the state Constitution’s requirement that voters reside in the state. The case is reported at 13 Michigan Reports 127, and is entitled The People on relation of Daniel S. Twitchell v. Amos C. Blodgett. Twitchell and Blodgett were contenders for the office of prosecuting attorney in Washtenaw County. Twitchell argued, and the Court accepted, that he would have won the election if soldiers’ votes had been counted. The law at issue was enacted in February 1864 to allow soldiers on duty outside the state to vote. Its adoption had been urged here and in other unionist states by President Lincoln as he felt, correctly as it would work out, that the soldiers’ vote would be strongly Republican. In short, in this very Republican state, it was a very popular measure. Needless to say, a decision upholding the law would have insured the justices’ popularity.

But the justices, almost certainly going against their own personal inclinations, held that the law violated the state Constitution. Justice COOLEY wrote that the text of the Constitution was clear, and that the “fair and natural import of the terms employed . . . is what should govern.”

He went on to say that violating this rule of construction would undermine “the anchor of our safety.” He concluded: “And, believing as I do, that a high and sacred regard for law and constitutional order is being begotten of these times, I regard it as especially important that the judiciary should do nothing to postpone or check this result by decisions which strain or bend the meaning of words to meet unexpected emergencies.”

It was not a popular decision. In fact, in addition to Mr. Twitchell, some state legislators also lost elections as a result of the ruling.

Living as we do in a time when so many of our daughters and sons are away fighting a war, we can also imagine and appreciate the feelings of those who saw the Court’s action as displaying a shocking indifference to the plight of those in uniform. But the Court clearly and decisively said that its role was to uphold the Constitution and follow the original understanding of the words used in the documents, regardless of personal inclination or public reaction. That took integrity, character, and great courage.

This is the stuff of which our heritage consists both as a Court and as citizens. These four men remind us that the law does, indeed, provide “the anchor of our safety” and they call on us to preserve that source of stability, justice, and strength.

I now ask Mr. Riley to proceed with the program.

MR. RILEY: Thank you Mr. Chief Justice. On behalf of the board of directors of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, welcome to today’s special session to acknowledge the loan of the Big Four Portrait by the State Bar of Michigan to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The portrait that we will soon unveil has become a somewhat famous part of Michigan’s legal history. It is based not on any real moment, but on an artist’s idea of how the justices, who would become known as the Big Four, might have looked as they transacted their business of the Court. Copies of the painting in various sizes and shapes can be found downtown on the side of Cooley Law School, in the Learning Center just downstairs, and in offices around the state of many attorneys.

Recently, the painting was hung at 306 Townsend Street, home of the State Bar of Michigan. In fact, it was painted to be hung over the mantel in that room in that building. When that building was renovated, the painting was taken down and placed in storage and then with the help of the society’s former executive director, Jill Wright, the painting was located and restored to its original pristine condition.

After today, it will be hung in the conference center on the first floor of this Hall of Justice. Of course, we have the individual portraits of each one of the Big Four in the Court’s collection of portraits. But their grouping is unique.
The story behind the painting of this portrait, and of the justices featured in it, is an interesting one. And to tell you about it, may I present to you John T. Berry, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, and Ms. Nancy J. Diehl, president of the State Bar of Michigan.

MR. BERRY: May it please the Court, Chief Justice TAYLOR and justices, and distinguished guests. It’s a privilege to be here today and, when you come to such an event, it is a privilege in and of itself, but sometimes other events connected to it give it even more importance in your own life and in the lives of the bar that I represent.

And, very quickly, I want to share two of those events. One, this morning, I mentor a law student and we were talking about the state of the law, about the role of attorneys. And this painting has come to be known in this community and throughout this state for a lot of reasons, the reasons that you so well articulated, Chief Justice, but also it represents the role of attorneys as ministers of justice. Not just hired guns but the role to be able to be part of a judicial system, a system that we can all be proud of. And I talked to that young student about that role and the challenges that they have to understand that role. The fact that this Court would take this time to be able to hang this painting with what all it represents, the State Bar truly thanks this Court and all that have been part of it.

This portrait affected me as well in another way. Two and a half years ago I had the privilege of going to Nigeria on behalf of the Justice Department to talk about the rule of law, and I tried to look at one thing from the state of Michigan that I thought might represent something that would set up that moment. And as I was driving down the street and I saw that mural, I suddenly recognized that that might be the one thing. And, believe it or not, it was. That was a country that is trying to emulate what this country is all about. Even though their constitution is similar to ours and even though they are attempting to do what we are, this is inbred into who we are and what we are about. So this painting carries for us a lot of meaning that goes beyond some of the things that initially we may think brings meaning to it. It is my privilege to tell you about that portrait.

