Interview with MARY S. COLEMAN
Sponsored by Michigan Supreme Court Historical
Conducted by Roger F. Lane
January 21 - 23, 1991
No sound files are available for the interview with Justice Coleman.
1. Justice Coleman reminisces about her early life in Texas,
moving to Washington DC during World War I, living in Clara Barton's home.
Father's illness, strain on family finances, and his subsequent death. Her
mother's entrance into the Department of Justice during prohibition, eventually
became Federal Director of Wines and Beers. She also recalls how during her
mother's work as Federal Director, her life was threatened, and attempts to
bribe her mother by various people.
This is another in a series of tapes sponsored by the Michigan
Supreme Court Historical Society relating the experiences and recollection of
former justices of the Michigan Supreme Court. Today, which is January 21,
1991, former Chief Justice Mary S. Coleman is going to be the focus of the
tape. We are sitting in Justice Coleman's retirement home in Placida, Florida,
and with her in her living room is Roger Lane, representing the Historical
Society. Justice Coleman, as I think I have told you before, I think the way to
start these records is to recall the earliest childhood facts and experiences,
so would you just start out by relating where you were born and what the
circumstances were, and what your parents did, what their occupation was and
that sort of thing.
Well, first let me correct where I live. I don't really live in
Placida. That's a tiny little shrimping village - our post office is there. I
live in Cape Haze, but to go back to my birth: I was born in a very small city
called Forney, Texas. My father had just graduated from law school. He had
married my mother before his last year. She also was a student at the
University of Texas, so they had gone back to spend his last year at the
university. His first job - if you could call it a job - was the position of
City Attorney in this tiny little city whose main claim to fame was oil, a very
rich little city.
Where in Texas was this, Justice Coleman?
It was just about fifteen miles east of Dallas. It is probably a
suburb by this time, but this was also close to his hometown of Terrell so he
could practice law in Terrell and still be the City Attorney in Forney.
Terrell - what is it, "T-...?
T-e-r-r-e-l-l, and it's main claim to fame was the state "insane
asylum" as they called it, and they also had the Texas Military Academy, but
that's another story. I was born in Forney, but I only lived there two months,
so it was a short duration before my father moved back to Terrell to carry on
his main practice.
At that time, was your father quite a young man, was he 22 or 23,
or was he somewhat older than that?
Oh, no. He was just fresh out of law school when he became City
Attorney. I don't know his exact age. I would guess around 23. My mother's
father had died when she was five years old and her sister was two. In those
days, women were not very employable. Her mother turned out to be an excellent
dressmaker, so she earned what little money she could making dresses. My
mother, when newly out of high school, became a teacher in a one-room school.
They used to do that long ago. I think she was teaching some who were just
about as old as she was.
My mother apparently was a very lovely looking woman. I had a
letter from a man who had read in a Dallas newspaper something I had done in
the Supreme Court, but it mentioned that I was from Texas. He wanted to know if
my middle name belonged to Agnes Stalling, my mother. If so, she had been his
teacher in school, and he went on to say that she was one of the most beautiful
woman he had known, and he always remembered her because she was so kind.
Was your mother a native Texan?
Yes, she was.
...in the neighborhood in that part of Texas?
That's right, and this gentleman observed that she was working in
order to earn money enough to go to the University of Texas, and that she was a
very excellent teacher. He was so glad that she went. He knew that she had
married a lawyer, and he was just wondering what had ever happened to her,
which I thought was rather interesting.
This man must have been quite advanced in years.
Yes, he was, I gather. I never met the man, but...
But you were able to respond to him.
Oh, yes, I did, and that was sort of an interesting interlude
because I knew that my mother didn't have any money at all and so she set about
to earn it so she could go to the university. After her second year, my father
apparently had traveled so far during the summer across Texas to visit my
mother that his father said that it would be less expensive if they married,
and he would send them both back to school, so that's what happened. After my
father graduated, she left the university.
Do I understand it that your mother was in the law school
No, she was not in the law school although later in life, she
took the Civil Service Examination with the Federal Government and was
classified as an attorney because she had read law in my father's office and
could pass the examination. They don't do that anymore, but that was her
classification and actually, she was head of a section of lawyers at one
Well, now this is all, of course, before you were born, is that
correct, that they were in college?
Was it Austin, University of Texas?
And then had your father graduated and started to practice when
I came along, I think, two to three years later, and from then
on, World War I was building up. Again, that started another phase of life in
their not too distant future.
Did you live in Forney and Terrell until you were what - a young
No, only until I was about three years old.
And then what happened?
The war was on, and my father wanted to enlist, but they wouldn't
take him because of some trouble with his mouth. I think they called it
pyorrhea in those days. Anyway, they wouldn't accept him for physical purposes,
and he was determined that he was going to participate in the war and do his
bit. He was very patriotic. He had a connection there in Washington so he took
my mother and me to Washington. Of course, it was very difficult to find a
place to stay in Washington because everybody in the country was trying to stay
there, I think.
They turned him down in Washington but they said he could
participate in the war effort by being head of something in what they called
the Coal Administration. Coal was the main fuel that seemed to be in shortage
at that time, so he accepted that and, again, it was very difficult to find a
place to stay. I remember odds and ends of the incidents that came along.
Did you stay in a residential neighborhood where there were
single family homes or were there old homes that were divided into
First, we had to find just rooms to stay in for the first few
months. One of them had gas lights and almost killed us. That is why I remember
it so vividly. In any event, we did find an interesting place to stay. It was
the former home of Clara Barton who founded the Red Cross. It was out of the
city in Maryland, right by the amusement park of Glen Echo, but the house was
in litigation. They had just a "knock-down, drag-out" lawsuit in the midst, and
a woman was in charge of maintaining the house.
She thought maybe it would be better rented, so I had a little
study in history there. Clara Barton had a library where all her books were. I
can remember not being able to read too well because I hadn't gone to school
yet, but the pictures were so interesting of her and all of her friends in
various adventures. In the library, there was a corner that always intrigued
me. It was papered over but you could see where it was covering a sealed door
and I often used to dream about what was in that closet. I did find out after
the case was settled and we moved. She had in it a gift from the Czar of
Russia, for instance, coffee tray, little cups and the...I don't know what
they'd call it,...but a coffee pot, anyway that had jewels all around it...
Samovar, is that the correct word?
No, this wasn't a samovar. This was a pot, but it was beautifully
enameled, and it did have all these jewels in it. There were so many
interesting things! The home itself had been left furnished, and there were
Chinese chairs, for instance, that were black lacquer with mother-of-pearl
inlay that were just gorgeous. Two ends of the hall each had a grand piano, and
every piece of furniture seemed to have a history. I became so interested, I
used to think I wanted to be a Red Cross nurse, and I remember that I had the
little uniforms, Red Cross uniforms, that my mother bought for me or my
At what age would you have been when this happened?
Well, I hadn't started school yet. I must have been...this must
have been when I was about four. I'm not too certain.
How long did you live in that house?
Well, we lived there must have been a year or so.
Do I recall from reading one time about your early history that
you were enrolled in the Catholic convent? Is that correct, or did that come
That came...that must have been after the Clara Barton rental,
because I started in the first grade there. Now, this was when we had to find
some place downtown, and it was an apartment. We had to move so many times that
the sequence escapes me a little bit, but this must have been when I was first
starting, the first part of the first grade. I was raised Baptist in a strong
Baptist family, and my father was very slow to think about the nearest school
which was in the Catholic convent, but he went over and talked to the sisters.
They said they would not make me attend their religious ceremonies which they
had every day but that my own Protestantism, I guess, would not be affected.
So, I went there, and I had the best beginning to an education that I think
anybody could ever want. They were marvelous teachers.
Were they nuns, habited nuns?
Some of them were and some of them weren't, but most of them
were. They were dear.
Were they also quite strong on discipline?
Oh, yes. Yes, they were. One traumatic moment happened. My father
had told me that I was not to attend their religious ceremonies, and one day
came when the sister said, regardless of whether you were Protestant or
Catholic, you had to attend this one ceremony, and I didn't know what to do. I
had to obey my father, and I had to obey the teacher, and I was a very
conscientious child, an only child.
Their bathroom was right at the top of a stairway that ended
directly across from an outside door, so I asked to be excused, went up to the
bathroom, ran down the stairs and out the door and ran all the way home,
sobbing to my mother. I knew that I was in bad graces with the school, but I
didn't want to be in bad graces with them. However, that was smoothed over and
I went back. The education there was so good that when I went into a public
school, I was so far ahead of them that they skipped me on to the next grade
and then another whole grade, so I graduated pretty young which had its good
points and its bad.
When you think of the instruction and good quality of it, did you
get a really superior start, let's say, in command of the language? Did you
increase your vocabulary? Was the English instruction, perhaps, superior, or
was it just the atmosphere and degree of organization and discipline and that
sort of thing? I'm trying to capture whatever it was.
I think the specifics were very important, English and
punctuation and even at that early time, the words, the spelling, and the
mathematics, everything that you did had to be just right. They were very
strong in their discipline, but the air was always kindly.
You liked to go to school. It wasn't so strict and rigid in
Oh, yes, I liked it very much. I've always liked school.
Well, now, that period ended and then you skipped these grades,
and you went through the public school system in the city of Washington, was
After the convent experience, we moved.
To Foxhall. It was an area of Washington.
No, F-o-x-h-a-l-l, Foxhall, and we found a home there.
Now, as I recall, your father became ill somewhere along in here,
did he not, or was that later?
Well, it's hard to tell when it started. When it became bad, I
think, was after we had moved from Foxhall to another area in Washington. The
police, for instance, would bring him home thinking he was drunk, and my father
didn't drink a drop of anything.
He was a true Baptist?
A teetotaler, but they would find him weaving across the street
or sitting on a curb or something like that, and as it happened, his vision was
off. They thought he had...to make it short here...the doctors thought he had a
blood clot on the brain, so they treated him for that for...I don't know...it
seemed to me a number of years. Then he just became worse, so we took him to a
specialist who discovered that he had a tumor on the brain. They took off one
side of his head, the left side, as I recall. That left him paralyzed on the
right side. Things went from bad to worse. He was in hospitals and out, and
finally - this is all over a period of eight years -...
Did this cause great financial stringency?
Oh, yes. These were the days before you could get any help from
any source. I don't remember whether health insurance was even available then,
but, no, this was all out of their own pocket. When he was home, he had to have
nursing around the clock. Of course, my mother took the night shift and then we
had a male nurse in the day.
By this time, was your mother employed in government?
Yes, that's another story, but to go on about my father, my
mother tried to find the best neurosurgeon in the country, and she was advised
to go to New York for the surgeon there who only took those cases in which he
was very interested. He thought my father's case was very interesting, so we
took him to the Neurological Institute in New York. The doctor took off the
other side of his head, his skull, and he could not find the tumor.
So, they put him back together without any transfusions or any
effort to keep him alive, because for a year or two, they had said every day
was his last and the doctor knew he couldn't live, so this doctor didn't try to
prolong it. The man in the room with him - they always had two in a room - was
from Sweden. He had come all the way over to have a tumor removed behind his
eyes, I think between his eyes. He knew he was going to die, and he did, and my
father, who knew he was going to live, lived for another month or two, in the
Now, during this critical period in your father's...toward the
end of this life...were you...where were you? Were you in New York or were you
traveling back and forth?
Well, part of the time, of course, I was in high school, and then
I went to the University of Maryland which was accessible. Usually friends took
me, to tell the truth, but if I had to, I could go by the streetcar, trolley or
some inter-urban affair. Between my first and second year - I had just had my
17th birthday - he died in New York, and I was there because it was the
When he was not at the hospital, he would be at home. We had
things fixed up pretty well for him there and with the nursing, but this is
where my mother comes in, of course. She, I mentioned, had taken the Civil
Service Examination for an attorney, and had passed that. She was in the
Department of Justice and in the Wines and Beers aspect of the division in
charge of enforcing the Volstead Act -"prohibition", as it is known. In time,
she became the Federal Director of Wines and Beers, the nation's top
enforcement director. This is when life really became a little hairy, I guess
you might say, because my life was threatened. Every once in a while, something
For instance, one time, we were having a group of young people in
when someone found a piece of paper which had been slipped under the front
door. It threatened me. I was whisked down to the middle of the Chesapeake Bay
for a few days in a cruiser. The FBI and I think the Secret Service were
involved. We also had things like rocks coming through the window with
threatening notes to my mother to do something about a certain case or
investigation that was being carried on.
These presumably from the targets of her regulatory inquiry into
perhaps wrongdoing or violations of the law?
That's right, but on the other hand, there were efforts to bribe
her. I can remember a congressman coming to call on us and wanting to give her
some money to discontinue an investigation. I'm not quite sure because I wasn't
allowed in the room, but when he left...my mother said, "Of course, not", but
we found later, under a doily, an envelope with a few hundred dollars in
This would have been when you were in your teens, 16 or 17 or
somewhere in that area?
Yes. Well, it was...yes...it would have been earlier than that,
even. Sometimes she would receive through the mail beautiful gifts. She had a
gift one time, I remember, of a whole set of gloves, beautiful gloves of all
lengths and sizes; another time, lovely...not just one, but two or three -
tablecloths with beautiful embroidery or edging around them that were worth
quite a bit of money, but of course, she had to turn those over to the
Treasury. She couldn't keep anything. There were these efforts to...
...influence her, and she traveled all over the country. I
remember one time she went to Detroit. They were "rum running", as they called
it, across the river from Canada, and she took a taxi down to watch the
operation, and the taxi driver said, "Well, I don't know whether you want to go
down here. There's some skirt in town that is really raising hell". My mother
got quite a kick out of that. She'd meet with governors of different states,
and they would plan what they were going to do about enforcing the law.
It was interesting in many ways. Other ways were that she was
invited to the White House quite often. My father couldn't go, and she would
have an invitation for herself and guest, so when I was old enough, in my
teens, I would go with her to the receptions particularly, where you had to
wear long gloves and you dressed to the teeth and all that sort of thing. That
aspect presented a problem because we were so poor. However, I made or
"revised" clothes so I could be fairly stylish. I can remember one particular
time when Roosevelt was president and although he was paralyzed, he stood I
don't know how long leaning on the arm of his son while he greeted in a very
friendly way all of a couple hundred people or more and had something nice to
say. Of course, Mrs. Roosevelt was very gracious. She had garden parties and
tea parties and affairs like that also, but I didn't attend so many of those.
2. Justice Coleman tells of her life in Washington DC, being
invited to receptions at the White House, meeting Oliver Wendell Holmes while
in high school. How she worked her way through undergraduate school at the
University of Maryland.
The receptions were interesting. They had young Marines to see
that the young ladies had someone with whom to dance.
That was nice.
Some of the young Marines would call me the next day, but I
didn't accept any of the invitations. As a matter of fact, as an only child, my
parents were a little protective, but when I started high school, I was twelve,
so I would be 16 when I graduated. My parents had always said they weren't
going to allow me to date until I was 16, and oh, I remember a fit I threw. I
said, "I'll be all the way through high school.
I'll miss the proms. I'll miss all these good things going on", so
they had a little problem there, I suppose, but my mother solved that very
beautifully. Every Sunday night, anybody could come in and have supper, and she
would have things that would stretch, like waffles with creamed chicken or
something like that, and lots of kids did come in on Sunday night because they
just knew that that was the way it was. Anybody could come to the house, and
then she relented a bit and would let me double-date. Finally, in my last year,
she let me out alone with a boy, because they were nice kids. In those days,
you didn't have to go with one person. You could be friends. You could go out
with a lot of people and just have fun, and we did. We had quite a group of
good friends - go out and just do "fun" things together, such as going to Glen
Echo near where I used to live, the amusement park. We used to swim,
Now, somewhere along in this period, didn't you have an encounter
with Oliver Wendell Holmes? Do you remember?
Yes, that was when I was still in high school. I entered a
Washington, city-wide oratorical contest, and you could choose your own
subject. To go back a little bit, as people still do, they'd say, "What do you
want to do when you grow up?". Because my father was a lawyer, and I always
adored him, I suppose I thought that was a good thing to do, so I said I wanted
to be a lawyer. When this contest came along, I liked the thought of Oliver
Wendell Holmes because he was known as the "great dissenter" on the U.S.
That intrigued me, so I worked up as much background as I could
from reading, but there were personal aspects to this about which I didn't
really know much. Again, my mother encouraged me to telephone and see if I
could make an appointment to speak with him for about fifteen minutes.
Did you call at his office, his chambers on the Supreme Court? Do
He was...I don't really quite remember. It could have been his
home because he had been ill, and he was not sitting at that particular time,
so I may have called his home if I had received that knowledge from his office.
I don't remember, but much to my surprise, a young man...sounded like a young
man...consulted him, and he said yes, that I could come at a certain time. I
remember my trepidation, because I didn't know exactly how I'd be received, but
he was very gracious. He was very frail at that time. I appreciate it more as I
grow older that he gave me the time.
Did this...as you look back...would strike most people as a most
extraordinary experience to have in this context an opportunity to have a
private time with a prominent justice of the United States Supreme Court, and
you mentioned that you had these opportunities to visit the White House and see
Franklin D. Roosevelt receiving people and this sort of thing. Did you feel at
the time that you were living in sort of an elevated environment from an
opportunity standpoint, that you were really...or do I misread here?
Well, I enjoyed all of them. I don't know that I felt exactly
that way. I was delighted to be invited to a number of receptions at the White
House, even by other people who would invite me to attend with them. For
instance, in law school, there was a young man who later became, I think it was
Justice Rutledge's law clerk, but at that time, he was in school with me. He
was invited for some reason to the reception for the judiciary and had asked me
to go with him, and I went with him. But usually, I had been going with my
mother. This extended over quite a long period of time. The first invitation to
me in my own name was from President and Mrs. Hoover. You met such interesting
people. For instance, I became fairly good friends with the daughter of the
Ambassador from China. She was a delightful young lady and we'd go out,
double-date, go out to eat at Chinese or American places and play ping-pong at
the embassy. One interesting observation - we were at a highly recommended
Chinese restaurant, when she was engaged to a bigger than usual Chinese man, a
very handsome young man. Somebody else was dating a senator's niece, but
anyway, she was making quite a play for the fiance. I happened to be sitting
next to him, and I couldn't help but notice that they were playing hands around
the end of the table and "footsies" under the table and I thought, "Oh, dear,
this is not good". Sure enough, he was sent back to China very shortly after,
but I often wondered if it had any connection with the senator's niece.
By this time, had the purpose of going to law school fairly well
crystallized in your mind? This was a very unusual thing to do, was it not, for
a young woman in those days?
Yes, it was...I sometimes think as I look back on it that my
mother was either a good politician or a good diplomat in addition to being a
charming, warm woman. She seemed to know people of stature and influence in the
government and, of course, she herself, held this unusual position as being
Chief of the Wines and Beers for the nation. As a matter of fact, in one
edition of...I don't know...I think it was in the Washington Star, which was
being edited at that time that Mrs. Roosevelt was quoted as saying that her
husband should consider a woman for the U. S. Supreme Court. She named Mabel
Walker Willabrandt, who was U.S. Assistant Attorney General, and I have
forgotten who the one or two others may have been, but my mother was one of
those she recommended. Of course, none of them was considered, I'm sure.
Do you recall how Willabrandt's name was spelled, like it sounds,
It's W-i-l-l-a-b-r-a-n-d-t, as I remember. I could be wrong. It's
been a long time.
But this would have been back in the very early 30's, wouldn't
it...32,....no, no Roosevelt came in 1933, didn't he, so it would have
It was when I was in the University of Maryland. When I finished
high school, of course, we were very poor. More like Eisenhower, we were very
poor, but I guess I didn't know it. I knew that the money was not there because
we had spent everything on these operations and nurses and hospitals -
everything we had. My mother had borrowed "to the hilt", and we just didn't
have anything, so I didn't know whether I could even go to college. Since the
University of Maryland was so close and it was inexpensive, we decided that I
should go there. It was never a question of whether I would go to college so
far as my mother was concerned. It was just how are we going to do it. So, I
went all the way through the university there, and I had a marvelous time. That
was great fun, if hard work.
You were able to live at home and go there, were you?
For the first year until my father died and then my mother moved
to New York and I lived at school. They had done away with prohibition so she
went with the U.S. Attorney's Office. I've forgotten what district it is. It's
the one in Brooklyn where they had "Murder Inc and all these famous criminal
cases coming along. Anyway, we sold our home and she maintained an apartment in
Washington where I could stay and go to law school - at least for awhile until
I found a place of my own..