The Big Four portrait that we are presenting today was originally commissioned by attorney Frank G. Mixter and was donated to the State Bar of Michigan in 1967. Artist John Coppin painted the portrait to fit the space that was located over the fireplace in what was then the State Bar lounge. That area of the building is now the Board of Commissioners meeting room. Frank Mixter devoted himself to helping others through his law practice and his involvement with the Lincoln Park city affairs, community organizations, and the Lincoln Park schools. A true community benefactor, he generously gave of his time and of his money to many organizations, including the State Bar of Michigan. We were hoping that Frank Mixter’s son, attorney Kenneth Mixter, could join us today. Although he and his wife are out of the country, Ken wrote a note that he wanted me to share with you.

“Dear Mr. Berry: I received your invitation to the ceremony acknowledging the loan of the portrait of the Big Four to the Michigan Supreme Court and its new permanent display in the Supreme Court building. I regret that I will be unable to attend as my wife and I will be out of the country on vacation. My father and mother, Frank G. Mixter and Grace D. Mixter, who commissioned the painting, would be very proud of the fact that the painting will be hanging in the Supreme Court building. On behalf of myself, the rest of the family, we look forward to visiting the building in the future and thank you very much for including us in the ceremony. Sincerely yours, Kenneth G. Mixter.”

The Big Four portrait artist, John S. Coppin, was born in Mitchell, Ontario. After settling in Bloomfield Hills, he became a prominent portrait painter, muralist, and illustrator. As director of AAA Motor News magazine, the forerunner of Michigan Living magazine, he was noted for providing covers for that publication for more than forty years. John Coppin’s portrait subjects included actor Sir Alec Guinness, General Motors president James M. Rosh, automobile tycoon Henry Ford, and four Michigan governors. In addition to museums, locations of his work include the Michigan state capitol building, Rittenburg University in Ohio, Detroit College of Law, the University of Detroit, Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Shakespeare Theatre in Ontario, and the Van Wexell Hall in Sarasota, Florida. In 1999, Mr. Coppin’s family generously gave their permission for this painting to be replicated on the wall of Cooley Law School. The sixty by ninety foot mural is a faithful reproduction of the oil painting. Then being at Cooley Law School, THOMAS E. BRENNAN said the goal of replicating the portrait on the wall of the law school was for the painting to serve as a reminder of the continuum of the law.

The painting being donated today is a composite of Michigan Supreme Court Justices JAMES V. CAMPBELL, BENJAMIN F. GRAVES, THOMAS M. COOLEY, and ISAAC B. CHRISTIANCY. Known as the Big Four, these justices did not pose for the painting as already noted. Rather, the artist John Coppin copied individual portraits of the justices painted by the 19th Century L. T. Ives and put them together in the courtroom. Mr. Coppin even found the original court bench and court clock, which, as a composite, shows these four great jurists in action. On behalf of the State Bar of Michigan, I am pleased to present this painting today to permanently reside in Michigan’s Hall of Justice. Thank you very much.

MS. DIEHL: Good afternoon, Chief Justice and other distinguished justices. Thank you for a few smiles. No one told me I was going to be addressing you this afternoon and individually all so pleasant, but you look so imposing up there this afternoon. I just have to get a few rules straight. I understand I have no time limit and you will not be asking me any questions. All right.

JUSTICE YOUNG: Don’t be too sure.

MS. DIEHL: All right, Justice YOUNG. Okay. That’s why I studied. It is truly an honor to be here this afternoon and represent the State Bar of Michigan.

Many of you today probably have heard about the Big Four painting. Over the years I certainly have. But just who were these justices and what was their significance in terms of Michigan legal history? Justices CAMPBELL, CHRISTIANCY, COOLEY, and GRAVES served on the Michigan Supreme Court together from 1868 to 1875 and came to be known as the Big Four. They were recognized in legal circles throughout the country for their insightful decisions and also credited with providing the direction and structure of today’s Michigan Supreme Court. Known as exceptionally scholarly men, these four justices possessed a high degree of the fair-mindedness essential to a jurist. Each articulated his views and opinions that were marked by energy and clearness of expression.

The Michigan Supreme Court begins with the state Constitution of 1850, stating that the judges of the circuit courts would also serve as judges of the Supreme Court. This initial arrangement soon proved unsuccessful and, in 1857, the Michigan Legislature created a permanent Supreme Court. JAMES V. CAMPBELL and ISAAC P. CHRISTIANCY were elected and joined the first Court in 1858. Four years later, in 1864, THOMAS M. COOLEY was appointed to the Supreme Court and, at the time when COOLEY became Chief Justice in 1868, BENJAMIN F. GRAVES won election and joined the Court. Thus, the beginning of the tenure of the Big Four.