Now, this would have been...you graduated from undergraduate
school at quite an early age, did you not? You were, what, 20?
That would have been in 1934 then, right, and you would have then
gone into law school right away? Do you recall?
Well, I didn't know how I could, so in my last two years at the
University of Maryland, I took a course in Education. They allowed me to do
that and still get a Bachelor of Arts degree. They were wonderful to me because
they knew I didn't have any money, so the head of the department let me go and
fill in for teachers sort of a visiting teacher, I suppose you could call it,
because I hadn't graduated and I didn't have my certificate. One time a teacher
was ill for about a month and I substituted. The Department of Education
arranged my classes, and professors would stay after classes. A German one I
particularly remember. They kept me up so I could pass the examinations there
but still teach in the high school.
Were you able to support yourself given the fact that you did
have shelter in your mother's apartment? Were you able to generate the
Well, the apartment didn't come into full use until I was in law
school. No, I lived on the campus in a sorority house. That wasn't easy. I
worked...I earned all the money I could. This was in the days when the NEA or
something like that.
NYA, was it?
NYA or whatever it was. I did odd jobs like clipping notices
about the university out of newspapers, but then I graduated to the point where
I could correct English papers and even then on to advanced compositions and
In the language of a couple generations ago, you earned your
living through college?
That's a fair statement, is it not?
By doing these various...
My mother would send me clothing once in a while from New York,
and she helped all she could, but from that time on, when I went to law school,
I was totally self-supporting, but I had to work. That's another story.
Well, now, law school - were you able to start immediately after
graduation from the University of Maryland?
(End of side 1, tape 1)
Yes, but I had not intended to. I thought I'd have to work a
while to earn enough money to start, so I thought...
3. Justcie Coleman talks about her experiences in law school as
one of the very few women there, working her way through, her job at the USDA,
and her marriage in 1939.
Where were we now? We were talking about going on to law
Whether I went directly or indirectly. Well, I was going to
teach. I finally had my certificate to teach secondary education in Maryland so
my first offer was $950.00/year for Calvert County. I'll never forget it. I
thought, you know, you couldn't live on that much less go to law school, so I
learned that Montgomery County which, is just outside of Washington, paid the
highest salary. However, I was advised that many of their appointments were
political, so they suggested that I go see one of the senators and see if he
could help me. Here I was making an appointment again with Senator Radcliff. I
did know him.
He had been to the university and he was placed by the president
in my care one evening for a dance where I had a date, but we did take care of
Senator Radcliff and tried to introduce him to the proper people. He was very
charming, so I approached him and told him why I wanted this position so I
could make enough money to go to law school. He said, "Well, maybe you'd better
come back and tell me why you want to go to law school". So I briefed the
situation as best I could, and I did go back and speak to him, and he said he'd
get right at it. In the meantime, my mother had been looking around, and she
had found a position in the Department of Agriculture which paid better than
Montgomery County which was the highest paying school district in the state of
Maryland. I then had to tell the senator and thank him as best I could for his
time and offer of help.
Now this was a United States Senator from Maryland?
You were traveling in rather exclusive circles.
I didn't have enough sense or was too naive to know that this was
not an ordinary thing. Living in Washington, you were sort of surrounded by
people from everywhere. We knew a congressman from Georgia who used to just
drop in around dinner time fairly often.
Washington, in those times, was a much different place, like a
country town in those days, compared with now.
It was. You could go downtown and know a lot of people. It was
more like living in Battle Creek. But anyway, I obtained this position in the
Department of Agriculture in the Land Acquisition Division.
In the USDA?
Yes. It was worked out. George Washington University Law School
had quite a few people who worked in the government who wanted to go to law
school. They didn't want to go to night school, so they had what they called an
afternoon school. You had to be there at 4:30, so I worked from 8:00 to 4:00.
There was no direct transportation to the law school, so I'd walk. I can
remember running or walking at a fast pace so I could get there in time to
squeeze in at the last minute. It was very interesting. I was one of
almost...very few women in the school.
I was going to ask you that. Did you ever...is there some way
that you can illustrate this either by certain specific class...I was going to
ask you how many women...we're full of statistics now days, and if you go down
to Cooley Law School at the University of Michigan, they tell you right away,
"We have 23% or 28% woman". What would you have guessed if you don't really
I don't know in my class, but I know in the school as a whole,
there were 30 women in the day and afternoon classes all together, and there
were 1,000 something men, so the ratio was very small. It was lovely because I
was invited for dinner and lunch and sometimes even breakfast, so at least I
Were you the only woman in some of your classes?
In some of them, yes.
And if there were three or four, that was plenty, was it not, in
those days? If you had a class...were the classes quite large as they tend to
be now, or were a lot of them smaller?
No, they were large. They were large classes, and some of them
were held in auditorium like rooms. One of them where the professor became a
very good friend of ours for years, Professor Oppenheim...
What was his name?
Oppenheim, and he taught trade regulations and similar courses.
His classroom was like a movie theatre.
...where it was stepped up like an auditorium, and he placed me
right in the front row in the first seat by the aisle. Later on in life, when
we were still very good friends, I said, "You know, that was an awful thing for
you to do because sometimes, I would be just a minute or two late by running
all the way or by being held up by my boss or something, and then I'd have to
walk down all these steps to the front seat". Well, he said, "I did that on
Most of the boys wouldn't come in until you came in, and when the
bell rang, I knew they'd all be turning around and looking to see if you came
in". I think I was the only girl in the class. "So", he said, "I just thought
you'd just have to hurry a little faster, so I put you down there where you
couldn't get away with coming in late and sitting in the back row".
This must have been very exhilarating socially at certain times
to be the one beautiful woman in the class of professional young men who were
training for big things. What about from a woman's view other than that? Did
some women, for example, sort of scoff at the idea that you should be following
the law? You know, now days, there is a different atmosphere, and I'm just
trying to recapture what it was like back then.
First, I didn't consider myself to be a "beautiful woman". I
didn't even think about it. Becoming a lawyer was something that I was going to
You took it for granted. You knew you were going to be a
Yes, so I applied, and was accepted. I thought maybe I'd find
hostility among the men because there were so few women, but quite the
opposite. They were all very friendly. The women were also very friendly, and
the professors. I had a little problem with a couple of professors who, out of
maybe 200 or 300 students, would call on me every time. As I told you, I worked
until 4:00, go to class until 7:30, and then have to eat and study and do
whatever I was going to do, so I wasn't always right up to snuff on all the
"different variations on the themes" they might throw at me. They would change
the facts a little bit, and keep going.
They couldn't have called on every student once a year. One
professor used to embarrass me so...contracts...I asked to speak with him after
class one day and I asked, "Why do you call on me every day?" I was shy anyway,
and I hated to enter the class because I knew that I would be tested on all
these different sets of facts. Well, he said, "You're going to have to stand up
in court and argue cases, and you're going to get a lot of different facts and
theories thrown at you, and I think you're a little shy", which I was, so he
was orienting me for the future, his way of putting it.
You were shy, and this was a time when you had already, as I
recall, been the beauty queen of the University of Maryland and gone through
all that that entails, or did you not have to go to pageants and dress up and
that sort of thing?
Well, getting back to the beauty queen bit - I didn't even enter
the contest. I wasn't all that pretty and was just a sophomore.
How did your name get in the mix?
I have no idea. It was a student election. There were candidates,
but I guess just more people put my name in than anybody else's. We had one
girl from our sorority house who was our candidate, and I was rooting for her,
and all that sort of thing. I couldn't have been more surprised. Shall I tell
you a little incident when I first knew about it?
I had a bad cold, terrible one, and my grandmother had told me
that one of the good ways to try to get rid of it was to put my head over some
hot water with some Vick's Vapor Rub in it and put a towel over your head and
breathe. I was down in the kitchen in a bathrobe with a towel over my head, and
my head over hot water, not boiling, but had been boiling, breathing this
vapor, and one of the girls came in and said there was some young man knocking
outside who wanted to talk to me. I said, "I can't talk to him". Here I was,
hair all flopping down, face dripping, and I was a mess. She said, "Well, you'd
better go do it. I don't know who he is, but he says that he has to paint your
portrait". Anyway, I finally went out in all my glory, and he looked at me, and
I looked at him, and he said, "I came to announce that you have won the Miss
Maryland contest", and I burst out laughing, and then he burst out laughing
because if anybody didn't look like Miss Maryland, I was that person. Anyway,
we sat down, and that was how it happened. He did paint my picture for the
cover of the magazine, incidentally..
That was a student magazine?
Yes, so that's how I knew that I was even being considered
without even being a candidate.
Well, at that time, were there certain rituals that followed the
At the big football game, you were in the parade or whatever it
Oh, yes, I had to take flowers over to the governor and all that
sort of thing. It was quite exhilarating. There even was a coronation ball.
Well, then, in law school, a short time after this, the professor
still said you were excessively shy, that is, for the law, and that you
Well, I was always shy and I did the things I have mentioned
because I was encouraged to do them by somebody knowledgeable. My mother or
somebody I trusted would say this is the way it is done, and I'd take my
courage and my two fists and go ahead and do it. I must have been naive or I
wouldn't have done it in the first place, I guess, but in any event, everything
seemed to come out all right, so I didn't have any reason to be afraid, but it
was an exciting time. That's...again, I could write a book on the little
incidents that happened.
Now back in law school, this is George Washington. It's in the
city of Washington, right?
In the northwest...what part of the city is George Washington
Not too far from Georgetown?
Georgetown is quite far away or so it seemed.
Okay. Then you took your regular law degree in three years, did
No, I couldn't do that and go to the afternoon school. I couldn't
get in enough hours, so it took me four years.
And all during this period, you supplied through your work the
money that it took to...?
Yes. I earned every bit of it.
Well, this was...
It wasn't much, I might say.
Was this quite unusual for a young woman in those days? You know,
you've heard the stories about the young men who sweep out the gym and all that
stuff and used to sort of do meals and work in the kitchens of the restaurants
and that sort of thing, but a woman's opportunities for that were not then as
great as they are now. Is that true, or am I imagining things?
Quite true. That was why working for the government was something
good, but I don't know that they really thought I could do much, because they
gave me...call it a job like sweeping out the barn. I had maps, rolls of maps
on which I was supposed to color in the pieces of property that were bought,
and I'd have to iron out the maps so you could even hold them in place. It was
a crazy job, but they said, "Well, you're not skilled in anything that we can
use". This was after I had graduated from college and had taught and thought I
was educated, but finally they decided I did have some other skills, so I was
promoted. I was the head of the Contract section for a while, and then...
This was before I graduated. I didn't know much about contracts
of the nature assigned to me.
This was at the USDA?
Yes. Another thing that frightens me even now. Before I became
head of the Contracts section, my work had to do with the final certification
of abstracts for the purchase of land before the government paid its money.
Now, the local lawyers had certified the titles and I don't know who else, but
I was the last word, and I hadn't even graduated from law school. I really
loved that work with the abstracts. It was so interesting. You could follow
There were abstracts on properties in Kansas and Oklahoma?
All over most of the country, and sometimes, they were very, very
complicated because there were illegitimate children, and there were children
of several marriages and their children, and I had to find out who ended up
with the property. I remember one I just gave up on. I wrote back to a local
lawyer who certified it, asked him some questions, and he wrote back and he
said, "Nobody can ever figure that out. This was a prolific old billy goat, and
nobody knew who were his children". Anyway, I enjoyed the work but I was
conscious of the fact that I was new in the field of real property. Of course,
I'd had courses in the law school but I hadn't practiced and yet I was the last
word before the government paid its money. I had quite a bit of experience in
different fields while I was working in the day and going to school in the
You would have been then probably in your last year or
approaching the conclusion of the law training in school or was this even
earlier than that?
Well, a little earlier with the abstracts, but as head of the
contract section, I was in my last year.
Then you would have graduated, let's say, 1938? Would that be
1939. I was married a few days later.
Oh. You had already met your husband. That's right - he was in
class. He was...
He was one year ahead of me.
In law school, right?
But he went to the University of Michigan excepting for his last
Oh, he was a transfer.
But he had to work his way through, too.
What brought Creighton to Washington?
An uncle. An uncle said he should go to his last year in law
school, as quoted "like a gentleman", and not have to work, so that sounded
fairly attractive. Creighton at that time was head waiter at the Union which
wasn't too bad a job, but he had to work 40 hours or so a week and into the
night, so he came down and lived with his uncle in Silver Spring. He was in day
school and I was in the afternoon school, so I really didn't meet him until
almost a month or two before he graduated.
4. She speaks about her husband's first job, her experiences in
Berlin in 1945, her memories of the Berlin air lift, and her move to
Then he graduated and he started his professional career, and
got a job, I assume of some sort, and you were still in school.
I was bound to finish. I always said, "I'm not going to marry
until I finish law school".
What caused your firm mind set on that matter, do you
I think as I've looked back on it - it was my personal
experience, because my father having been ill for so many years and money
having gone, my mother had always said to me, "You must have some way to earn
your own living if you have to. Maybe you never will, but you should have some
skill that you can use so you can support yourself if you must"
And you had a dramatic illustration of that.
I did, and so I was bound to finish the law so in the event
that I wanted to practice or had to, I could, if anybody would hire me. That
was always a question in women's minds then.
Was it a difficult question for you? I've heard other women how
difficult it was for them to make a connection, a professional, to be hired, so
to speak. When you got out, did you have a job waiting, or did you...
Well, I had the one that I was doing, and then, of course,
Creighton was fortunate. The same professor, Oppenheim, recommended him to the
head of the Anti-trust Division...fabled "trustbusters", so they were
That wasn't Thurman Arnold, was it?
Thurman Arnold, yes, and this Professor Oppenheim thought my
husband was a great lawyer, and he called Thurman Arnold and recommended him,
so Creighton was hired right away.
Would this...using familiar newspaper terms "trustbuster", this
was the Anti-trust Division of the Department of Justice?
That's exactly right. Good memory.
Now, here Creighton is out. Creighton has a responsible,
well-positioned job in the law and you're finishing up. Then, at that time,
when you finished and knew that you were going to be married and that there was
a family income, you didn't have to worry too much about that.
No, I really didn't, and I had a position that didn't pay very
much, but it had done all right for me so far, and Creighton had a position.
The government didn't pay very much, but we didn't think of money in high
levels at those times, more like survival because this was all during the
depression years when we had to be creative to have enough to eat.
Now, we're also, among other things, on the eve of World War
II, right? Was Creighton...did your life...was it then tugged by that fact? As
I recall, it wasn't too long before he was then in the military, or am I mixed
up there? I'm just trying to trace.
Yes, he was in the military. He was in the Navy, but his work
as Special Attorney took him around the country because he had to go where the
big cases were tried. We had put off having a child because of this fact, and I
had stayed in Washington for nine months. As he has often said, that was not
for the usual reason - that nine months. He visited me on weekends and when he
could, but that was not so good.
All this time at the USDA job?
Yes, and after I resigned, I went with him. See, he was working
on the Aluminum Company of America case which was the longest one in history at
that time, and his first orders were to write an answering brief to I think
about 54 of the highest paid lawyers in the country. It was quite a challenge,
but he did it, and then...he was in Trenton and Detroit, and other cities.
Trenton, New Jersey?
Trenton...I lost my first child in Trenton, and...
Trenton, New Jersey?
Yes, Trenton, New Jersey, that's right. But, in any event,
Leslie was born in New York, and she was a month or two old when Creighton
became a naval officer, and his orders were to go to Hollywood Beach, Florida
to be on the Murmansk Run. He would be, I guess, in charge of the cannons, the
artillery on the Murmansk Run where about 50% of the ships never made it. This
was not very comforting, but we packed up our car with the crib and the
mattress and Leslie on top in the back seat.
We started for Washington. He was told to report into Washington
before he went to Hollywood Beach, and his orders were changed there. Somewhere
along the line, they discovered he was a lawyer and that he had this experience
in the Anti-trust Division which gave him knowledge of German industry. He
could tell by looking at the top of a building what they were manufacturing
down below, and he knew the cartel interlinks and whatnot, so, to make a long
story a little shorter, he ended up there in the Joint Intelligence, and the
Joint Intelligence had people from other countries, as the name implies.
Was this the period when you were in Berlin right after the war
or was this prior?
This was before, because they were eventually devising and
sending over the targets for the bombing of the Japanese during this time. They
would draw up the targets for the bombers to bomb the next day, and people from
Great Britain and the Netherlands and wherever would all work together. It was
very exciting. They wanted to go to Guam so they could be closer, but those in
charge wouldn't send them there. They had to be close to the Army, the Navy and
all the armed services. They worked out of the Pentagon.
I was going to say - you then, during that period, lived in
Washington or near Washington?
Yes, we lived in Arlington, but it was not easy to find a
place. Finally, I heard that duplex apartments were being built in Virginia,
and I went over before the place was built and walked over boards up to a
little place that said "Office" and pled with them to let us rent something
that was being built anywhere> They put us on the list. It wasn't too long
before the building was up and we moved in. We moved in before the floor was
dry, I think. I think they had not put down the wood yet, but we could walk
across boards and that's where we stayed until he was sent to Berlin. During
this time, I practiced law on a reduced time basis.
Would that have been 1945 when he was sent to Berlin?
As I recall, one of the lasting impressions in that period of
your life was the destruction that you witnessed when you got there?
Can you describe a little of what influence that had on your
mind, your thinking, your attitudes that perhaps may have been reflected later
on in your court...?
Yes, a lot happened before I arrived, even while getting over
there. I was very pregnant, among other things.
Carol was born there, was she not?
She was born there. She was the first American child born in
279th Hospital, Army hospital.
Does she have an "e" on the end of her name? C-a-r-o-l-e?
No, just C-a-r-o-l, but the first impression was nothing but
rubble. As you'd go down to the main part of the city, all the buildings had
been bombed, and there might be a part of a building remaining, with just the
stairway outside with the front all gone. Some of them had rooms where they'd
put up wood over where the doors had been, and people were just living where
they could, several families to a house, very little to eat. The Americans had
taken some of the homes and had fixed them up. We lived in one of those. They
had to almost rebuild it, but it was a nice home.
Was your reaction one of...would it have approached horror and
desolation or had, by that time, people had become so familiar with, for
examples, with pictures of destruction?
Not like this war. We didn't have a play-by-play version of the
war. Mostly the news came through newspapers. You could see the pictures of the
stacks of bodies, for instance, in Buchenwald or wherever, or soldiers as they
came home, but the words really couldn't depict what it was like. Women would
have buckets, bucket-brigades, I guess, and they would put a pile of bricks in
the buckets and hand them down to the next and the next and the next, and
they'd then put them in a truck and haul them off. Some of the beautiful
buildings were shambles. They still have left the church there as it was bombed
at the end of Kurfurstendam. There were still dead bodies in the subways. It
was soon, right after the war, when we arrived, whereupon Leslie broke out with
measles. It was all very exciting and depressing.
Was that on shipboard. No, no, she was born there, wasn't
No, Leslie had been born then. She had her third birthday, but
I was pregnant with Carol. They did have the measle outbreak on board the ship.
However, first, a propeller broke when we were a bit of the way out, and it
took us two weeks to cross the Atlantic. The ship was packed with dependents.
Creighton, in the meanwhile, had decided to civilianize in Bremerhaven so I was
the first civilian's wife to go over, and they didn't know what to do with me.
They had to give me a rank or I just couldn't do anything.
Was he in military government? Is that what they called it in
those days, military government?
Not when he went over, no, he was in Navy uniform. He was
Ambassador Murphy's advisor on cartels when he first went over, but then they
started a decartelization division and of course, this was his training in
anti-trust and industry. He went over there as the assistant director. But back
to the boat business, we had such interesting things occur. A woman was sick,
hadn't seen her husband in three years, and she was sick over the edge of the
railing and lost her teeth. Her teeth had had some kind of a disease since her
husband had left, and she had to have plates made. She was heartbroken, and we
all were because here he hadn't seen her in three years, when she had had
teeth. It worked beautifully. The Red Cross wired back to the dentist, and she
was met at Land End's by the British Coastal Service and, sure enough, they had
her teeth, so when we landed at Bremerhaven, she was all set. We had a number
of interesting little incidents like that, including the more serious measle
When did you leave Berlin? From there, you came directly to
Marshall, did you?
Yes, I hadn't intended to stay in Marshall. That was where
Creighton was born and raised, so of course, that was his home town, but I left
in 1948, and it was during the airlift...just the children and I. He had to
stay, but we had to go. First, we were to fly home but something happened to
occupy the planes so we had to fly down to Frankfort, get on a train after
about six hours and take the train up to Bremerhaven to board the ship.
In the meanwhile, we were on one of these creaky old airplanes
that had bucket seats, wooden seats along the side, and Carol was very ill all
over everybody. I mean, not all over everybody, herself mainly, and the bunny
she was carrying and me, so we went reeking into the hotel. I tried to wash out
her little coat and dress she wore and make do until we could get on the train
because our luggage had all gone.
Was this when you went from Berlin to Frankfort?
I see, so people that may read this may be familiar with the
concept of air lift...this was the time when the Russians had refused overland
transport of supplies into Berlin, having occupied the territory, surrounding
entirely, and all supplies came in by air to the airport within the...
It was a very exciting time because planes would come in and
drop their loads of food and take off and another one would come in just a few
minutes later and do the same thing, and they kept us supplied with food and
other materials such as coal.
There was some apprehension, was there not, early on, that the
airlift might not be able to supply?
Oh, yes, there was a great deal of apprehension.
With two small children, did this work on your mind? Was this
partly...was it a great relief or was this part of the reason why you left,
that this was such a precarious...?
No, it was the end. Creighton had had to sign for two years in
military government. Two years were up so I had to go but he still had to stay
on, because he had some work to finish there. He then was Director of the
Legislative Division, in which I became quite involved.
You and the children, then, went to Frankfort, then to
Bremerhaven, then back to the United States and to Marshall, Michigan,
Yes, that's right.
And you sunk your roots in Michigan at that time, is that
Yes, as a matter of fact, Creighton had had a number of very
fine sounding offers of positions when he came back, and he had asked me to
look into some of them, and find what they entailed, so I had done that. Then I
was to go to Marshall to his family's house, which I did, but with the two
children and myself, it was kind of a load on his parents, so I tried to find a
place just to rent until he could get back. Again, there was no place.
I finally found a summer cottage out on a lake, which was fine
for the children excepting he didn't return quite so fast as I thought he
would. It had begun to snow and the cottage was one of these old ones where the
boards weren't close together. I would stuff the cracks with newspapers, and we
had one of these little potbellied stoves. We'd get up in the morning and run
over to the little stove and dress. It was not too pleasant, but I can laugh at
it now. It was going from a sublime, huge house to the ridiculous little two
When did you then finally get settled? When did Creighton come
and how did you set up in law and family terms? Did Creighton start to practice
Well, when Creighton came back...I think he had only been back
a day or so when he was descended upon by a group of the Republican hierarchy
in that area who urged him to run for the state Senate, and of course, at
first, he said, "Well, I've been away to school and to work, and I've been in
the Navy and in Berlin and nobody probably even knows who I am". There were two
others running, Republicans, and this was a primary.
That would have been the primary of 1950, probably?
(End of side 2, tape 1)
I guess it was still 1948, because I came back in the early part
and this was in October, but there wasn't much time left. We said something
like, "We've invested in stocks and things like that and maybe we should invest
in our future. We've seen what's happened in Berlin when all the people said,
'But we just didn't realize what was going to happen'." The grass roots people
seemed to be quite surprised that all of the atrocities were going on, so we
had always said to ourselves, between ourselves, that we would become involved
in grass roots politics if we had a chance. We'd support the candidates we felt
were good candidates, decent people and knowledgeable, and try not to
5. Discusses how her husband to run for a seat in Michigan
Senatorial race. How she and her husband opened a law firm in order to make
ends meet. Justice Coleman also talks about her busy life, with her husbands
law practice (which she basically ran), rasing her two children, be active in
their school and starting the Marshall Civic Theatre.
Now, this is tape two with former Chief Justice Mary S. Coleman,
and it is now January 22, 1991. We were talking about Creighton and the
political opportunity that opened up.
Yes, I believe we were speaking about when we had a delegation of
influential Republicans -I guess you could put it that way - call on him and
ask him to run for the state Senate. Two others were running. Creighton had
just a few days in which to get petitions signed, and of course, here we were
not knowing what he was going to do after his contractual stint was done with
the military occupation, but we decided that he should run for the Senate.
We had always said we were going to be involved in grass roots
politics if he had a chance after he saw what happened in Germany, so he and
his friends managed to obtain the proper number of signatures on the petitions,
and he started to campaign. He had two counties, Calhoun and Branch, and he, of
course, didn't have anything to do, so he went door-to-door, and did
everything. The other two, of course, were well-known lawyers, and Creighton
hadn't been there often for many years, with his schooling and the service and
all that, so he had a lot to overcome. Anyway, he won, and that was a new era
of life because then we had to find a place to stay in Marshall.
He won the primary. That was pretty close to winning the...
Oh, yes. He won the whole thing, and I think the salary then was
about $1,200.00. It wouldn't even cover expenses, which was pretty ridiculous,
but it was the grass roots participation that swayed him and me. Before he took
office, I think they raised the salary to the munificent sum of $2,400.00 or
something like that which still didn't cover expenses, but it was a little
better. We had a dreadful time finding a place to stay, but we finally did.
His experiences in the Senate where he was majority leader for
four years, if I remember correctly, were very valuable to me. I learned a
great deal about legislation and politics. I had never been a politician, and
this was a whole new experience. When he was majority leader, it seemed as if
every night he was home which wasn't often, people were calling on him with
different aspects of legislation in which they were interested. We had groups
of union people, small business owners, and others. It was a very exhilarating
time, and he loved the legislative process, still does. I think that remains
close to his heart. But it was a good experience for me.
The only problem was that, of course, we had to open a law office
and find a way to make a living because you certainly spent more than you
earned in the Legislature. We were very fortunate. A gentleman from Detroit, a
very fine lawyer who had been or would be president of the State Bar and was
highly respected, Ernest Wunsch, met Creighton. He was going to start a branch
office. He wanted it in Marshall because he loved the town and the friendly
people, the whole concept that made it seem attractive to him and his family.
He, one day, just tossed Creighton a bunch of keys, and said, "You want to be
This was quite a dramatic gesture, just throwing him the keys,
was it not?
It was. It was astonishing. He had a fully equipped office with
all the books and everything you'd need in those days - you'd need a lot more
now - and he meant it. He meant to be full partners, and that was a wonderful
start. We moved the office to Battle Creek eventually because that's where most
of the business was, but Creighton was gone so much, I didn't want to leave the
small children before they were in school.
I did start to help quite a bit, as much as I could and then when
Carol was in kindergarten, I started a full practice because Creighton was
seldom there. He would be gone from Monday night until Friday. At first he
started coming home every night, but he'd fall asleep sometimes on the road. He
was on committees that met late, like the Appropriations Committee and such, so
we decided that he should stay there during the week, so he roomed with Eddie
Hutchinson. You may remember him.
I do remember him.
And John Martin and...
They stayed in the Porter Hotel, didn't they?
In the Porter, old Porter. He had a good group. Elwood Bonine, I
think was the other one. They had a living room and kitchen and the bedrooms.
It was a suite, so they had plenty of room, and they were very compatible. It
worked out fine, except it left me home to carry on the law practice because
Mr. Wunsch was mostly in Detroit and Creighton was mostly in Lansing, so there
was a period there when I would meet the children after school.
I tried to arrange my hearings, trials and appointments so I could
be home when they were home. I also had somebody at home so they wouldn't be
coming home to nobody. In any event, I could do everything with them until they
went to bed and then I would start on the work where you really needed peace
and quiet, such as briefs and abstracts. Again, there weren't so many title
companies so you had abstracts.
Work like that I could do and I think it was sort of a pattern
that I went into where I'd work until about 2:00 a.m., get up and see the
children off to school. It was kind of a hard time because there were many
other things that the children wanted me to do so that I was a "real mother". I
was always a room mother for as long as I could remember, and I was a volunteer
mother for most everything after work. I tried to get all of this in and keep
up with their schools and their friends and transportation. It was a very busy
time but a very memorable time because we were into various civic affairs. We
started the Marshall civic theater over there on our front porch.
You put in quite some effort, did you not, into some of the
dramatic productions at Marshall?
We started the one in Marshall and even in Marshall, I traveled
over for the lead in one of the shows, "The Heiress", in Battle Creek, and then
of course, we moved to Battle Creek. I did a few more shows, but...
Did you find acting compatible? You had not done any of this sort
of thing before, had you?
I had in college at the University. I belonged to the Drama Club,
I guess they called it, and was elected to the National Honorary Drama
So you had gotten your feet wet a little bit in this.
Just a little bit, but "The Heiress", for instance, was serious
drama and it required more than I thought I had, but the director thought I
could do it. We had a beautiful, glowing write-up from a critic who had been a
New York critic who had retired to his home, and had given bad reviews for
almost anything the civic theater did, so I was delighted to have a good one
from him. Anyway, that was a little facet of the things that I did just on the
Did people urge you into this sort of thing? I would think a
woman who was trying to assist significantly in her husband's law practice when
he was away and had two small children, and you are trying to be active in the
school orbit, you would have had your hands pretty full unless you were somehow
pestered into this.
Well, yes, I think that the fact that I was a lawyer, the woman
lawyer, this sort of thing led people to think that I could do all kinds of
things. For instance, I was involved with the American Association of
University Women, and I was the first president of the Marshall branch, and I
had never even been a member.
Becoming a president and not knowing what I was doing was kind of
an interesting experience, too. In any event, I seemed to become involved from
then on throughout life in all kinds of activities that I thought were
worthwhile in the community. That was a good part of life. The girls, for
instance, were interested in Campfire Girls, so I was a Campfire counselor, and
so on. I won't bore anybody with further details about that. We did move to
Battle Creek, and that was another chapter. I became more involved in community
activities, which was good. The girls were a little older then.
The school was close-by where we first lived, and we had good help
at home to whom the children were very adapted, but I still tried to get home
as early as I could so that I could be with them there or take them with me. I
think the bottom line of all of this is that I gained much experience in many
different areas, but the main experience that helped was the experience through
Creighton and the legislative process, so far as my professional life was
You were keenly interested in what he was doing and participated
to a significant degree, I suppose, from time to time, were you not?
He would come home with some problem and say, "Boy, this is a
real puzzler. I don't know what I'm going to do", and you would hash it out a
little bit and that sort of thing?
Yes. One time when I was a state legislative chairman for the
American Association of University Women, we were promoting on the state level
the foster care bills for children. Prior to that time, the county paid for all
of the care for all of their wards and if they were delinquent, the judges were
apt to commit them to the state training school because the state would pay for
it. Really, some of them didn't need that type of attention. In fact, it often
Well, now, was this at a time when you had become the
No, this was before that.
That would have been before 1957?
I guess so, whatever the date was. Creighton was in the Senate at
that time as a Majority Leader, and I must admit that I bore down on him a
little bit on the need for the state participation so that you could keep most
children in local facilities and still not spend all your county budget.
Those bills did pass where the county would pay half, at least,
and the amounts varied from time to time from then on. He would come home full
of information from over the week, but he didn't have much time to talk about
it because he'd get home Friday and then he'd rush to the law office and try to
catch up on what I hadn't done or what was strictly for him. It was a seven day
a week proposition, and we didn't see too much of him.
6. Justice Coleman recounts her experiences as being one of very few women practicing law. Her intereins in troubled children, and her decision to run for Supreme Court.
At this time, did you ever go into court in connection with the
law practice and argue motions and that sort of thing, or was it all office
No, I did the whole thing.
Was it not at that time quite conspicuous for a woman to be
arguing in court and participating in the law in that sense?
Yes, there had been one other woman. I don't want to speak
unkindly of her, but she hadn't made a very good impression on the judge, I
guess, because the first time I went to argue in the Circuit Court, the judge
said in rather a stage whisper, "Oh, God, another woman". It deflated me no end
because I had worked very hard. I always had thought a woman had to prepare
more than a man, so I was really prepared.
I want to bear down just a little bit on this subject because I
think it leads into other things later. There have been wide complaints that
seem to me, or at least there were - if you go back fifteen or twenty years ago
- that women had a hard way to go in a court setting, and that they were
subject frequently to ridicule, to snide comment, that they were...I don't know
just what the litany is, but I do know, I do remember very vividly where there
was a vigorous complaint about the role of the fairer, the way a woman fared as
a lawyer in court.
I remember there was a woman in Detroit, probably a little later,
a well-established practitioner, and she came to court one day wearing a suit,
instead of a dress, I think it was, and the judge remonstrated with her, and
said this was not...I don't know....womanly or in accord with court decorum or
something, and there was quite a little fuss about this. Now, I would
just...I'm only trying to stimulate your thoughts, and I would like to hear
your appraisal of what it was like for a woman at that stage to go into court.
Was it not too bad, and did you get a respectful treatment and sort of a sense
that you were being handled by the judge and by others in the court in a proper
way like any good established, prominent male attorney would be handled?
I really had no complaint after that one, although I must admit
that I had a few moments then of terror, I guess you'd call it. But the judge
later realized that I had heard. I won the case, incidently. He called me back
to his chambers and he said, "The only woman I've ever had in court fell back
on the fact that she was a woman and every time a man made a good point like he
would with another man, she would say, 'That's very ungentlemanly', or she'd
fall back on the fact that she was a woman and she wasn't being treated right."
He said so long as I felt that I could be treated like my opponent could treat
another man, and I could have a sensible argument back and forth, he was vastly
relieved. He had the picture of a militant type of a woman who wasn't very
logical in the arguments but would simply fall back on gender or social
background. I really had no complaints. The lawyers were very good to me and
the judges were kind. I felt they were fair, so I guess I'm not one who felt
the reality of gender bias, as it is called now.
That's very interesting because when we get further down the
road, I will want to come back to this subject, ERA and all that, but I don't
think this is the time for it. We are going through this period, and you are
already active in the foster home legislation, right?
That was before I was fully practicing.
This, I suppose, must have nurtured your interest in performing
in a public way, that is, as a public servant, public officer, and also in
getting deeper into the affairs of children, troubled children. Is that right?
You soon became a referee?
I had always been interested in children. As a matter of fact,
when I was about sixteen years old, I'd teach Sunday school classes with small
children and when I was home, little kids would come up and visit with me. I
don't know why exactly, but I liked them. When I was in law school, after I
decided I really wasn't cut out to be a tax attorney, I was trying to think of
a field that I would enjoy and where women would be acceptable. I decided by
the time I finished law school that I wanted to be a juvenile judge.
And I visited juvenile courts in New York, Trenton and
Philadelphia and down the east coast there. Some judges said, "What you need
besides your law degree is a degree in social service". When Creighton was in
New York the first time, he was there for quite a while when the Aluminum
Company of American case was being tried. I decided that I'd enroll in Columbia
University and try to put together a combination that would be suitable for a
juvenile judge background.
Was this Columbia - was it a social work course of study or
It was within Columbia's department which encompassed social
services. There also was in New York a college named something like "New York
City School of Social Work" which offered some courses especially pertinent to
juvenile court work. We did manage to have approved a combination of courses at
Columbia and the college which could result in a Master's Degree from Columbia
University - then Creighton was assigned somewhere else. This long-time
interest in the law's relationship to children probably led to my vigorous
effort on behalf of the foster care bills. They did pass and they resulted in
the first step toward an entirely new way of approaching both children's
problems and problem children in Michigan.
The net result was to keep more borderline troubled children in
Yes, instead of sending them all off to the training schools. It
was inappropriate in many cases. Sometimes it was appropriate, if you had tried
everything else and it had failed, and the youngster really needed more control
than you were able to provide elsewhere. However, there were quite a few
private facilities throughout Michigan and other states that really were benign
if disciplined. Boystown, for instance, in Nebraska, was appropriate for some
children, and there were quite a few Catholic schools that were excellent for
youngsters, girls particularly, but the habit had been just to send most to the
training schools because they were free so far as the County coffers were
So the judge who had the commitment recommendation or authority
was influenced in an indirect way by the fact that if he kept the costs down,
this would benefit him in the eyes of the commissioners who had to raise the
money to pay the bills.
Not only that but the commissioners wouldn't appropriate the
money. There was only so much money to go around, and I think that many of them
felt that the court spent an undue percentage. Courts cost money but did not
bring in much.
We're talking about the mid-50's, 1955, 1956?
And you were also quite active in Creighton's law practice at
Then, when did you first actively directly get into this? Wasn't
it 1957 when you became a Juvenile Court referee?
That was sort of a happenstance because I hadn't...
Or if I'm wrong...I make a lot of assumptions here too..
Well, I'm not sure of the date myself, but it was in there
somewhere. There was only one Probate and Juvenile Judge; you know, in
Michigan, you're both. You have two divisions, and the judge liked the probate
part of it but he could not tolerate the juvenile aspect. He said that he
literally was becoming ill because of the kinds of cases that would come before
him and the decisions that had to be made. He wanted a referee, so he talked
first to Creighton, I think because I was so active in the law office.
Creighton said, "Well, of course, she can do what she wants to do". The
referee's position paid much less than I was bringing in in the law office. But
he told me about it, and I had lunch with the judge and Creighton.
Who was the judge, by the way?
What was his first name, do you remember? I doesn't really
matter. M-a-l-l-i-s-o-n, do you think?
Yes. His first name was Lee. The upshot of it was that I said to
Creighton that I had always wanted to be a juvenile judge, and Judge Mallison
had said he didn't know whether he was going to run again, which was one aspect
in that I could run for his office. On the other hand, we needed two judges
desperately because the size of the county and the amount of the work was just
too much for one person.
He was going to leave it to me to decide whether I would want
another judge or run for his judgeship if he didn't run. We talked it over, and
I said, "I like to do what I enjoy doing". Everybody does, but if you can work
and still be involved in what you really want to do, I think that's a blessing,
so I told him that I would accept the position. It had to be approved by the
commissioners and all of that sort of thing because they had to pay the money.
It was a new position, and I would do everything in the name of the referee but
inform everybody that they could have an appeal to the judge.
I don't know that we ever had any. There were some cases that I
felt he should hear because they involved very serious termination of parental
rights. Although I held most of those, there were some that were so terrible
that I thought they should start at the top. However, I did almost all of the
juvenile work. We had a miserable juvenile home. By miserable, it was very
small. It wouldn't hold very many, and a minister and his wife conducted
everything out there. They did their best, but they had so many different
problems, so many types of youngsters that they couldn't pay attention to each
The children had no schooling while they were there and so forth,
so I set about to try to more than double the size of it and to have a school
as part of it with the Intermediate School District furnishing the special
education teachers for the school. I did manage to get volunteer school
teachers in the little home who would come and teach different things, but the
children had little else to do. My theory was that they had to build their
self-esteem first. You'd get some of these scrungy looking girls, for instance.
They just didn't care, so volunteer hairdressers came in and would style their
hair, and they left or donated some hair dryers so the girls could do their own
grooming. Just little things like that did wonders for their self-esteem.
However, there was a limit to what was possible under the existing
I think we started a new trend when millage to add much space to
our Juvenile Home passed by referendum. Not only were more rooms added with a
central control system, but classrooms and a gymnasium. The Intermediate School
District hired special education teachers and we worked with the youngsters'
own school (or former school) with the goal of placing children, after
certification, back into the classes where they should have been. Much red tape
was involved, but the results were gratifying. The kids could stay close to
their families, have visits and consultation with parents. Home visits with
much support for weaning some away from old gangs raised the success rate after
release. This was a new use for a juvenile home and some state authorities were
understandably apprehensive, but pleased with the results.
For instance, most of the children there were far behind in their
ability to read, so we placed a great emphasis on reading. We'd start them
where they could read so they wouldn't be discouraged right off, and then bring
them up as fast as they learned to read. There was one youngster in there who
advanced two years in a few months, but something had been blocking his
learning, probably the home environment which I think was the case there. We
had all kinds of activities going. The first graduating class,I took to
Schuler's for lunch. Most of them had never seen a menu. Some of them didn't
even know how to use a knife and fork, as we practiced reading menus...I say
"we did", the juvenile home people did.
I took them out to lunch, and they were in seventh heaven, and,
you know, I would have put them up against anybody in that lovely restaurant
for good manners and the way they conducted themselves, the way they ordered.
Of course, some of them ordered two or three desserts but that was all right.
We tried all kinds of activities. We had some of the girls being...what do they
call them...pink-striped girls for the nursing homes.