JAMES V. CAMPBELL was born in 1823 in Buffalo, New York. While an infant his family relocated to Detroit, where he remained a lifelong resident. He was admitted to the bar in 1844 and practiced law until becoming a member of the Supreme Court thirteen years later. In 1859, he was chosen as Marshall Professor of Law at the University of Michigan law department, where he influenced young lawyers for over twenty-five years. He greatly respected the rights of the people secured to them by the Constitution and was quick to resent any invasion of its protections. Justice CAMPBELL served on the Supreme Court for thirty-two years until his death in 1890 at the age of sixty-seven.

ISAAC P. CHRISTIANCY was born in 1812 in Johnstown, New York. At the age of thirteen, CHRISTIANCY taught school in order to support his family. He began the study of law in 1835 and moved to Monroe, Michigan, in 1836, where he established a law practice. He practiced law in the area of Monroe for nineteen years while also maintaining a career as a public servant. He was the prosecuting attorney for Monroe County and was also in the state senate. CHRISTIANCY was elected and joined the new Supreme Court in 1858. He was unanimously re-elected in 1865 by all parties and continued to serve on the Court until 1875, when he resigned to become a United States Senator. Throughout his adult life, he was vehemently opposed to slavery and was instrumental in the formation of the Republican Party in Michigan.

THOMAS M. COOLEY, perhaps a name more familiar to most of us, was born in 1825 in Attica, New York. He was one of fifteen children. He began teaching school at the age of seventeen to earn money for his education. He began the study of law at the age of nineteen, which was then the custom, and decided he was going to continue his studies of law in Chicago, but, as luck would have it for those of us in Michigan, money ran out so he ended up staying in Adrian, Michigan, and at the age of twenty-two he was admitted to the Michigan bar. Besides practicing law, he edited the local newspaper. He served as a circuit court commissioner and recorder for the city of Adrian and cultivated his one-hundred-acre farm. In 1857, he compiled the general statutes of the Legislature, and in the following year was appointed the official reporter for the new Supreme Court. One year later, Cooley became a professor in the newly organized law department at the University of Michigan and taught law there for the next twenty-five years. In 1864, at the age of forty, while serving as the first dean of the University of Michigan law school, he was appointed to the Supreme Court and was elected three times before his resignation in 1885.

BENJAMIN GRAVES was the final member of the Big Four and he was born in 1817 in Rochester, New York. All the Big Four were born in New York, so here they came to Michigan. And he studied law, after he was admitted in New York, came to Michigan, was actually going to travel to Kentucky, went there for a while, came back to Michigan, where he settled in Battle Creek, and lived the life of a country lawyer. In 1857, at the age of forty, he was elected judge of the Fifth Circuit Court and later that year appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court to fill a vacancy. That was under the old rules before the Legislature changed it. So in addition to his duties as circuit court judge, he was required, as Supreme Court judge, to travel to Detroit, Kalamazoo, Adrian, Pontiac, and Lansing. I guess his salary made up for it because he got $1,500 a year and his travel expenses. It only lasted for a year and, of course, the Legislature created the new Court. So Justice GRAVES went back to being a circuit judge and for the next ten years remained a circuit judge until, at the age of fifty-one, in 1868, he was elected to the Supreme Court. He was re-nominated in 1875 by both the Republican and Democratic conventions. I think I’ll say that again. He was re-nominated in 1875 by both the Republican and Democratic conventions and was therefore unanimously elected to a second term. However, in 1884 he declined re-nomination and returned to private life for health reasons.

The four justices were broken up in 1875 when Justice CHRISTIANCY resigned to become a United States Senator.
CAMPBELL, CHRISTIANCY, COOLEY, and GRAVES, by way of compliment, came to be called the Big Four. They raised the standing of Michigan jurisprudence to a high level. Because of these four jurists, our Supreme Court came to be esteemed by the courts of other jurisdictions as one of the strongest and one of the best. Today, it is fitting that this portrait of four of our state’s greatest justices should hang in the Michigan Hall of Justice, where the Supreme Court’s history is preserved, while the work of the Court continues in good order. Thank you very much.

[At which time the portrait was unveiled.]

JUSTICE CAVANAGH: Boy, that’s nice. We thank all of you. The Court will certainly treasure that. It will complement this Hall of Justice.