Candy-stripers, that's right - those that we could trust, we let
do that. There was a big storm and the cemetery was a mess, limbs off trees
were down and what not. The girls fixed big lunches for the boys and the boys
went out and cleaned up the cemetery. Experiences like this would give them
some sense of worth and of participation in the community in a positive
Who was the active person that was continuing charge? That wasn't
your responsibility, was it? Was there an administrator or something like that
for the home?
There was a director of the home, and I would set the policy,
suggest, approve, etc. I was very personally involved in that because it seemed
to me a very important part of rehabilitating the children which I considered
to be one of the main thrusts of the juvenile law regarding delinquency. I've
lingered long enough perhaps on the juvenile court, but...
Well, this was to be and is still, I suppose, a very focal part
of your interest in the law. I don't mean that your interest is restricted, but
I know that you struggled mightily with some cases later on and had a lot of
very sensitive feelings about. For example, custody, parental custody,
Yes, I did. I helped draft much of the law having to do with
child abuse, the initial ones and the Protective Services and many aspects of
the operation of what happened to children once they had their hearing in the
juvenile court and then went onto whatever they were going to do next. The
protection of neglected children was a sorry affair. I helped with quite a bit
of legislation and the Juvenile Court Rules, the first they ever had. I was on
that committee. Those were adopted, I think, around 1969.
By then, you were...
A Probate Judge, yes.
You were elected in 1960 for the first time?
Judge Mallison retired, did he?
Yes, he said he had had enough, and he retired. An interesting
little bit in there - by the law at that time, you had to wait until the next
election to elect a second judge if the county voted for a second judge, so
there was a hiatus. Well, I drafted some legislation which would make it
possible for somebody to run at the same time the question was on the ballot as
to whether there should be a second judge.
It was a little risky for the candidate but I knew just the one I
wanted, the one I thought would be the finest, and that was Judge Schoder,
Wendell Schoder, and he agreed to take the chance. The bill passed, and he
became the judge right away. He had said, "If I don't have to be judge of the
Juvenile Court, I'll do it", and of course, I was most interested in the
Juvenile Court. Probate work, I liked. It's clean and, in my opinion, much
easier because attorneys prepared all of the papers and much of the important
factors were set forth by law or rules.
There were relatively few contests in the area of probate of
by law or rules.
estates. Of course, the mental cases were difficult a the myriad of responsibilities in that division of the court. Although I
suppose that most people would consider the responsibility for the lives of
neglected, abused, and dependent children as well as delinquent youngsters to
be difficult and depressing, I found so much good coming out of terrible
situations that every day was a challenge.
I liked the work and felt rewarded, even in light of some
failures. Therefore, Judge Schoder and I had a very amicable division of work.
Of course, if I needed a judge to take my place for some reason, he would sit
as Juvenile Judge and vice versa. I might add that the Juvenile Court often was
a bit turbulent - not because of the children, but because of pretty wild
parents. perhaps that is where I learned to keep cool under all kinds of
pressure. It served to cool the atmosphere in general.
I think some came in looking for a fight, but finding none,
behaved quite well. That court held an inherent possibility of danger because
of the kinds of problems which brought the people there. Some of the juveniles
had records longer than many in Jackson Prison and involved as much or more
Did you ever encounter any episodes of violence in the
Well, one time I was warned that a defendant's brother was going
to shoot me if I committed him to the training school, and he was one of the
worst ones we had ever had, so it really was the only place for him. He was a
menace to the community, and we had tried everything. A Sheriff's deputy
extracted the pistol. Of course, there were other threats.
Now, the training school, in those days, was that BVS in
Boys Vocational School?
And where was the girls' school?
It was...oh, glory...do you know...you've hit a blank spot for
We can get to that later.
I'll think of it later.
I wanted to ask, though, Judge Schoder spelled his name...?
You then went twelve years, right, as Probate Judge?
Twelve years, and you got re-elected...?
You had to run every four years. I was very active on the state
level. I had been Chairman of the State Bar Committee on Juvenile Affairs,
their first one, for example, on Governor's Commissions and a number of
state-wide committees concerning crime and delinquency.
Were you president at one time of the Probate Judges'
Yes, that was just before the mighty decision was made to run for
the Supreme Court. I had never thought about the Supreme Court as a goal.
Well, now that's what I wanted to focus on for just a little bit.
When did the germ of this idea first enter your mind? You said that when you
got out of law school, you wanted to be a juvenile judge. You had made up your
mind. When did you make up your mind in a similar fashion that you wanted to
serve on the Supreme Court or perhaps a little broader in some appellate
This may come as a surprise. I don't know whether it will or not,
but I have never been a personally ambitious person, and I had never thought of
that or any appellate court. My husband was a Circuit Judge at the time I was a
Probate and Juvenile Judge. He had become the Circuit Judge first, and I surely
didn't want to run for the Circuit court. I liked what I was doing. I was happy
there, and that was it. But when I was at an annual meeting when I was
president of the Probate and Juvenile Court Judges' Association, as they call
it, they seemed to have had a pow-wow of some kind before I had arrived, and
they had decided that I should run for the Supreme Court.
Was this is 1972?
Was that when you actually ran, in July? The meeting was in
Very close on to when you would have had to...?
Very, very close. It was July or the first part of August. I had
three weeks to get ready for the convention where I had to be nominated, but
back to the meeting...
Where was it held, by the way?
I think it was Boyne Highlands, if I remember correctly.
Some of your fellow judges had gotten up there ahead of you and
talked about this and sort of hatched a plan?
They decided there was nobody on the Supreme Court who had any
experience with the field of Probate and Juvenile Court work.
And that was literally true at that time?
(End of side 1, tape 2)
That was, and some of the few opinions regarding juvenile law
that had come out were contrary to much of the feeling at that time. Anyway, I
was met with this razzle-dazzle, I guess you could call it, about running for
the Supreme Court. Of course, it had never crossed my mind, and I said, "No, a
woman has never been elected to that court, in the first place. I don't know
that one has ever run or been nominated". I found that was true...
7. She continues talking about her decision to enter the Supreme Court, and the election process. How she acclimated to the work of the court, and the case of Deziel Vs. Difco, etal.
Was this like a little reception committee when you got up there,
some of the judges, three or four of them said, "Come on, let's talk"...
No, it was nothing like that. I was conducting a meeting when
this first came up, and of course, it took me by great surprise, and I said,
"Oh, no, I couldn't do that". Then, quite of few of them, non-partisan
Republicans and non-partisan Democrats, you might say, rose and said something
like, "Well, we will all help you". We hear those things quite often, you know,
"You run, and I'll help", but they don't, but that was not my thinking at that
time nor was it true. I just hadn't thought about it. I said, "Well, this is
I would have to raise a lot of money. I'd have to cover 83
counties and I don't know how many million people, and the state convention is
about a month away - and how could I get in touch with all of the delegates?"
or something like that. There were other candidates for the nomination. There
were three men who had been out raising money for months and had pretty good
war chests, so to speak.
Anyway, we went on with our meeting and finally we came to a time
when it might have been organized, I don't know...everybody was getting up and
telling all the great things they would do and how important it was to the
state to have somebody with my experience on the Court, and they had decided
that I was the only one who could win. I don't know how they came to that
conclusion because a woman never had even tried.
This is a very interesting political lay of the land that came up
at that time, though, was this not true, that you had...you wound up that year
with nine nominees for two seats...
And prior to that time, usually it was two Democratic nominees
and two Republican nominees for two seats, and there was a compression of the
whole operation, but here, the thing was made wide open by Chuck Levin had
already formed his party and nominated himself, had he not, and Vince Brennan
had done the same thing and the Democrats were in some disarray because when
Swainson and Williams had run the prior electoral period in 1970 to calm some
feelings, the nomination had been quasi-officially promised to some people that
probably didn't have a....well, I remember something about the dramatics of
this. I just hope you....
I think in prior elections, there may always have been a stray
party or two with nominees. You could never run unopposed because of the way
our unique system is set up where you are nominated by party and run
immediately as non-partisan. It's the only one like it in the country, and it
should be abolished, as an aside, but in any event, I left this meeting of
judges after they had asked me not to say "no" right then, which I was doing,
but to give it a little more thought.
I didn't have much time to give it thought because of the advent
of the state convention. So, I went home and really didn't give it too much
thought, but the Supreme Court came down with what I considered to be one of
their bigger abominations of decisions and as did all of the Probate and
Juvenile judges, and others. The judges were very disturbed and so were we
because it really meant that about 500, I gathered from talking to the
Corrections Commission people, of probably their worst inmates would be set
This was a case that had to do with what...binding over certain
types of juvenile cases to the Circuit Court? Was that what...?
Well, it was a youngster who had been tried for murder in the
Circuit Court. He had been waived to the Circuit Court. The statutes of the
state provided for the waiver but had nothing about the procedures to waive
somebody, but we who had been on the Juvenile Rules Committee, had a very
precise rule adopted by the Supreme Court as to how such cases should be
handled, and the considerations that were to be given.
We also followed, incidently, the rules that were accepted
nation-wide so what actually happened was correct, but the Court found that
because the procedure wasn't in the statutes that the convict had to be set
free -and all who had been waived under like circumstances. I was fussing and
fussing at home and Creighton, who had been at the annual meeting with me,
said, "Why don't you quit complaining and run for the Supreme Court?" In any
event, he encouraged me and I said, "All right, I'll do it". Then I said,
"Well, what do you do when you run for a statewide office?"
Would this have been just a day or two after the...?
This was within a week. In the first place, I had to let the
president of the Association and the Republican State Committee know, and to
make an announcement for the news media. Then, I had to figure out what I had
to do to win the nomination from the convention, because I'd been a
non-partisan for twelve years, but of course, Creighton had been well-known as
a Republican leader. In any event, Creighton said, "Why don't you call Elly
Peterson and see if she would be your chairman?" I said, "Well, Elly is
retired. She is not doing this anymore".
Elly Peterson had been Republican state chairman and also a
candidate at one time for the U.S. Senate, right?
Yes. She considered herself a sacrificial candidate, but she did
it anyway. She also was a national committee woman. She had a lot of experience
and was highly respected.
What did Elly say, do you remember, when you first broached this
to her? How did she react?
I telephoned her right away, and she said, "Well, you know, I've
retired from politics, but a woman has never run for that Court before, and I
know you, and yes, I'd like to do it. When shall we meet? Tomorrow morning?"
That was Elly. Of course, there were all these things you had to do that I
might not have thought about right away. It would have taken me a little
If nominated, we had to get all kinds of agreements with the post
office and the United Parcel Service. We had to get a place, a headquarters,
equipment, etc. so we called together a few friends, community leaders and
others. We met in our living room. Elly at one point said, "You should have a
shower. You could have people bring anything they want including their own
volunteer services". So we sent out invitations and advertised a shower.
We managed to obtain a headquarters right downtown, and that was
really interesting. People would bring paper clips, paper, typewriters, and all
kinds of things to start the business. It was quite exciting. In any event,
Elly just took over. We had to find a finance chairman and a treasurer and all
that kind of thing, but this came later. To go back to where I should have
started, I couldn't even find out who the delegates to the state convention
were. They hadn't all been chosen, but I had to let them know that I was in the
running, so we had a little trouble there.
My secretary of many years organized the legal secretaries of the
area and after their working hours, they went down to someone's office and
drafted a list of my life's achievements, my civic activities and my
qualifications to send to the delegates and to let them know that I was
running. We managed to get those out. Then we had to think of something to do
for the convention because that was hard on our heels. We couldn't even find a
place at first in the hotel where the headquarters were.
Where was the convention that year? In Grand Rapids or...?
It was in Detroit, at three hotels, which made it a little
Who was the chairman of the Republican Party at that time? Did
you sense any problem...did Elly feel there was a problem right away in getting
the number of votes required for nomination? Was there somebody in the way?
Well, there were the three other candidates who had been running
a long while, but we...my main problem was that the party had little money and
they didn't have any for me. The others had been fund-raising for some time,
and I had nothing, of course, to start with. We contributed, or we loaned
$10,000.00 of our own to start with, but from that time on, I had to attend
every fundraiser anybody was generous enough to offer.
This is such a long story because it involved so many different
people and aspects. Elly had me calling on every editor in the state. I missed
one because I was in the city at night, so I couldn't see him and he reminded
me of that since. I went to the different editors, for instance, in Detroit. I
went to the editor of the black newspaper, the Chronicle, and he was very
gracious, and to the Polish newspaper, and they were very gracious, and of
course, to the News and Free Press and all the rest of them. I tried not to
miss anybody, even in the upper peninsula in all those little areas, so that,
in itself, took time. Cindy Winters then...her name was Cindy Sage, was my
press secretary. They were here, as a matter of fact, for four days this last
week, but in any event,...
Her name is now Winter...?
She was from Cadillac or somewhere, wasn't she?
She lived in Charlotte but did have a house in Cadillac. She did
a lot of radio work, but she was a whole team. She managed to put together the
folders you give to the reporters and others with my picture, history and all
that sort of thing.
Who was your finance chairman, do you remember?
Yes, it was Richard DeVos, Jr. He came in a little late. When I
was in Grand Rapids, Peter Secchia had a little dinner party for Richard and
Betsy and a number of others. I don't remember whose idea it was that Richard
would make a very fine finance chairman but I did ask him and he agreed. As it
worked out, different people in different areas of the state also assumed the
work of raising funds so Rich had much help. I also had a fine Treasurer.
He had been Treasurer of Kellogg Company before his retirement.
When speaking of my press secretary, Cindy, I should mention that she never
missed an opportunity to apprise the public of my candidacy. For instance, when
she would drive with me and see a television or radio station which had not
covered some aspect of my campaign, she would stop and go in to "see what they
could do for us".
You'd get a pretty good reception, wouldn't you?
Yes, actually everywhere I went, they'd stop what they were
doing, and they'd question me. In the Lansing T.V., they set up a scene in the
garden with flowers all around, and I sat at a table and had a nice long
conversation. They were very, very gracious people. Everywhere, I think that
they wanted to know more about the candidates. Speaking of Lansing, when I
called upon the newspaper editor, he called in his entire editorial staff to
question me and hear what I had to say. There were some tough questions, but I
appreciated the opportunity to reply to them.
I would be remiss if I failed to emphasize the importance of the
headquarters staff with its dedicated volunteers and the people who drove or
flew me all over Michigan. One driver, John Milford of Ypsilanti, simply moved
in with us. He still seems like a son. The Upper Peninsula presented quite a
challenge because of the spread of its population and the fact that snow and
ice had already appeared. I well recall being in a little plane when the wings
and windows iced over. We could see nothing. The pilot received permission to
fly lower, but we still could not land in Escanaba where a splendid luncheon
was waiting for us. We were able to land at Iron Mountain. However, after the
election, Creighton hired a plane and several of us flew to Escanaba for a long
delayed luncheon with many of the same group we had left waiting for us.
Well, you really ran like the wind, you and Charles Levin in that
campaign, as I recall. You left everybody else pretty far behind you.
Yes, we did.
Do you recall what kind of vote that you pulled in numbers? I
don't recall what it was, but it was..
No, I don't. I haven't kept track of that, but...
But you and Charles Levin were right up at the top, neck and neck
and the others were...
Quite a far way back, and I think it was an advantage being a
woman although I did have one man come up to me and say, "I'm a male chauvinist
pig. You tell me why I should vote for you?"
What were the circumstances of that? Was this man drunk or was he
No, he said it in a very jovial voice. I guess how it started, he
said, "My wife says I should vote for you. I'm a male chauvinist pig. You tell
me why I should vote for you". It took me back a little bit, but I mentioned my
qualifications and the practice of law and being a Probate and Juvenile Judge
and all the other things that were germane. Finally he went away, and he said,
"All right, I'll vote for you", but he was very matter of fact with a nice
attitude. Some were very serious. They wanted to know what I felt about
divorce, for instance, and the distribution of children and what not. You had
to answer every question as directly as you could. I felt that was the only way
to do it, but I was well received everywhere.
I think the farmers in one area were not used to the thought of a
woman, and that was up in the eastern part of the state. They were all very
nice to me, but I understand that I didn't get the majority of votes there. By
and large though, it was a very successful and an enlightening time for me, but
it was also a very happy time for me even if I was frightened when they'd give
me my marching orders in the morning which often happened when I was home. My
staff would write something like, "You start out at some university speaking to
'x' number of people", and I wouldn't have the slightest notion what I was
going to say, so I would just have to do it off the cuff and answer questions.
The staff scheduled each day.
Now, when you were elected in November, 1972, you found yourself
the first woman on the Michigan Supreme Court. Do you know how many other women
were serving on state Supreme Courts across the country? There had been none on
the United States Supreme Court at that time, had there?
Governor Brown had appointed Rose Bird in California just before
the end of our election.
Is that right.
Yes, and so she was...
She was serving, and then was there...South Carolina, was it
She had...I don't know whether it was just before she retired or
she had already retired, but she was sort of an institution, delightful.
Have you met her?
Yes, I have. At the meeting in St. Paul having to do with the
Roscoe Pound celebration. They had everybody who was anybody including all the
Would those two woman, Rose Bird and Susie Sharpe, would they
have been the only other women serving on state Supreme Courts or were there
probably others, too? Did you ever take the trouble to find out?
I think there was one other in Arizona. I really don't know what
her name was, but somebody told me there had been a woman justice in
I think I'm dwelling on this a little bit because as we sit here
today, 18 years later, you have to work at it a little bit to recall the
atmosphere of the time. Now, there was a time...we've had two other women on
the Michigan Supreme Court in a relatively short span, the last ten years, and
I'm sure that this probably is getting to be quite common. Maybe not common but
much more frequent in other states and then of course, we have had a woman
United States Supreme Court justice in this recent year. Back then, and this is
not eons ago exactly, the atmosphere was quite different, was it not?
Oh, yes. A woman had never even been nominated to run in
Michigan. I may have been the first woman who was elected to the position.
Rose Bird was appointed?
She was appointed. I think the others were appointed...
Susie Sharpe was elected by the Legislature, was she?
They had a peculiar system down there. I'm not quite sure what it
was, to tell the truth, but I was told and I can't verify this because I
haven't really bothered to look it up, but I was told that I was the first one
elected on a state-wide basis.
What meaning did this have for you? When the excitement of the
campaign was over and you sat back and realized that now you were going to take
the oath, and you were going to sit on the court, and this was unusual; were
there weighty thoughts that you experienced at that time? "I'm a pioneering
woman in modern times" or did you think of this as...you could not escape, I
assume, the connection of your being a woman in your election. What...how did
you evaluate this in your more thoughtful moods? Do you see what I'm
Yes, I do, and it was something that frankly bothered me when I
first started. I didn't know how I would be received. I was received very
graciously, I must admit. We solved the problem of the one bathroom in the
conference area back there (we say we liberated it), and we had a little fun,
but my concern was that these were all experienced, people of strong opinions
because of their own backgrounds. They had their own strong feelings, and I
felt that they would not like a woman to come in like an army sergeant and try
to whip them into shape. That wasn't my nature anyway. I always felt that you
could make more progress by logic, if you could, or by reasonableness in a
quiet, firm sort of way. That's the way I was, I guess.
In some instances, I wish I had been more aggressive because I
thought my arguments were really better than those that finally prevailed and
if I had borne down a little heavier, then perhaps I could have prevailed, but
I didn't want to be overbearing. As the first woman, I felt I had to work very
hard. I had to know what I was doing. I also had a philosophy that was a
little...seemed to be a little different from some of those on the Court. I
guess because of my background, I looked at each case as a continuity from the
past, but it had to deal with the problems of the present and you also had to
look at the future.
I was always more than normally analytical when a proposed
decision bent away from the wording of the legislation or would change the
formerly accepted interpretation of a word or words. The same was true with
respect to the common law. I would try to envision where the next cases would
go and how they would affect the state in the future. Fairness and the common
good are important.
Much of the time I was on the Court, the tendency, in worker's
compensation cases and in civil litigation involving workers or unions, the
tendency was to favor them regardless of the facts. As some of my colleagues
said, "WAW" - the "worker always wins". This was one of my first lessons. Of
course, the worker should win in many cases, but not just short of "always".
The same I thought to be true of union and criminal cases.
Let's go back and review what situation you found yourself in in
terms of who your colleagues were. When you came on the Court, there were, at
the previous election, former Governor Williams and former Governor Swainson.
You were elected with Charles Levin and yourself. That would be four, and then
there was Thomas Matthew Kavanagh and Thomas Giles Kavanagh, and Tom Brennan,
So you had, in terms of the Worker's Comp. cases, you had
a...what will I call it...philosophical division there that was pretty heavily
And you soon became accustomed to this, and you knew almost in
terms of what you just recited, "WAW", the set of philosophy or philosophical
attitude was such that once you knew the facts, you could pretty well guess how
the votes would come down. Was that not true?
Yes, that was true.
And then there were a lot of 4:3 votes in that period, was there
Yes, that was true also because some of the decisions seemed to
me to be leading to undue trouble. They were setting a new pattern for the
future which I foresaw as counterproductive. Given certain sets of facts, I
could imagine many kinds of injustices that could follow. Although I felt bound
by legislative acts, if constitutional, I felt free to suggest a review of a
statute for possible revisions. The common law, judge-made law, was easier to
bring into modern times, for example, as it dealt with newly perceived rights
of under-represented groups such as children, minorities and women.
I admit that in the early days, I came close to viewing employers
and yes, even insurance companies as underdogs in some instances because it
seemed that there was almost no way they could win. They appeared to know this
so settlements flourished regardless of weak plaintiff's cases. Court processes
are expensive and time consuming and the "deep pocket" syndrome was popular -
and still is to a large extent.
Not in point with workers' compensation cases, but with the "deep
pocket" syndrome was the Funk case. Mr. Funk was a plumber, pipe fitter and
experienced in that field. He worked for the Agee company. This company was a
subcontractor of a company named something like Darin Armstrong which had a
contract with General Motors to build a facility. Perhaps I can make a long
story a bit shorter than a full recitation of facts would require, but Mr. Funk
was assigned by Agee to work in a given area on pipes which were held up by "J
hooks". Because the Agee foreman had misjudged the placement of the pipes -
about which he told no one - about 600 feet had to be moved. This required the
movement of the "J hooks". Mr. Funk and his helper came to a place where the
roofers had already placed roof slabs so the hooks could not be moved.
Contrary to established rules, Mr. Funk neither obtained
permission nor even told the foreman of his plan before he and his helper
climbed a ladder to the icy roof, crossing the line of the roofers' territory
against union and all other rules, and began removing the slabs and reaching
down to move the hooks. The roofers were not even present and the Agee foreman
knew nothing about the venture. Mr. Funk came to a place where a ventilator had
been installed and he removed the protective slab and either his feet slipped
or his hammer slipped on the ice (The testimony was conflicting.) and he fell
to the floor. He did collect workers' compensation through Agee. He then sued
Darin Armstrong and General Motors for negligence.
In a final effort, he appealed to the Supreme Court, where he won.
I dissented in probably the longest dissent I ever wrote, with the help of an
excellent law clerk. The defendants had known nothing of the problem caused by
the Agee foreman - much less of Mr. Funk's unanticipated actions. They had
provided oral and posted safety rules. It appeared to me that Mr. Funk, by his
own disregard of established rules and without permission, had crossed into
another union's territory under hazardous circumstances, had dug a hole and
fallen through it. The majority opinion appeared to me to defy accepted and
reasonable standards of liability.
Was that one of the early cases that you encountered on the
It was, and it was the longest dissent I ever wrote with the help
of a very fine law clerk. We were wrapped up into what seemed to us to be an
unjust decision leading to a questionable future. He made his own hole and fell
through it where he wasn't supposed to be in the first place. I could see
nothing that GM or Armstrong could have done to prevent it. I had to look down
the road to see where this bend would lead, especially if they bent it again.
Some of the cases had rather wide, open windows to future liabilities, like the
Deziel vs. Difco, etal.
You dissented in Deziel, Redfern, did you not? These were the
mental disability cases.
Why don't you just...
The Deziel case was one in which a woman charged Difco as
responsible for her mental illness. She came from Canada where she had a long
history of mental illness which was not revealed to Difco, nor was it available
through usual channels because of its history in a foreign country. After
working for Difco for awhile, she filed a claim for worker's compensation.
It was only at that time when her mental illness in Canada, just
prior to her move to the United States, was revealed. At her hearing, the
psychiatrist testified that she "needed a hook" upon which to hand her problems
and used Difco as that hook because it would bring in money. In his experience,
she might either have taken that route consciously or unconsciously as a way to
stop working and still have an income. The company could have nothing to do
with it excepting to be available.
The legal test is "out of or in the course of employment".
So here where you have a mental person who has been going to work
several months or a couple years and then says, "I can't hack it anymore. I'm
disabled. I can't face it. I want compensation". Is that sort of a summary of
the kind of thing that you...?
Yes, it is, in a way. I could see where this would open the door
to many claims of mental illness by people who just didn't like their work or
who did not like the thought of any employment. They could hope for long-term
mental disability benefits with no need or incentive to work anywhere else.
How far did this go? Do you know? These cases that we're taking
about came along in the late 70's, as I remember, or at least they reached
their final. They were reheard, some of them.
Has what you anticipated come to pass or has the law calmed down
a little on that sort of thing? Are you aware just out of your...?
I wouldn't have been aware excepting for a note I received from a
man who is on the Worker's Compensation Appeal Board. He had in his private
practice, represented the workers. He was a very well known Worker's
Compensation plaintiff's attorney. In his letter, he said something to the
effect that "I've had to work with the problems of that Deziel case, and I wish
I could have been working under your luminous dissent" which I took very
kindly..."...because it made much more sense". I think that the Legislature has
made some progress in coping with the problems.
8. Justice Coleman begins to talk about her achievements as a woman Supreme Court Justice.
Let me, if I may...I'm not sure it's the right time, but we
talked a little bit about how the atmosphere in which you came on the Court in
terms of being the first woman. Now, I wanted, at the right time, to have you
review your thoughts about where, despite this sort of pioneering episode, in
terms of women's achievement...you...now I must be careful how I phrase this. I
want to say something like -it seemed to me that you never were warmly embraced
by the more militant women's organizations, the ERA advocates who wanted to go
sled length, and yet, I don't mean to say that you were rebuffed or rejected,
but you were not adopted and put up in the field marshall's position to wave
the baton. How would you describe the relationship that I'm trying to bring up
I guess I'm not an obviously militant type but a persistent type.
However, I strongly support the ERA.
First off, how would you characterize this thing that I have, in
a clumsy way, tried to talk about?
I know what you mean because my first experience with that type
was at the National Women's Political Caucus, very shortly after I was elected.
It was in Houston, Texas. The Governor wanted me to go because they had people
who had been engaged in other aspects of politics but to his knowledge, had
never had a judge, as he put it, "to tell them how to be elected", so I thought
my job would be easy. I'd tell them how you run an election and all that sort
of thing. Well, I arrived in Houston with my husband, and we had Bella Abzug
and Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and the whole group on the platform with
We were to lead off, and it was very interesting because I
probably was the most low-keyed one there. Gloria Steinem, while she was a
militant, she was not an abrasive type of a militant, but Bella and some of
them were. I remember Bella Abzug just yanking the loud speaker away from the
chairperson who was a lovely, lovely woman. The Rice Hotel where this was held
was full of women, some coming with sleeping bags. They'd come from all over
the country. They had hiked, some of them, and they were going to organize a
protest right there down the main streets...
Banners and that sort of thing?
(End of side 2, tape 2)
Oh, all kinds of things. Everybody was there, but I could see
where so many of them seemed to have a chip on their shoulders and it was like,
"Well, knock it off and I'll knock you down". This method seemed to me very
unwise because I could just see it turning off the male population and my idea
was to try to become assimilated into the male population, so to speak, so far
as our work and goals were concerned. It was a real eye opener for me.
Creighton tried to get into the convention, incidently. They wouldn't let him,
"equal rights" or not. There was a television cameraman in there. He was the
only male in the room, and finally, Creighton said, "That's my wife up on the
platform there. There's a man in there, and I don't know...
9. Justice Coleman continues speaking about achievements. Her sponsorshipt of an amendment to the State Constitution to insure no discrimination based upon sex. Changing atmosphere in which the Supreme Court worked, colegiality on the court and various cases she worked on.
But he was trying to gain admittance and never did, is that what
Well, he did finally, but it wasn't easy. He said, "My wife is
speaking up there on the stage, and there is one man in there, so I would like
to come in", and he was interviewed by different reporters who thought he was
Do I gather from this, and pardon me if I'm...I'm trying to make
sure that we do get...I have never heard this talked about, and I think it is
very significant. Really, there was a kind of philosophical...there was a
difference between the chip on the shoulder ones who by and large were the
signature of the movement, the people that were quoted constantly and who were
the leaders on the podium and your feeling was that you had made a lot of
progress for yourself in your life including through political activity and
before the electorate, and you did not follow the precepts that were really, or
how do I say this? I get the sense...
Well, I guess I just wasn't a stereotype militant but I had my
own ways, I thought.
You had achieved great success...
My professional life was in a man's world, and I knew what you
had to do, or at least what I had done, that gained acceptance and become "one
of the boys", so to speak, although they treated me like a lady. I liked that.
I had never been held back. I had been pushed forward actually by men, so I
perhaps had a different background. However, one of my major experiences in
this respect was when I was appointed by President Ford to serve on the
National Commission for the Observance of Women's Year, and the board was
appointed by the president with two from the House and two selected by the
Senate, a fine group of men and women.
We took testimony from women who had felt that they had
experienced an area of discrimination that should be examined. For instance,
there was a symphony conductor and a very fine one, but she was never given a
position. She spoke of people who wanted to try out as pianists, for instance,
or for orchestras. The auditions had to be held behind a screen so judges
couldn't tell whether they were male or female. In the area of athletics, a
leader was urging us not to promote women as competitive with men in certain
areas where they physically weren't able.
There were things that men could do that women couldn't, but what
she wanted was to have as much money available to promote the women's athletic
events such as women's tennis and golf as the men and to be recognized as teams
in schools and so on. There were testimonies from all different areas. A union
leader, a woman from Detroit, actually testified as to the problems of women
within the union hierarchy in obtaining the higher positions. We had people
from all segments of America who testified. There was intense discussion out
there. There was much discrimination in the U.S.A.
I had been going my own way and doing my own thing and didn't have
any complaints, but I realized there were large areas in which work needed to
be done. This is the time when ER America was born, and Elly Peterson and Liz
Carpenter headed that. I was present at their first meeting with the press. I
remember Alan Alda who was on the commission and was one of the great promoters
of ERA, and I was sympathetic to it. It was just that I guess by my nature, I
was not a marcher so much as a doer. Let's put it that way.
You did recognize, as I think it was quite evident from all the
studies and surveys, that women in certain occupations were customarily paid at
a lower level.
This is true. There isn't any doubt about it, and there were
certain positions that were, I guess, "male". Women were not even considered
for them. When I was at the University of Maryland, there was one woman in the
engineering school, and everybody thought she was great, but she was a pioneer
of her time. There were just certain areas where women were generally
unwelcome, and I think that probably this is still true but not to such a large
extent in the corporate world.
Now, many women are making it up to the top, but they had to start
up the ladder and they're going up now. It has been interesting to me since I
retired to be on corporate boards and to do what is sometimes called
head-hunting for women who have made the grade, who are at the top level, and
there aren't very many, even now. Those who are there are extremely capable and
I think have paved the way for more such appointments.
Do you remember in one of the years that you were Chief Justice,
and I'm going to guess 1978, I could be wrong, and in your speech to the
Legislature, the State of the Judiciary speech, one of the things that you
threw in there was...I think we have talked about this...an ERA for the state,
and all you had to do was to take that paragraph in the early part of the
constitution of Michigan that enumerates "there shall be no discrimination",
just insert the word "sex" along side race and the others. This got a very
chilly reception. Do you remember that?
I do indeed because it surprised me so. The point being that they
left women out of the anti-discrimination article, so I suggested that the
Legislature set about including women, and several men, quite a few actually,
came up afterwards and wanted to sponsor such a resolution. To my great
surprise, a woman in the House of Representatives apparently was quite upset
about it because she thought if that were done, that that would block the vote
for a state equal rights amendment (ERA).
Well, the Legislature had ratified the U.S. amendment. They had
ratified it, but we had not adopted it in our own constitution, and she thought
that if my proposed addition were there, then people would say, "Well, what's
the use of having both?". So, the men who had been so excited about it told me
that, since some of the women legislators didn't want it, that they thought
perhaps they'd better not push it, so that came as a surprise to me. I thought
that would be a great step forward.
Well, it is some kind of a commentary, is it not, on the movement
where there is some recognition depending on how you phrase the language and
that sort of thing...some people thought the ERA language was so broad as to
invite certain undesirable things, but this one, it seemed to me, was so
innocent and yet, in Michigan, "sex" just put in there along side "race" and
"national origin", but I thought that was some kind of a commentary on the
whole movement which ended up not being, certainly failing to get the ERA
amendment incorporated in the Constitution of the United States, but in the
process of some kind of a misguided, single-minded, over-aggressive effort to
do that, they were willing to shrug off and worse, to reject, modest and yet
very significant gains, right in their own backyard.
Well, I must admit that I was upset about that because I thought
it was a step toward the goal of the ERA, if that was what their goal was. I
had talked to quite a few of the legislators anyway who had said that if they
had to vote again, they wouldn't vote for ratification, so I thought that my
proposal was a significant step. But yes, it was a disappointment. That
national commission came out with many fine recommendations and many of them
have been carried out. It was supposed to last for the year of 1976, but they
extended it for another year, and I had to resign because I could not be away
from the Court. I had upset the Court for a whole year because once a month, we
met at the State Department in Washington and the justices had been very good
to me by calendaring events around the time that I would be gone, but I
couldn't ask them to do it any more although meetings encompassed weekends
primarily. The next year led to other adventures, and Mexico didn't turn out so
Did the commission go to Mexico and get into some kind of
They had a world event there in Mexico and well, I won't go into
all of that, but this was a very exciting time. I think that women still have a
way to go. It's just that my methods were more like spreading good will among
the people with whom you worked, men and women, and working very hard so that
they would have to recognize your value.
It doesn't work for everybody, but that was my own feeling. Of
course, there was a problem of being hired in the first place. There were some
who regardless of efforts and good wills, would still be held in positions that
were lower paying than men. We had, for instance, the Federal book on
salaries...I don't know what its official name is, but it had a description of
duties for women and a description of duties...I say for women...it was under a
certain heading...and a description for men under another heading, and I just
threw in the "for men".
The ones for the women would do most of the same work or all of it
with quite a bit less pay then the ones where they visualized men doing the
work, but all of the work was the same, and there was discrimination. That has
been pretty well corrected at this time. It helped men, too. I thought
sometimes that men should have an equal rights voice - not an amendment but a
voice to say in equal rights because they weren't accepted too well in nursing
schools and where women normally predominated, and where they really wanted to
contribute, so...but that's long ago. There are other important things to talk
Let's go back for a while now and focus again on your time on the
Supreme Court. You served from the first day of 1973 until right at the end of
December, 1982, ten years.
At the time that you came on the Court and for some while
thereafter and perhaps before, there was much division on the Court of a type
that at times was rancorous and very harsh and unseemly, and finally, in
1975...that would have been your third full year on the Court, there was a year
of great turmoil, partly for those reasons, partly for other reasons. Did you
feel when you began to function as a member of the Court...were you aware or
did you bring an awareness before you even got there, were you aware that
something needed to be done to change the atmosphere in which the Court
Oh, indeed I did. The Court had a terrible reputation, among the
lawyers and the judges of this state and the Bar and Legislature. They were all
angry with the Supreme Court, and it was quite upsetting. The reputation fell,
I think, on all courts, but the first personal observation I personally had was
when Justice Levin and I had been elected, and we were invited to sit on the
Court's last administrative conference.
The air was absolutely blue, or I don't know what color you'd call
it, but the hostilities were evident and then one of the retiring justices,
Justice Black, finally just stood up and walked away. He said he'd never set
foot in the Court again. It was awful, and I came home and I said to Creighton,
"You know, I think you could not do appropriate, proper work in such an
atmosphere. It's just going to have to change". Therefore, one of my goals was
to try to do what I could to change that atmosphere. One of the problems was
that the Court was blamed, and I think probably quite fairly so, of being union
Now, I have nothing against unions and am a very good friend of
unions, but I noticed that anything that they wanted, they seemed to receive,
together with the workers, and sometimes they should and sometimes they
shouldn't. You know, there is much value judgment that sweeps across all of the
decisions. But one day, we were having a meeting and there came a knock on the
It was announced that one of the high union leaders had a note to
give to one of the justices asking us to support some legislation that they
wanted. I don't know who rose up first, Justice Levin or myself, but we both
jumped to our feet and we said something like, "Why is it that they feel that
they can come and ask this Court to support the union legislation - right to
the conference room?"
Now, for people who are not familiar, the conference room was a
pretty restricted quasi-sacred place, was it not?
That's right, and sort of isolated from the back of the bench and
to one side.
And frequently, there were only the seven members of the Court
That's right, and the Clerk of the Court, and then the Crier was
outside doing whatever we asked him to do or attending to his usual work.
People did not lightly knock on the door...
Nobody did that I remember, excepting that one time when someone
wanted to come in and speak about legislation. Of course, that does not include
a visit by Santa Claus. That was fun.
Were you...was it prior to your service on the Court when the
case of the UAW Political Action Committee vs. the Secretary of State relating
to the four year registration law...were you on the Court when that was
decided, when the UAW, in its own name, sued the Secretary of State to
invalidate as an unconstitutional burden on the elective franchise, the four
year registration requirement?
You're familiar with that generally?
And the dissent, the one dissent in that case was a most damning,
sulfuric thing I have ever seen written in the reports. This was Gene
I was going to guess that because he had given interviews to
newspapers and had written opinions that set out who did what. They were a kind
of history of that era.
He pointed out...he said, "Now, on this Court, the one that is
considering this case brought by the United Auto Workers Union and the
Community Action Council are so many people who have been nominated to sit
where you're sitting now because of the power of that organization and the
party that you represent and there are certain people, Attorneys General, who
have enjoyed the favor of the same type of nomination", and he went on, and he
used a lot of italics.
That was the strongest statement I think I've ever seen. Maybe,
you probably encountered that at some time, and I just wondered if that
I read it, but it...
You know what happened in the case was that the Court, by a
divided vote, gave the relief that was sought and not only that, it had been
given in sort of a slipped-under-the-door fashion in an order that was issued
prior to the formal decision in the case. It was sort of an interlocutory
relief. You don't remember that..., well...
I don't remember the slip-under-the-door part and the
pre-decision decision, but...
Well, I'm using a little license there. What it was an order that
effectuated the purpose but did not purport to be the Court's decision.
I understand what you meant, and the unions had a strong
influence on the Court. There isn't any question about it, but of course, when
you consider the fact that most of the Democratic hierarchy were union leaders,
and most of the delegates usually were union members, they wielded a great deal
of power over who went on the Court. This came up later, of course, in the
matter of Thomas Giles Kavanagh, but I won't go into that now.
At the time I came on the Court, I considered it to be the best of
times, worst of times and the most challenging of times, if you want to see it
that way, because many bad things happened as well as good. Of course, with the
loss of so many justices, and the traumas that we all went through after John
Fitzgerald went through the election process and Thomas Matthew Kavanagh also
was re-elected, it was also an unsettling time..
Excuse me, now...this was in 1974, was it not when Tom Brennan
had left the Court.
He had left the Court, so there was one vacancy there. He wanted
to devote his time to the development of Cooley Law School which he had begun
and had done a beautiful job of it.
And John Fitzgerald, then a Court of Appeals judge, was appointed
as the successor to Brennan at the end of 1973 and had to run in 1974.
And at the time that T.M. Kavanagh was a candidate and Blair
Moody, is that correct?
That's right. Fitzgerald defeated Moody so he continued as a
justice. But there came a time, of course, when we elected a new Chief Justice
because while we got along really quite well, speaking of the atmosphere of the
Court, personally and in the business of the Court. Outside of the Court, we
still faced problems. In the Court, we had our differences, but we could argue
about them, and then we could be friends afterwards. I think the collegiality
improved a bit, but left a little bit to be desired, but...
This was in January, 1975 following the Fitzgerald election.
Yes, that would be true.
There was a change in Chief Justices that was quite traumatic, is
Yes, and four of us knew we were going to vote for somebody else,
and Thomas Giles Kavanagh was the next in seniority. He also had a warm,
outgoing personality we felt might have some soothing effect on our public
relations because the judges were simply furious with us. I could go into some
of the reasons, but it involves personalities and I don't want to do that.