You know, all of us, I believe, would agree that we live in different times than those of the men we memorialize today. Back then, Michigan’s population was under 500,000 people. And, in perusing the handwritten Supreme Court journal of 1897 this morning, I noted that there were fifty-four Supreme Court rules, forty-nine circuit court rules, and thirty-six chancery rules. Now you can compare that to this year, 2005 volume of the Michigan Court Rules, which constitute 458 pages. I’m pretty certain those justices did not have to wade through 230 applications for leave every month with the attendant commissioners’ reports. And I know a third of their time was not taken up by attorney grievance, judicial tenure, or enumerable other administrative matters. However, the gist of the work they performed has remained with this Court throughout the years. There have been 103 justices of the Michigan Supreme Court and we gather today to take special heed of numbers 19, 23, 24, and 25. The last of them left the Court in 1890 and none lived past 1906. So this foursome is almost 100 years dead. So, why are we here? Well, because they are the Big Four and because we are receiving this beautiful portrait. But, why are they called the Big Four?

Since I came here in 1983, I have had the privilege of serving with sixteen justices and among them have been some outstanding judges. So what makes these four special? The basic outline biographies of Justices CAMPBELL, CHRISTIANCY, COOLEY, and GRAVES are familiar to each of us and have been alluded to here earlier in this session. And, through the good work of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, this material is now readily available for students and anyone who is curious. And even more information is available in the earlier volumes of the Michigan Reports, where the memorial services for each of these four were transcribed at length. As you would expect, that material is written in the somewhat overwrought style of the day. There are places where the praise makes one think we are reading the eulogies of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. But, if we shave back the excess verbiage, I think there are two or three things that explain what made this foursome special.

The first is that they lived fully the adventure of life. And they brought to the bench what they had gained in doing so. Most of us are aware, as Nancy Diehl just reminded us, that none of the four were born in Michigan. Each was a native of New York State. One came as a toddler, but the other three came west, seeking a newer and better life, and each remained throughout his life open to the possibilities.

Justice CAMPBELL, not content with a thirty-two-year career on this Court, served at the same time as professor of the newly created law department at the University of Michigan.

Justice CHRISTIANCY, as was mentioned, was politically active as an opponent of slavery, had a long career on this Court, then moved to the United States Senate, then was minister of Peru. And where would one begin with Justice COOLEY. Newspaper editor, circuit court commissioner, recorder, which was second in command in the City of Adrian, political candidate in Toledo. Kind of an interesting twist. He ran for circuit court and was defeated. First compiler of the laws of the state of Michigan, Supreme Court reporter, Supreme Court justice, University of Michigan law professor, receiver of the Wabash Railroad, appointed by the president as chair of the newly created Interstate Commerce Commission, student of history, author of the leading treatise on torts, virtual creator of constitutional law as a separate area of specialization, respected lecturer on all sorts of topics, not all of which pertained to law.

And as was mentioned, even Justice GRAVES, forced by health to leave the circuit bench and later the Supreme Court, was a tireless figure.

As one reads more about these individuals, other similarities become evident. In the elegiac remarks offered at their passing, these men were consistently praised for the simplicity of their personal lives, for their efficient, unadorned writing styles, and for their fierce commitment to freedom. The simplicity and virtue with which each lived is illustrated with very specific tales of occasions when, faced with the opportunity to take advantage of their position, these men instead responded with kindness.

With regard to their commitment to freedom, as the Chief Justice mentioned, remember that they lived in the 1800s, when the Civil War was a very recent memory and the newly created state of Michigan was still forming its identity. Freedom was an unwavering principle for these four.

I remember a bitterly cold February morning in 1988 when we gathered in a Detroit church to mourn Chief Justice G. MENNEN WILLIAMS. And that morning we sang the hymn “Let Us Praise Great Men.” Again today we praise great men, and again today we ask what made them great.

Sometimes we let ourselves off the hook a bit as we think about those who have done very well in life. We like to imagine that they had some special gift that we lack. But there is a very striking element in the remarks that were made upon the deaths of each of the Big Four. As speaker after speaker rose to offer extravagant praise, many still made a very specific point of saying these men were not geniuses, that they were not unusually brilliant or gifted men. They were four hard-working fellows brought together by circumstance and history and asked to help a fledgling state begin to form its laws and traditions. They became heroes by doing the ordinary parts of their job with integrity and with energy. So we are pleased to accept this portrait today so that every now and then we will be reminded that that is really what made them the Big Four. Thank you.

JUSTICE TAYLOR: Thank you all again for coming together to mark this occasion. We are adjourned.

1) Source: The United States Civil War Center, Louisiana State University.
2) Id.
3) Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1965), p 453.
4) Id.
5) Catton, Michigan: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1984), p 149.