Nevertheless, after Thomas Giles Kavanagh...having two Tom Kavanaghs is a
problem...after Thomas Giles became the Chief Justice, there came a time when
the other Thomas Kavanagh went to have a physical examination and found that he
had cancer of the colon. He immediately was operated on and went through
miserable chemotherapy and never left the hospital. I know when I went to call
on him, he was not...he just looked too sick to be alive much longer.
This was only three months after the choice of...
Very shortly, yes.
So here you had the...
The vacancy with Brennan...
Right, filled by Fitzgerald, and then the switch in the Court's
leadership, and then the death of Thomas Matthew Kavanagh shortly after he was
relieved of Chief Justice duties.
And then, you're now in April, 1975. The Court is short. You've
got one new member.
And sometimes John Fitzgerald couldn't sit because he had sat on
the case in the Court of Appeals. Sometimes we were 5:2 even then...I mean, two
missing. Then came the case of John Swainson.
Do you recall exactly when that became a factor on the Court with
respect to the death of Thomas Matthew Kavanagh during the spring of 1975? Was
it almost right after that, or was there a couple or three months that went by?
Larry Lindemer hadn't reached the Court, had he?
He came in June, so it must have been in May or earlier.
It was very soon after we lost Thomas Matthew Kavanagh that it
was announced to us that John Swainson was being investigated by Federal
authorities for various crimes, one being bribery. Then John himself told us
about it, and we agreed that while he was being investigated, he should sit and
participate because he hadn't been indicted yet.
Do you recall with some vividness just how this unfolded? Now,
when the conference was held at a scheduled time, let's say the conference of
the first part of May, 1975, he would have come as all the rest of you would
have come, at the appointed hour. Did he come one day and was denied admittance
to the conference room, or what were the mechanics of this? Do you recall?
(break in tape)
No, I don't remember his ever being denied. The day that our
Chief Justice was advised of the investigation, John Swainson didn't turn up
immediately. I have...it seemed to me he came in shortly, though, and discussed
the whole thing with us. Then he did continue to sit, of course, but he was
indicted shortly after that, and that period between the investigation and the
indictment was extremely traumatic, in part because we were all subpoenaed to
testify. Personally, I hadn't been there when the "original sin" apparently
occurred, which was the granting of the leave to appeal, but I had heard the
10. Justice Coleman talks about the Swainson trial, a Supreme Court Justice, and her having to testify before the grand jury. People V. Jackson, and dissenting oppinions.
We decided we'd hire our own attorney, but it couldn't be anybody
from Michigan so we went to Chicago. I only met the attorney once, but that was
just before we were to testify, and I remember him as being very fine. His
advice simply was to tell the truth, don't add anything to what they've asked
you because you could get into big trouble or lead off into different areas
with which Swainson wasn't charged, so just answer the question truthfully, and
that was the bottom line of what he said. I have never been so nervous in my
I have always felt sorry for witnesses, and I could empathize with
some of their problems, such as remembering dates, but this was pretty easy
when it came right down to it. However, I was very apprehensive, and they did
ask me about whether I had anything to do with the granting of the leave to
appeal which I had not and if anybody tried to influence my decision when the
case came to trial or when it was decided, and of course, nobody had.
Was this at trial or was this before the grand jury that you were
I was testifying before the grand jury.
You were not permitted counsel, is that correct? You did not have
counsel at your side?
Oh, no. That was before we went...
Albert Jenner was the...
We were all on our own once we were in the grand jury room.
Was it Albert Jenner that was your counsel?
He was a very nationally prominent lawyer.
Yes, and a very, very fine person. The Federal Government
involved us in so many ways that we felt that we did need the advice and
counsel of a fine attorney.
Do you remember when you were called into the grand jury, was
Robert Ozer handling the grand jury asking the questions and that sort of
He asked me the questions.
He turned out to be something of a...
He was a little overly ambitious, I think. Yes, he had some
subsequent problems, but in any event, when John Swainson was indicted, of
course, we all felt that he couldn't participate on the Court. He could remain
a member of the Court until after the trial, depending upon the outcome of the
trial as to whether he would resign or not. He was innocent until proven
Was this a difficult thing for the Court to handle or did, say
the Chief Justice meet him informally and work it out and then everybody was
told that he would not participate, or did he...?
No, we all just talked about it...
With him present?
Yes, I guess he was, and he agreed to all that we decided, and he
said of course, that if he was found guilty, he would resign. All of this took
quite a bit of time, though, because then came the trial, and he was found
innocent of the bribery charges but he was found guilty of perjury before the
grand jury, so that was a felony and so he did resign. Then, that was...
This is November, 1975.
This was going on quite a while, you see, when we were short on
the Court and, of course, very concerned about John Swainson. In any event, we
were down two people on the Court and sometimes three people when John
Fitzgerald couldn't vote.
I remember 2:2 votes. Do you remember those?
Yes, and at one time, there were only three of us for some reason
who could vote, and we figured we had to make a rule of some kind because this
could happen again in the future with four being a quorum and there being only
four who would be able to vote and three in this case. We had to make a
temporary ruling of some kind which we did. Of course, those cases that were
decided like that were not to be considered precedential. They decided that
case, but were not to be held as precedent.
Didn't that become an issue in itself, whether they would be
precedential? It seems to me...
Oh, surely it was, but I think most of us thought that it
McGowen vs. Bank of Manistee had to do with a guest passenger
statute. Wasn't that a 3:2 decision and the Court said in its decision...well,
no...I'm not sure I am remembering correctly. I thought there was some formal
declaration by the Court and this case figured in it somehow that when you had
a 3:2 decision, it would be regarded or should be regarded, notice to the bench
and bar, this is precedential. Is my memory wrong on that? Do you remember
I don't recall that precisely, but it had to be considered as
notice of a trend.
Okay, I can recall your dissenting in another case when it went
back to 4:3, and it was mentioned, not that it was directly pertinent, I don't
believe to the problem of the moment, but there was discussion about what it
takes to....you, and we'll get to this in a minute, but I think it had to do
with your observation that you made more than once, I believe, that three
people who were judges shouldn't be, in effect, legislators. Do you
I do. I do, and too many times, in my opinion, we'd read the
legislation which seemed to be quite clear to me, but it would be extended or
bent out of shape from what the Legislature said. While you may disagree with
the legislation, I thought we were bound to follow it. The people had spoken,
you know, and that was that. In a couple of cases I can recall having written
where I didn't agree with the statute but I felt that I should not change it.
It was up to the Legislature to change it and in a couple cases, they did.
I think George Bashara mentioned...
(break in taping)
May I take a time-out?
What I wanted to bring to your attention was that when your
portrait was presented to the Supreme Court in 1984, George Bashara who spoke
on that occasion, picked out a case, People vs. Jackson, that he felt
apparently was illustrative of your attitude toward this business of excessive
zeal by the Court in protecting or nurturing the...what will I call it...the
interests of the defendant. Now, I pulled out an excerpt from the case, and if
you turn over a couple pages down on the lower left, you'll find...it's
yellowed over...it's the next page, I think, over here...this is the paragraph
that he quoted on that occasion when he appeared before the Supreme Court over
the portrait presentation. Maybe you would like to read that aloud and see if
that is a fair or the best statement of your concern in this area, People vs.
Jackson. You can recite that case if you want to.
(break in tape)
Well, I guess I wrote it.
(break in tape)
Yes, I think George Bashara was referring to the case of People
vs. Jackson in 391Mich323, and this is what he...this is a quote of what I
said..."There is a large, sometimes overlooked difference between securing, so
far as possible, a fair trial leading to the right result (the truth of the
matter) and securing to the defendants the benefit of anything and everything
which may give them a chance for acquittal." We appear to be headed for the
latter result. This...
(break in tape)
Justice Coleman, I want..
In the connection of People vs. Jackson and what you said there,
I wanted to ask about your recollection, right after you came on the Court, of
the...let's call them Boykin cases or the guilty plea cases wherein Brennan,
Tom Brennan, in 1972 prior to the time that you came on the Court, had sounded
the alarm that the Court was going too far in protecting the defendant rights
in terms of the Boykin decision which required at a guilty plea that the
defendant be advised of his constitutional rights.
I notice that when you came on the Court, while this has started
to gather momentum, that you joined Brennan in several dissents where the Court
by majority had decided to grant a new trial because they felt he wasn't
informed of all the rights, and you, on one day, I think, appeared with Brennan
on five or six of these dissents. You remember that, don't you?
Yes, I do.
(End of side 1, tape 3)
And then you must...the Court...you must have seen some
consternation on the court. You must have had the comfort of knowing that it
wasn't your doing, but in February as I recall or sometime not long after that,
damage, if you can call it that, was being done was abruptly undone by quashing
some of the Court orders issued just a few weeks before granting new trials
which was a little unusual for an Appellate Court...
11. Justice Coleman talks about being made Chief Justice in 1979, legislation that she helped to put together in regard to reorganizing the Wayne and Detroit area courts, and how her previous experience as a Probate and Juvenile Court judge helped her in this matter.
Here we are with Justice Coleman. Now it's January 23, 1991, and
this is side B of tape 3. Before we leave the issue of what happened right
after you came on the Court, these dissents that you joined with Justice
Brennan where the guilty plea matter had come into severe problems, I noticed
in connection with your history on down the road of dissenting that in the West
Law printout, that was made for this occasion that is taking place now, it
showed that you had written opinions of the Court in 112 cases and dissents in
200. Does that mean anything to you, recognizing that this is only an
electronic scan of sorts?
It means that I had disagreed, not only in the guilty plea cases
but in others where the philosophy of the "worker always wins" which he
sometimes should have and sometimes should not have, but also the "unions also
should win", and sometimes they should have and sometimes they should not have,
but there was, in my opinion, bias at one time in the Court. This also held
true in the criminal cases in general. There was a great leaning toward
reversing the guilty findings of the jury for very inconsequential reasons, in
These, I can see, might be two factors in there. I also wonder if
they include among the dissents, concurrences, because quite often, I would
concur, but I wouldn't agree with some aspect of the legal analysis or I wanted
to add something. I think of the contributory negligence case. I concurred, but
I disagreed with one aspect, and I added a list of problems that were
foreseeable that would have to be brought to the Court in the future. The
writing of opinions in the years that I was Chief Justice, almost four years,
were a little different, because a Chief Justice is only assigned half as many
cases to write. What bearing that would have I don't know. But I do know that I
dissented quite a bit, and more at first because the Court mellowed, as I'd
call it, as the composition changed, so I didn't have so many reasons to
I did want to ask you about that mellowing aspect of what
happened as the years went by, but for the moment, let's get onto what I think
many people thought was the centerpiece contribution that you made in your
period as Chief Justice starting in 19...
...1979, I guess it was, as to the advancement of the goals of
Court reorganization and state financing. Now, I know that immediately when you
took over as Chief Justice, that you began to work very vigorously in this
area. Would you care to just relate the whole story of this part of your career
on the Supreme Court?
Well, it's a long story because I was involved so vigorously, but
it was really just an hour or two after I became Chief Justice that I had a
visit from the Director of Budget and Management, Miller, and Mr. Nugent who
approached me with the idea of state funding of courts in Wayne County and
Detroit because the governments were quite broke, and the employees were
threatening strikes. Payless paydays were also in sight.
They knew that I had been interested in state funding, of course,
for a long while, because courts were so unevenly funded that you really had
uneven justice, in my opinion. You had one judge with the work of two or three
judges and so on. The County or City Commissioners, of course, had to pay the
cost of the court employees and all of that, and they were a little stingy
judging by my own county. I had had some employees who were really about on
welfare wages. In any event, I thought that I liked the idea of funding and
reorganizing at the same time the Wayne County and Detroit courts because they
were unlike those in the rest of the state.
We're speaking right now, January...the early...
The early part.
The early days of January, 1979.
That's right. Then I discussed it with the justices and they felt
just as I did that we couldn't fund just Wayne County and let it sit there, but
if they would consider state-wide funding together with the reorganization of
Wayne County including Detroit courts, that that might not be so bad. I think
there were a couple who were quite reluctant because they thought it was
impossible to do.
However, I set about finding what could be done. The Governor
finally said yes, he would consider going toward the state funding of all of
the courts, so then I had to go to the Legislature, and the one who really took
charge was then Representative Virgil Smith. He is now Senator Virgil Smith,
but you had to work with the chairmen of the Senate and of the House. Basil
Brown was the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the Senate, so we set
about trying to write legislation.
First, we had to decide, however, how we were going to reorganize
Wayne County. Really to appreciate this, you would have had to have been there,
I suppose, but Detroit had, instead of a District Court like the rest of the
state, or a Municipal Court even in a couple of little areas, they had a Common
Pleas Court. The Common Pleas judges were elected by the people of Detroit, but
they had county-wide jurisdiction which made very little sense. It was very
convenient for the lawyers who worked in Detroit but had cases from other parts
of Wayne County. They could just go over to the Common Pleas Court instead of
going to their own townships or wherever their District Courts were.
That was one problem, and then there was and still is a Recorders
Court which was simply a felony criminal court for the City of Detroit. Those
cases were taken out of the usual purview of the Circuit Court of Wayne County.
They had a Traffic Court that was indescribable. It was under the aegis of the
Recorders Court judges. They had a Landlord and Tenant component which was
under Common Pleas, and it was a real hodge-podge. The interesting part to me
was that everybody said reorganization couldn't be done, so I asked all of the
presiding judges to meet me in my office with their court administrators in
Lansing on a certain morning, and revealed to them what my concept was and what
should be done.
The Common Pleas Court should become a District Court consistent
with the rest of the state, the Recorders Court should become part of the
Circuit Court, and so on. They all looked at me with great horror and said,
"That's impossible. It would be chaos". Then I gave them the old Chinese
proverb of chaos being written in two symbols, one of them meaning disorder and
the other meaning opportunity, and I said, "I think this is a most marvelous
opportunity. The Governor says he will go along with this depending upon what
comes out of the Legislature". I didn't swear them to secrecy, but I asked them
all not to reveal any of this because it hadn't started yet, but I wanted them
to be on notice that this was what I was going to try to do. They shook their
heads in disbelief, but they said, "All right, Chief Justice, if you think you
can do it, go ahead and try".
So thus began a long story of learning the buttons one has to
push...even to be in the front door of the Detroit area politicians and the
"powers that be". It was were very interesting. For instance, some said, "You
can't change Common Pleas because of the bailiffs", and my question was,
"Bailiffs? What power would they have to stop an entire procedure such as
this?" Well, the bailiffs were top-flight union people, and they were nominated
by the unions, and the unions were very powerful, and the unions wouldn't go
along with it if we did away with the bailiffs, so I called the bailiffs'
representatives over to Lansing to my office. I said, "Let's see what that
trouble is". One trouble was that they had their own pension plan.
Of course, they were making quite a bit of money. They delivered
summons and other papers, but they could go to Ford Motor Plant, for instance,
and some person was given the authority to receive all the summons, anything
that came from the order of the Common Pleas Court, so bailiffs could go and
deliver 100 and get paid for each one in one stop. They were making quite a bit
of money depending on how hard they worked. They had their own notion of when
and how they worked. I said, "Well, this has been going on a long while, hasn't
it? You've contributed to your pension fund?". They said, "Yes, we have our own
system". I said, "You have a vested right in that, I can see. What would you
think of grandfathering you in?" They were all men who had been through the
echelons, I guess you might say, of the industry and were either retired or
about to, so they thought that might be a good idea.
Then when they left, they'd be replaced with a regular court
officer who would perform those functions. They seemed to be receptive to that.
They went back and talked, but there were no more problems. In the Common Pleas
Court, they could save up sick leave until they retired and then have all that
additional pay at the end of their time, when Detroit Courts had sick leave
which would expire within a given time. There were many little things like that
that had to be changed or ironed out.
The Recorders Court was something else because they would not
budge. They had been able to slip through or present a solid wall or however
you want to put it, in the 1963 constitutional convention, to retain their
identity and separate function. Their main reasoning that was given to me was
that most of those judges were black and if they were made Circuit judges
although that was a higher echelon in the scheme of things, they felt they
could not win running county-wide in Wayne County. A Recorders Court Judge was
elected only by Detroit voters.
Because of the concentration of white population in the
Yes, that's right. They were very afraid of that. I personally
thought that the good judges would probably be elected. The bad ones, the ones
that weren't so good, would not be, black or white, but nonetheless, they said
that was impossible. We did agree that we could look to the future and build a
bridge between the Circuit and the Recorders Court and have a joint
administrative body and perhaps they could work toward having Recorders Court
judges sit as Circuit Judges sometimes and work into the system that way.
That's the way it turned out.
We had a system whereby you'd have a chief judge from Wayne
Circuit and the chief judge from Recorders and then two others from each.
Anyway, it would form this bridge I referred to. Then the whole body would
elect a "super-chief" judge. That was not the title, of course, but he or she
would be "the" presiding judge over the bridge between the two, so that was as
close as I could get, although we did remove Traffic Court from the Recorders
Court. I should mention Traffic Court. I visited it. I visited almost all the
courts, of course, and sat in on proceedings in all of them so I would know
what was going on, but Traffic Court was a revelation.
Standing in the hall would be a man who would have people come up
to him and give him their traffic tickets, and I learned that his function,
unofficial function, I might add, or self-designated function, was to take
those tickets in and get them fixed by certain judges. He would be paid to do
that, so he had quite a lucrative little business going on out in the
That was...was this a criminal conduct, actually...?
Well, certainly, but it was part of the "system". A lot of things
that went on over there were out of line, but I guess it was by tradition. They
had been overlooked by authorities. The entire traffic operation was
incredible. They had long lines of people waiting to pay their fines. Almost
everything was done by hand. All the traffic tickets were counted and filed. I
don't remember seeing much of any modern machinery in there. In any
This was a very high volume operation, too, was it not?
Hundreds of thousands of tickets.
Yes. I finally appointed T. John Lesinski to go in there and
"clean it up". Then there was a landlord/tenant situation and what was going to
happen with them, but to cut through all that, you had to work with all kinds
of people because the legislators wouldn't vote any particular way until that
was approved locally, particularly by the unions. They controlled a great part
of Wayne County, especially Detroit, and personnel in the courts.
Let me refer to one of the early meetings. One of my very good
friends who was a Democrat in the Legislature told me that despite the fact
that we were non-partisan, I was looked on as a Republican, and it might be
better if I brought a Democrat with me, non-partisan Democrat, so I asked
Justice Williams (He was the epitome, I thought, of the Democratic Party) if he
would mind going with me to some of these meetings, and he was very gracious
about it and said yes, he would. We went to a very large meeting, all kinds of
people. I don't know who they all were excepting that they were from the
Detroit/Wayne County area, together with the legislators and staff.
I remember one of the chief union people who didn't like something
that Justice Williams had done in some case so gave him a verbal lashing which
surprised me no end because I couldn't imagine anybody doing that. Then he
wouldn't have anything to do with the proposed bills because the unions would
lose control of "their" employees, and I think the message was that we weren't
going to do right by "their" employees.
There was all this kind of conversation that went up and down the
table. After it was over, the union leader who was directly across from me,
lingered a short time, and I put my hands on the table and leaned across and I
just said, "What makes you think that you're more interested in the Court's
personnel and their welfare than we are?" Because they're our employees, we
want the best for them. What makes you think you want more?" He looked at me
like I was doing something that was unheard of, and he said, "Well, I don't
know what you have in mind for your employees, but I know what I have in mind",
and we went on like that. We ended on a very nice note.
As a matter of fact, he used to telephone me once in a while and
give me a hint as to what I might do. I think you had to overcome a kind of an
inbred animosity toward the employer. We were trying to arrange for equitable
and stabilized salaries and improved working conditions. I thought we were
doing all kinds of great things for the welfare of the employees and the court
operation in general. I was pleased to experience good union relationships as
we progressed. I had to go to Detroit I don't know how many times and meet with
people, the mayor and others. To effect the goal, the matter of easing fears
was important, even necessary. Much had to come from the Chief Justice in
You had met the mayor, Coleman Young, when he was in Lansing as a
State Senator, or was this your first contact with him?
I had met him, but I didn't know him well, of course. I had
called and asked for an appointment, for a reason that I don't know whether I
should recite here or not. I will, in part. We had a very difficult time
getting the Senate Judiciary Committee to operate when people from all over the
state were there and there wouldn't be but one or two members of the committee
present. I decided that Mayor Young had a key role that he could play to help
us, and he did. He called the Chairman and said something like, "There's an
important meeting coming up on such-and-such a date and I want you to be there.
Let's hold the meeting", and so we did. Other times, there were things that I
had to do. Bill Marshall of the...
AFL-CIO was important. Somebody said, "He's going to meet with
the Governor today, and the Governor doesn't know what the unions are going to
do, and he's a little jittery about that. Why don't you call Bill Marshall and
ask him if he can speak on behalf of the union?" Again, not knowing what I was
getting into, I did call Bill Marshall and told him what I'd like him to do and
assure the Governor at that meeting that the unions appeared to have no
objection to the legislation if it worked out to their satisfaction. He said
yes, he'd do that, and he did, but there were all these things that had to be
done that took so much time. You had the...
This was to the point that you have related now as really more a
political and union problem than anything else, right?
It was. Well, when you deal with the Legislature, that's what
you're dealing with. To get your votes, you have to have the people to vote,
and I had more opposition perhaps from some of the very conservative
Republicans than I did from quite a few of the Democrats.
Excuse me, was that not part of your problem, that in order for
you to get the kind of vote support that you ultimately needed in the
Legislature, you had to not only solve these Detroit problems that we're
talking about but give some incentive to the out-state legislators to feel that
there was something in it for them rather than just to be part of a bail-out of
a Detroit problem? Would you explain that part of it?
You said it really quite well because the legislation that we
were working on provided also for the next step which would be to put more
money back into the courts, all the state courts, and then another step with
more and so on. It was to be a gradual process. Many of them looked on the
legislation as just a bail-out of Wayne County, and they weren't going to have
any part of it.
I remember one time, when I was speaking to the Association of
Counties, and two or three commissioners rose to say, "Well, we don't want to
lose control of our judges". That struck me as so funny because they didn't
have any control in the first place except they had the purse strings. One of
them said, "We don't like our judge, and we're not going to do anything that's
going to help him", and that was that. There were all kinds of opinions. In the
smaller counties, I think they were afraid that the salaries of the court
personnel would go up and that would make dissatisfaction among the rest of the
county employees, and they'd all want an increase.
I mentioned the fact that this had been tried and had come out
satisfactorily when the Department of Social Services and local County Welfare
Departments were merged. There was a great hue and cry about how much more the
local counties were going to have to pay for those that were left behind to
match those that did go with the state, but it worked out quite smoothly as far
as I know, and it was to the benefit of almost everybody. The courts did
present a problem, however. County commissioners have limited funds and I
understand that, but they seemed to resent courts because the courts weren't
bringing in much money and cost more than they brought in.
Excuse me, if it is not getting ahead of your story, did you not,
at this time, find great benefit from your experience as a county judge, that
is, a Probate judge, and all that period when you had to jockey back and forth
and also from your participation in Creighton's activity in the Legislature
itself and learning what kind of swapping or trading or shading of your
opposition's issues was necessary to build...it's like a little child with
blocks, is it not? You have to get them piled up to a certain height or you
lose. Was it not that...?
That's right, and this was what I looked upon as a golden
opportunity. Going back to my own experiences as Probate and Juvenile judge, as
I mentioned, I think, awhile before, the pay was so bad, it was just about like
welfare pay for some of my employees. Some of our case workers had Masters
degrees, and they all had degrees of some kind.
They were experienced and were excellent people, but they could go
upstairs to the State Department of Social Services and do the same kind of
work and get a great deal more pay if they wished, or they could go most
anywhere and receive more pay. Some of them had to work two jobs, moonlight, so
to speak, but they stayed with the court because they liked it. I went through
quite a traumatic time. The Circuit and the District judges felt the same way,
so we did a great deal of background work on what similar people were paid in
other areas at all levels.
We took that to the Board of Commissioners and asked in the budget
request for some more money. That was fatal, always. So, they said they would
consider it, but they didn't see how that could be done because then they'd
have to start paying more to other people. Finally, the commissioners in our
county refused one time to pay any of our employees. They just didn't pay them,
so the judges of the three courts assembled and decided all we could do was sue
them which was what we did.
We sued them, of course, in Kalamazoo County, and they discovered
that they just couldn't let the pay days go and not pay court employees at
least what their present salaries were. We then went to the Supreme Court, and
Thomas M. Kavanagh was Chief Justice. We worked out some kind of a system
whereby the Court Administrator would try to be referee in such disputes. We
could bring up the proofs that additional funds were necessary and were
That worked out pretty well for a time or two, but it was not
satisfactory for all the courts of Michigan. Something more permanent had to be
worked out. I did learn from Creighton, too, that if you have a pure idea of
what you want, you're not always going to get it so it was important to
preserve the core, the main thrust of what you want. Sometimes you have to give
a little, but hopefully nothing that would be contrary to the principal goal.
Sometimes others had good bases for their concerns, and you had to approach the
totality with an open mind.
I think very little would get done in the Legislature, for
instance, if the legislators insisted that you couldn't change a word. Of
course, some of the words that might be changed would be vital, and that would
be different. I remember most distinctly the marvelous help that I had from
Marilyn Hall who is presently the Supreme Court Administrator. She is a very
smart young woman, and I brought her over from Detroit to Lansing as an
Assistant Court Administrator and then later made her my Executive Assistant.
She and Cynthia Stephens who at that time was counsel for the Senate comprised
a marvelous team. Cynthia now is a Circuit judge. She is a black woman, and she
is one of the smartest people I've known. She has a mind that is fantastic. She
could take a roomful of people who were arguing among themselves as to what
they wanted, and she'd have a blackboard up there and she'd say, "If we change
the ratio...", about having to do with funding and what not..."to this, what
would you think of that?" Some would like it and some wouldn't, so she'd change
it a little more, but she could do it right off the top of her head.
I had a great deal of respect for those two women. They solved a
lot of these problems, before they became such big problems. Who is going to
fund what? Who is going to pay for the buildings? Who is going to do this? Who
is going to do that? Will it be the county or the city or the state? We did
manage but the package was voted on once and failed by one vote. When they were
brought back, the bills did pass.
When? What was the time frame? This all took a long time to
unfold, didn't it, in terms of at least months or was it even as long as two
It was just about the end of 1980, as I recall because I was
thinking that I wasn't going to run for office again. I had been there eight
In fact, that is the statute number...it's a 1980 act, isn't
It was the last part, one of the last gasps.
This had started in January, 1979, right?
And all the time in between, or a lot of it, was consumed with
I had too little time as Chief Justice as I look back on it, to
write erudite opinions, and I loved to write opinions..but it was the
opportunity, I thought, that might never come again, and it did have to do with
the welfare of the whole court system, the judiciary in the entire state and,
to me, this was a matter of great importance. I wasn't the first one to think
of it, of course, because I think every Chief Justice for ten years had been
giving in the State of the Judiciary Address before the Legislature their
urging for state funding.
It just happened to be an opportune moment then of which I thought
we should take advantage, but I had no idea that it would take so much time. I
think you'll remember one meeting we had...I don't know whether they called it
a caucus or something else because they weren't all legislators. They were
people of some authority around the city of Detroit and Wayne County who wanted
to meet with me over in the Capitol complex. I remember you drove me over and
tried to prepare me for the worst, saying that "they will chew you up". I was
very uneasy when I went in, but they treated me very well. I told them what we
were trying to do, and they had questions which I answered.
One thing I learned very early in life is that you don't lie.
Either say you have no comment, or you don't want to talk about it or you tell
them the truth, so you have a reputation for being forthright and that helps. I
told it like it was, and I didn't have any problems at all with them. I don't
know what happened after I left, but it turned out to be a very quiet,
Was Justice Williams...did he continue to be active in this
throughout? I know you said early that he attended some legislative meetings
Yes, he did. He didn't attend that meeting or a lot of those over
in Detroit, but when you had the legislative meetings, committee meetings and
such, he went with me and he was very supportive. I couldn't have asked for
more help. He was very interested, too, in the concept of "one court of
justice". The constitution plainly states that Michigan shall have "one court
of justice", the Supreme Court. It shall have superintending control over all
of the courts and the judiciary of Michigan. It shall make a budget and present
it to the Legislature. It shall promulgate all rules of court procedure. It has
control over the State Bar and lawyers, etc..
The chasm between the constitution and reality is broad. For
instance, in my first year as Chief Justice, we worked hard and long to present
a minimal budget to the Legislature. Although we received a lump sum
appropriation, we had to justify it by line items as to where the money was
needed. I sent the proposed budget to the Legislature with a courtesy copy to
the Governor. He, in turn, slashed various items without any advice from us as
to the necessity of the funds. The Legislature adopted his revisions in toto,
as I recall. I did send a letter to the Governor and to the chairman of the
appropriate subcommittee, who said it was customary to give credence to the
Governor's revisions, but that we could ask for a supplementary appropriation
if we could not adjust.
In my opinion, it is the Legislature's responsibility to make
revisions, if any. They do have hearings as a basis for changes. However, on a
local level, some county commissioners designate courts as comprising a county
department, or they did during my days on the Supreme Court. The mandate of
"one Court of Justice" obviously is slow to be realized in ways beyond the
operation of the various courts across the state.
The constitution, as I recall, is very explicit, is it not, that
funds appropriated to the Court will be spent as the Court directs?
That's right, and so I didn't feel that he had any business even
recommending what would happen to certain items of expenditure. I also had to
keep badgering everybody with the notion that the Court was a third branch of
government, that the Legislature couldn't tell us what we should be doing with
the money they appropriated to us, and neither should the governor, but the
Legislature had the power of the purse.
To go back to the time - concerning problems, we had to meet with
all the judges and find out what their problems were. One of the big problems
was the pay scale for judges. Now, in Oakland County, the commissioners had
tentatively approved a pay scale for their judges that was higher than the
Supreme Court's. On the other hand, we had these poor little counties where the
judges could hardly make a living. There was great disparity, so some of the
judges felt different from others, but you had to meet with all the judges and
try to find a system that would be suitable for all.
The upshot of that was what the Legislature is now complaining
about a little bit, but liked very much at first. That was to scale the judges'
salaries percentage-wise to that which the Supreme Court would receive. Of
course, the Compensation Commission set the Supreme Court salaries so the
Circuit judges would receive 92% and so on down the line, but it would be set,
and there would be no argument about it.
Excuse me, now the Officers Compensation Commission set the
Supreme Court pay level, salary and then by legislation, these steps were
provided for Court of Appeals, the Circuit Courts.
Yes, the percentages.
96, 92, 88...
(End of side 2, tape 3)
Was this a significant part of putting together the majority that
12. Justice coleman speaks about reorganizing the court system and the money crunch that came during this time.
I think I was asking whether or not the arrangements that were
made for regularizing, shall we say, the salary of the out-state judges was a
vital part of the bringing together in the Legislature, the number of votes
that were necessary, or was this just sort of a fringe upon the whole
proposition of state financing?
I really can't say how serious a problem that was to them. It was
important, but I don't know how vital it was. In any event, they did want to
put a cap on the salaries of all the judges and try to make them even at each
level, and this was to be the start of the salary rates for the entire state.
It was a very complicated system. We did bring up the salaries of all the
judges in the state, or they could be brought up by their commissioners, to be
reimbursed at a certain rate until they reached the top amount. It is a long
story to go into how that worked, but all the judges in Michigan benefited by
this, and I think maybe most of them are at that top level now, but the
counties are reimbursed by the state. The counties, really, could make money
out of this, but it was very difficult to convince them.
I was going to say, to some degree, this was relief for the
budgets of the county commissioners, was it not?
But to convince them of it was another thing. Yes, it was, and it
brought in the entire state...it was the first step toward funding all the
state courts. To get back to Wayne County, we did manage to get the legislation
passed which established the District Court and made the Recorders Court have
its "bridge". One ever hopefully thinking that they might all get together down
the road and find that their jobs weren't so different and that they could be
elected county-wide - the Recorders Court judges, that is - and settle down and
become one Circuit Court like the rest of the state. I don't know whether that
will ever happen, but they are using the judges back and forth, I understand.
The interesting thing to me was that a black woman, right as this was being
passed, ran for a Wayne County Circuit judgeship and won, so she was a black
person who first defied the negative prophecy.
Do you remember which judge that was, what her name was?
That's an unusual political name in Detroit, though, isn't
This had to be county-wide. She'd asked me to come over and
administer the oath of office to her. I was glad to do that, so I went to
Detroit, but it struck me odd that the men were so afraid of not being able to
be elected and here was this brave woman who pitched in and won. To move ahead,
getting the votes in the Legislature was not easy. There were all kinds of road
blocks like the county clerks who were very much afraid that we would take over
their positions or move part of their duties to the Circuit Court. The Circuit
Court would have its own clerk, in other words.
So that those who are unfamiliar and might read this transcript
at some time, the county clerk is also, by virtue of that office, clerk of the
That's right. Thank you for making that a little clearer. The
District Court, of course, has its own clerk and the Probate Court had its own,
so the county clerk of Wayne County was especially incensed by the whole thing
and he organized, I think, the county clerks to oppose the legislative package
because of this fear, but that was settled.
How did you neutralize him, or did you, or was he neutralized?
Did he oppose this to the end?
I think probably he did. I never saw any softening in his
position although they wrote the legislation to retain the county clerk as the
Circuit Court clerk (until better days came along, maybe). That's one thing we
had to put off for the future. There weren't the votes there in the Legislature
to make that change because county clerks seemed to have quite a bit of
political power across the state. It would make sense for the Circuit Court to
have its own clerk. For instance, in Wayne County, they didn't have the
personnel to file adequately, so if a lawyer wanted to see a file on a case
that was recent or current, he often couldn't find it. As I recall, they
resolved some of that problem later by assigning some court personnel to help
the county clerk to keep the court files in order so the lawyers could find
their up-to-date files.
This had become a very significant problem for the Appellate
courts in Michigan, had it not, that when the record came up for an appeal,
there were big gaps in the...had to be...they had to settle the records, the
attorneys, agree to substitute certain..
Yes, a terrible problem.
Quite inimical to the principles of an efficient judicial process
where you have...everything is of a certain method of being recorded and
certified, and attested to and that sort of thing.
My personal feeling is that there should be a Circuit Court
clerk, but that was a change that couldn't be accomplished at that time. Maybe
sometime in the future, if things get too bad, or wise heads prevail, that will
happen. Very few people know what goes on in that area if they are not lawyers.
You don't know that lawyers aren't able to find their files or papers are
missing or misfiled, and all that sort of thing. Anyway, that was one matter
that was left undone, but you had to do what you could do, get all that you
could get, I guess, out of that Legislature, and they were as a whole very
fine. Again, I can't speak highly enough of Virgil Smith. He did a tremendous
amount of excellent work.
This was finally passed in December, 1980, is that correct?
Yes, by a narrow vote and it was right at the end of the session,
because we had a new Legislature coming in and it seemed to all of us to be
vital to pin this down prior to a new Legislature and a new governor. We knew
there would be new representatives and senators who would have to be educated
all over again, so it was sort of a last minute triumph. Then came the next
round. We had placed in one of the statutes the procedure by which the state
would gradually take over the state funding of courts. This unfortunately met
with a few problems, the biggest of which was reapportionment, but that's
During all of this time that state funding was being considered,
of course, the Court had to be operated, and we had dreadful problems. The
finances of the state were in a terrible condition and at least one small
satisfaction was that when the Governor ordered everybody to cut back so many
dollars, he wrote a letter to me, not ordering it but requesting that we
consider it in light of the fact that everybody else would be cutting back. I
thought that was one indication that we were considered a separate branch of
government with our own decisions to make, but I also knew that if we didn't do
our share, that we weren't going to do very well with the Appropriations
Committee next year because the Legislature had also cut back personnel.
Of course, all the executive departments had made the second cut.
First, we just cut out all the publications and anything extraneous that we
could think of (nice but not necessary), but when the next request came along,
the state had really hit bottom. They asked for large cuts, and I had the
unhappy duty of terminating fourteen people. They were mostly from the
administrative division, the Court Administrator's Office. We shut down two
field offices with the notion that we could always put them back in place if we
had to, and if we had the money to do it.
This was most unpleasant because in the middle of it, I contracted
pneumonia, and the doctor said I could not leave the house. I had almost never
been sick, but that particular time was most inconvenient because the day came
when we were supposed to inform the court employees. The Court had agreed that
in a case like that, we should inform them and not have them come back to work
because of the chaos that probably would follow. We would pay them in advance
quite well and place them on a leave of absence so they could look for other
positions and, of course, all those weren't terminations. There were a couple
of retirements and what not that went into the decision, but that was a most
unpleasant task during that time.
I wanted...maybe this is the right time to introduce a thought
that I felt should be covered, and it is with relationship with the layoffs or
terminations. You, although I know some of your colleagues and people close
into the Court's operation, of course, had the highest regard for you
personally and your grace and charm as a woman officer in government, but they
also knew or thought, and I think with some degree of admiration, that when you
had to do something unpleasant or difficult that did not comport with grace and
charm, that you could summon the courage or whatever word you might choose to
do this, and one such occasion was when you had to relieve a high-ranking
administrator who others seemed to be unable to summon the courage to dismiss.
Do you feel that you did merit this kind of reputation? You know, this can be
put in very vulgar terms about guts and that sort of thing, but did you have
anything further to say other than this was distasteful?
It was the most distasteful thing that I had to do because I
liked the people and they were good people. The positions they were occupying
weren't indispensable, which was true. I know that previous justices had wanted
to remove the Court Administrator, but didn't quite get around to it. I knew I
had to do something, so I did it, but I must admit that it hurt.
Your successor as of this very moment, I imagine, is facing the
same kinds of problems because Michigan is again in a very severe financial
You probably are aware of this, a new governor. The former
governor left things not in very good order financially.
I read that, although the then new governor raised the sales tax
immediately upon becoming...
Income tax, I'm sorry...immediately, and I notice that my
successors then felt they were able to do things that I felt I couldn't do.
They had the money then temporarily, but now, I guess, we're going back to the
old problem which Governor Blanchard's successor now faces.
Is it time yet to turn to one of the other great achievements of
the Court in your period, the solution of the very divisive and grinding
reapportionment problem that did so much to tear apart the Court, or shall we
go more...did you have other things...?
That's all right. I perhaps should say that the Courts, from the
time Thomas Giles Kavanagh took over onward, seemed to have a greater degree of
collegiality. Among ourselves, we were all very friendly. You could argue your
point of view around the conference table, but once that was decided, it was
decided. After John Swainson's unfortunate affair, we were all drawn very
close, I think, and even when the newer justices came on like Justice Ryan and
Justice Lindemer, we were all drawn very closely together, and this was a time
I consider to be of great friendships. I have felt very close to all of them. I
lived away from all of them.
Most of them lived in the Detroit or Wayne County area, close-by
anyway, so they were together quite a bit, but in Battle Creek, when we weren't
in session, I was pretty isolated, but the collegiality, I think, reached a
very high level then. Then we were faced with the decennial census. Part of the
1963 constitution having to do with reapportionment was found to be
unconstitutional by United States standards under the equal protection clause,
so again, the inevitable happened. Four Democrats and four Republicans met in
the Apportionment Committee, and they deadlocked, and they finally certified
that they could not proceed further, so the matter came to the Supreme Court to
We had the precedent of prior two reapportionments. The Court had
not considered the constitutionality of the whole article IV, Sections 2 - 6.
They simply continued with the Commission and the Commission had deadlocked, so
the decision was brought back to the Court and the Court, on a purely
mathematical basis, had decided whose plan won.
The significant thing there...excuse me for interrupting...is
that in the view of some, at least, the Court is put in the position of
accepting one political document or an alternative political document, and is
given no opportunity to function in the traditional judicial way of choosing a
solution that comports with the law and equity and that sort of thing.
That's right. No, nothing was considered excepting equality in
the population. I think, if I remember correctly, in the decision of the Court
in the last reapportionment battle, there was a difference between the two,
Republican and Democrat, plans of just a percentage of 1% or less. It was like
having a battle of computers, and nothing else was considered. I had felt, with
Justices Levin and Kavanagh, that the whole article was unconstitutional, that
you couldn't proceed without guidelines which had been found unconstitutional
because they were based partly on geographic as well as population terms.
Incidently, Justice Thomas Giles Kavanagh wrote this in a
dissent, I think, in 1972 and suffered dearly.
That's true. Yes, his own party wouldn't nominate him for the
next election, but he had, of course, the Affidavit of Incumbency. I used to
say that they did him a favor because there is nothing so attractive as a
martyr, and he was a martyr. In any event, he did win, and he was one of those
who felt it was unconstitutional in too. We first decided that we should hear
arguments from both sides, so we put out an order asking for briefs and a
hearing in the Court, which was done. Then...
Now, we're early in 1982, right? The decennial census was
completed, say early in 1981, the 1980 census completed in 1981 and it came to
focus then on the legislative election of 1982, and so in the early spring of
1982 or the winter of 1982, the early months of 1982, the Apportionment
Commission did its thing and then it wound up in the lap of the Court in
February or March or so. Is that...?
In February, they certified their deadlock, and we then went on
asking for these arguments as to whether the authority of the Commission
continued despite the invalidity of some applicable rules and if that authority
did continue, what standards would govern the redistricting and apportionment
of the Legislature. Perhaps this is a good time to note that in 1973, the
United States Supreme Court came down with another decision in the case of
Mahan vs. Powell that allowed a population divergence of 16.44%, I guess it
was, so we had that, at least as a guideline for what the divergence could
Excuse me, will you repeat the name. This is for transcription
purposes...the name of the case and the spelling?
M-a-h-a-n vs. P-o-w-e-l-l.
Well, this is a bit of a long story. As Chief Justice, I had to
take an initial informal count after we had heard the arguments and read the
briefs and all that, and there weren't four votes for anything. Therefore, we
decided to grope around and see if there was some system whereby, even sitting
as an Article VI Court making the law, so to speak, that we could consider.
Justice Levin wrote an opinion, and he had changed his position
completely. He was one of the first, along with Justice Kavanagh and me, who
had thought that it was totally unconstitutional. The Levin opinion said that
the article was constitutionable and severable. You could take off that part
having to do with the guidelines, and we could or the Legislature could
establish some guidelines to go along with the Commission and the rest of the
article. That didn't fly, and we tried everything I could think of and anybody
else could think of to try to reach four votes and we could not reach four
votes. Finally, I just said, "Well, let's try to think of something we could do
that makes good sense, legal sense and that seven of us could vote for.
Let's aim for seven and come down like a non-partisan court
should", so we started on that, and the time that we spent was awesome, but
finally, we did come down with an opinion establishing guidelines. When we came
down to the end of it, we appointed Bernie Apol, who had been Director of
Elections and a man of unimpeachable integrity...everybody, Republicans,
Democrats all had a lot of faith in him...to see what he could do to apportion
the state according to the guidelines that the seven justices had approved.
In the name of the Supreme Court's decision.
Oh, yes, in the name of the Supreme Court's decision, so a great
hue and cry went up from everybody, as you can imagine. There were a few court
motions and moves. There were motions for a new hearing or re-hearing and
attempts to go to the Supreme Court and one thing or another in the meantime,
but we finally did decide the method with a slight deviation by Blair Moody. We
were using the 16.4 divergency figure as what was allowable.
We wanted the districts to be, of course, compact and adjacent by
land. Townships, cities and counties and so on should be preserved as far as
possible to make government more manageable, so Bernie Apol set forth with some
helpers from the State Department. He'd come in for instructions once in a
while, but nobody told him a thing about which way to draw the line. We didn't
tell him how to do anything excepting as to an overall procedural problem.
Did he arrange for this computer company to consult, or did the
Court provide him with computer capability? Wasn't that part of the whole
There was a time when we thought perhaps an out-of-state computer
company which had done something like this before might be able to cut the
streets and one thing or another and come out with a viable product. It turned
out they finally said they couldn't do it, but Bernie did have some computer
help. He had to have that. That other experiment was strictly the Court's
Of course, there wasn't any question about the use of computers,
but it became a problem because time was flying and the elections were due to
come up, and people had to file their petitions and whatever they had to file
in time for candidates to run in the November elections. This put a great
pressure on everybody. We spent almost all of our time on reapportionment for
quite a period of time. When the product came out, we ordered a public hearing
so that everybody who had anything to say could come before the Court and give
Bernie Apol suggestions that he might not have considered. He said he wasn't
infallible, and some of the suggestions he took.
Most of them were self-serving, of course, and didn't allow for
the progress toward goals for which we were looking. In any event, finally we
came to the end and we provided the guidelines and the newly drawn districts.
We called the entire article unconstitutional, to go back to where I should
That is the provisions in the Michigan Constitution providing for
the Apportionment Commission.
Yes, the whole article 4, because the sections were inextricably
tied. How the Commission could divide the state without any guidelines, of
course, could not be answered I would like to divert a minute here. I first
thought I would like to keep it where the article would be unconstitutional but
severable because I thought it should be in the constitution. Otherwise, the
legislators could change the guidelines and "gerrymander" their districts, and
the 1963 Constitutional convention had thought it very important that
apportionment be in the constitution, and thus stabilized.
That weighed heavily on my mind because there was a great deal of
validity to that thinking, but it just didn't work out that way. It couldn't,
logically. We had to do away with the Commission. Because of the United States
Supreme Court finding, we could not find the guidelines appropriate. We ended
up by declaring the entire article 4 unconstitutional and imposing our own
guidelines in the event that the Legislature did not come up with their own
guidelines and the Governor sign in time for the elections. There had to be
continuity of government. We couldn't simply cut it off.
There was a period late in the spring when the Legislature,
spring of 1982, the Legislature was on notice from the Court that if it wished
and could perform, that it could draw its own districts.
And the Legislature did not perform.
That's what I was trying to say. They had the first opportunity,
of course, and we had hoped that they could come up with a plan. "The people"
were represented by their legislators, so, in the absence of a vote by all for
a constitutional amendment, the legislators had to be given the opportunity to
reapportion themselves. In the March 25, 1982 opinion of the Court, we
specifically stated that the Legislature could provide a statute signed by the
Governor with immediate effect at least four weeks before the filing date set
for the August primary election, and that its reapportionment plan would
supersede the plan directed to be drawn by the Court. The plan had to be
consistent with the state and federal constitutions. The Apol plan was adopted
by the Court on May 21, 1982.
As I said, however, it could have been superseded by a legislative
plan approved by the Governor within the time specified, but none was
submitted. It should be noted that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was
dismissed in October, 1982. A by-product of the final order was angry
legislators. Their districts were changed in varying degrees and with a few
living outside of new districts which they formerly had represented. Also,
there were different ethnic groups in some new districts. Consideration of the
next step toward the state-funding of Michigan courts came to a halt.
Virgil Smith was still working hard to honor the statutory
commitments, but he told me that so many legislators were angry with the Court
- and, I suppose, especially me - that he doubted he could find enough votes
for passage. Some legislators even thought the justices designed the districts.
I assured him that no one on the Court had even suggested that Mr. Apol do
anything in particular. He followed our general guidelines and apportioned the
districts as equitably as he could. I thought, and still think the results were
even-handed, fair and consistent with our guidelines. Which direction the
present Legislature will take after this last census remains to be seen.
The ultimate truth was that the opinion that embodied his
districting plan was approved 7:0, is that not true?
Yes, that was, I think, one of the greater accomplishments of the
Court. We, having started from all directions, finally came down, after a great
deal of input from everybody, to a 7:0 decision with a concurrence differing
only as to the amount of divergence, as I remember, of Justice Moody. He was a
fine man, and we all enjoyed working with him. He was facing the reality of
running for office that same year, and I think that the Democrats bore down on
him quite hard. I think he really felt that way himself. I don't know that he'd
be pressured to do anything that he thought wasn't right, but he did disagree
with the allowed percentage of divergence, and he wrote a separate opinion but
basically, it was 7:0.
That was an enormous achievement, was it not, when you put up
against the things that historically have happened in the Court...as you go
back, as I recall, in 1972 and 1964, in those periods when the apportionment
issue had come before the Court in previous occasions, the Court would split,
and there would be as many as six or seven opinions, and I counted up the head
notes and there was, I think, 52 or 54 paragraphs of head notes on some of
those occasions trying to summarize the positions being taken by the individual
authors of these opinions to explain their position, vis a vis the Constitution
of Michigan, the Constitution of the United States, and there was this total
fractioning of the Court and very great strife.
(End of side 1, tape 4)
Yes, and I remember one opinion Justice Black wrote on the whole
13. Continues with topic from before, Redistricting and reapportionment of Legislature getting unanimous vote on the Court. Justice Coleman also speaks about why she decided not to run for reelection, what she did after she left the Court, her special interest in children, and her view on life.
You were saying...
I was saying that Justice Black wrote an opinion that was really
quite bitter about the whole operation of that particular decision, but it was
a bit of history. It was interesting to go back and read it. In any event, the
Court was most divided and politically so. I think that the Court received
rather a bad reputation at that time as being driven by politics, in this
important decision of the re-districting and reapportioning of the
That's why most of us thought that it was so important for us to
come down as a solid block of seven and do what we, after all manner of
discussions and debates, felt was the correct way to go, so I was very proud of
that. I had some almost vitriolic letters afterwards about taking it out of the
constitution, some by people who had worked with the Constitutional Convention
in 1963 and had known what suffering and agonizing that they had gone through
to place it into the constitution and here we were taking it out by ruling it
unconstitutional. That was the largest bit of dissent that I heard. The Court
itself was very pleased with what we had done, but it had the side effect of
going back to state funding, of having so many of the legislators angry with us
that they weren't even going to have meetings of the committees.
They weren't going to consider it at all until the very end, just
before the election took place. Justice Williams and I went over to the final
House committee meeting. They had tacked on an amendment having to do with the
Juvenile Court, one which I knew was very unpopular and would probably defeat
the whole package if it went to the floor that way. I think that government
having been in financial straits, the Court being in bad repute because of what
we had done to legislative districts, and of course, then this amendment tacked
onto the end provided a series of negatives.
I had foreseen that it wasn't going to pass and it didn't, so that
second phase still hangs there. Wayne County is state funded and the rest are
partly. They have more money than they had to start with because of the
judicial salary injection and I think some other progress has been made along
the way, but still the remainder of the counties are a long way from being
Well, this was a chapter, of course, that struck a very high note
in the Court's performance although I suppose this will never completely be
laid at rest because here we are with a new census now and a problem for the
Court or the Legislature, in the first instance, in this year or next, to bring
the apportionment of the Legislature into conformity with the population
established in 1990 and the principles of law and politics that enter in.
Yes, I would expect that the Legislature would try to reapportion
itself and if it weren't fair, I would expect the Governor to veto it, so I
would expect it might go back to the Court.
It is an interesting situation though, is it not, because of the
gubernatorial change? Now you have the Democratic power in the Legislature in a
position of being overseen in the veto sense by a Republican governor who will
be expected to stand up, you know, for his...
Yes, I still nurture the hope that the people of Michigan will
see the importance some day of who represents them and how they came to be
there and would place the matter on a ballot...have a referendum of some kind
or the Legislature would provide for a constitutional vote. It should be in the
constitution so there would be fair guidelines and a sensible procedure to
follow. I would devotedly hope that if the Legislature or the Court decides to
do whatever they're going to do, that they would look to our opinion as being
one that is fair where apportionment was so even and so fairly distributed that
they will find it is hard to improve. I don't know. Perhaps you can improve
Well, whatever the answer in the present context, it stands there
that the 1982 opinion was a beacon of fair judicial activity in this area, and
a sort of a notice of what can be expected and what is expected of the
Legislature in revising it.
Yes, the guidelines that we set were quite good ones. They were
solid ones, and they were based on Michigan tradition and I think common sense.
I liked the decision, and I think it would be wise if whoever tried to devise
another plan would base the plan primarily on that decision. Of course, the
level of divergency might change, but basically the plan couldn't be changed
very much and be better. I don't know that the diversity could be better, but
it might be in somebody's opinion like Justice Moody's, but anyway, I was very
proud of the Court.
Were there some other things that we should be talking about now?
I had some things I was going to bring up to you if you did not, yourself,
prefer to speak to some other parts of your conduct on the Court, your service
as Chief Justice. Just for an example, I would like to get at some point to the
problems that you started out your judicial career working in and that is
custody issues, family law, parental rights termination. You had some agonizing
cases during your time on the Supreme Court, and of course, I know...did you
want to speak to those or would you rather just go to something else other than
this to talk about?
I have a couple of things I could mention in the matter of
juvenile concerns. I was appointed to the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in
New York City. That's the one that is run by the family that founded Avon
Products, and they are very socially concerned. One of their large areas of
concern is children. They asked me if I would serve as an advisor to the
Foundation on children's affairs. I enjoyed that because you had perspectives
from around the country as to what could be done in areas of abuse, neglect,
delinquency or job preparations and the installation of the kinds of jobs
youngsters could do. I continued, even after I left the Court to have an
interest in children, even while on corporate boards which didn't have very
many women, if any.
Which were, as long as we're into that now, which ones did you
serve on and do you still serve on any of those?
No, you reach an age of 72 when you cannot be re-elected at the
annual meeting of shareholders, and I'm past that age, so I had to turn into a
pumpkin if you will, and depart. K-Mart was the first one which had asked me to
serve, and I knew some of the people on the board and admired them very much.
The National Bank of Detroit which is Michigan's largest bank had asked me to
serve with them, and that was another dimension of my life, where I felt that I
learned more than I gave, and then the third one was entirely different again
and that was the Biggs/Gilmore advertising, marketing, public relations
B-i-g-g-s and Gilmore?
That's right, /Gilmore because they were merged, but they have
offices in different parts of the eastern part of the country. They are
headquartered in Kalamazoo and are a large outfit and they did quite a bit of
television advertising and in magazines. They have some excellent people
working with them. They had, for instance, the men who invented Morris the Cat
and the Maytag Man and the Marlborough Man. They were people with fine
experience and creative abilities as well as expertise in the business aspect
of it. That was an entirely different kind of experience and so interesting, so
with those three corporate boards, I learned a great deal, and I enjoyed them.
I had confidence in all of them because of the character of the leadership.
They had people who were tops in their fields in management and in operations
and all were interested in children.
Were there other women who served with you on these boards, or
Well, I was the only one for a while on K-Mart. Now, Martha
Griffiths had served before I did but when she became Lieutenant Governor, she
resigned. Before I left, another one was appointed, a very fine woman who was a
president of Berry College. I was the only one on Biggs/Gilmore and for awhile,
the only one on the bank board. As a matter of fact, I've been the only woman
in many areas. Of course, I was the only woman on the Supreme Court until I
retired, excepting the brief appointment of Dorothy Comstock Riley toward the
end of my term. Now, we have two and that's good, but I was the only woman in
the Conference of Chief Justices that met from all the states in the country
and Guam, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Rose Bird was a Chief Justice. She had been appointed by Governor
Brown but she never attended a Conference, so I was the only one there.
Creighton declared himself president of the auxiliary, and I think he enjoyed
sitting with the Conference, and he had an interesting time. Quite a few high
schools and college women would make appointments to discuss the advisability
of applying for entry to a law school, and I tried to ease their fears. Some of
the beautiful letters I received later made me proud to have been a part of
their success. I perhaps should mention the reason I retired early. I had run
for re-election after the first eight years.
That was in 1980, right?
Yes, and as a matter of fact, I was going to retire then, but
it's hard to visualize or for me to tell you the pressure that was placed on me
to stay and not be a lame duck for all the state funding. I can remember when
the Republican National Convention was in Detroit, Mayor Young gave a party on
a ship, renamed the S.S. Detroit, where all the Republican delegates were
invited as well as legislators and some of the Supreme Court. Virgil Smith was
there and he came up to my table and he said, "I just heard you weren't going
to run", and I thought he was going to cry. He looked absolutely betrayed, like
I had let him down terribly.
He had put a tremendous amount of work in it, and many other
people at that time came up to me. I remember Damon Keith was one. I don't
remember who they all were - some union people and Court people and others who
said in effect, "You know, you just can't do this". Well, I had already
announced that I was not going to run so I would give people the opportunity to
gear up and run for my office. Fortunately, nobody had announced at that time
and so I re-thought it and I thought, "Well, this is a good way to get
defeated, but I guess I am conscientiously bound to try to finish this", so I
announced right away that I wasn't going to retire which gave people something
to write about. I gave the reasons, and I did win. As a matter of fact, I had
the highest vote of all.
That was in 1980, in the November election?
Yes. I guess that didn't hurt too much but there were a few media
jokes about a woman's right to change her mind. My intention was to serve out
all of the time or as much of it as seemed appropriate. Creighton later
retired. I have to put this in. I knew he wasn't well. I had a great battle
with myself. If it had been just me, I would have just gone on so long as the
electorate allowed, but I felt that I had to do something other than to spend
seven days a week as I was into the "wee hours" on the Court business.
Governor Milliken had said he wasn't going to run for re-election
and if I didn't leave, I would possibly go on for the whole eight years. I just
couldn't see the future from a personal standpoint and Creighton's standpoint.
It occurred to me that it would be a good time for me to leave just before the
end of 1982 so the Governor would have a chance to appoint somebody to my
vacancy, and he did.
You made your announcement, as I recall, early in October or
November, was it, or 1982?
Well, I did it before the election because I didn't want it to
appear that I had no confidence in gubernatorial candidates Blanchard or
Headley. I didn't know either one of them well, but I did know Milliken very
well, and so I thought, "Well, whoever wins might appoint somebody I felt
unsuitable". I knew Governor Milliken and I knew he knew the people who were
competent, and he had some basis for his judgment, so I thought, "I will retire
just before the change of governors".
Do you recall the date of your announcement or just roughly when
It may have been the early part of November. It was just before
the election because I purposely did it that way so that I wouldn't cast any
aura of discontent over whoever was going to be elected. Anyway, that's the way
And then you set a date which was right, three or four days
before the end of the year. Was that not the case?
At the time I announced when I would retire, I also announced
that I was resigning as Chief Justice as of that same day - about two months
before my retirement. Understandably, that unique move caused a mixture of
speculations which continue to this day. In retrospoect, this may have been an
unwise move so far as I was personally concerned.
I had perceived it as a last minute attempt to help rescue the
bills which would have implemented the second step toward the funding of
Michigan courts other than those in Wayne County. Aside from the usual (and
often unusual) duties as a Chief Justice, I had to abide by the Court's
self-imposed mandate to complete, before Justice Fitzgerald and I retired,
every case assigned. We had to end the term with a clean slate, excepting for
cases which had been assigned to Justice Moody. I knew that there would be a
deluge of cases, some of which would need a reply.
With the expected avalanche, I could see no time to help resolve
some of the knotty problems I have mentioned, among which were such as healing
the wounds remaining from reapportionment, resolving the doubts about the
ability of the state to assume any additional fiscal responsibilities for
courts and further efforts to educate the public about the bills. As it
evolved, the bills failed to pass, and I worked too hurriedly in replying to
some of the many opinions which flooded us and even in writing some of my own
In addition, my dates of departure have given historians some
problems in recording. I should admit, I suppose, that I never had a sense of
my own history on the Court, other than being the first woman elected to serve
on the Michigan Supreme Court. I wrote no diaries. When I retired, I had few
clippings, letters or other memorabilia of significance to that era.
As I look back, I tackled each problem with a sense of what was,
in my opinion, fair and possible, legally speaking, as well as how it would
affect the future of the state and the public good. Other considerations
entered, of course, but not the effect on my own place in history or the
problems surrounding my early and staggered separations from the life of the
Court. I have given what papers I thought of interest to the Bentley Historical
Library, University of Michigan, at their request. The larger items, I placed
in the Willard Library in my home city of Battle Creek. Some lifelong
keepsakes, I gave to the Women's Hall of Fame and to our children. I have few
points of reference to the past in our Florida home.
However, out of my early resignation as Chief Justice came an
opportunity for a real "history buff" to leave a mark in history. John Warner
Fitzgerald's father had been Governor of Michigan and John had followed a path
in government service from the state Legislature to the court of Appeals to the
Supreme Court, so he became the Chief Justice for the last two months of my
term. It was during that time that Justice Blair Moody suddenly died of a heart
attack shortly after having won re-election for another eight years. It was
around Thanksgiving, leaving his colleagues shocked and very saddened. His
death also left a vacancy on the Court which, with the two retirements already
announced, led to quite a new Court and some complications better told by
someone who was there until the end of the episode, which I was not.
Of course, I had seen the Court change dramatically during my
service, but the adjustments then were easy. I can say that my time on that
Court provided one of my life's most exhilarating experiences. In each change
of the Court, it seemed to me that the new justice, even with a different
background, life experience and strong opinions, immediately settled into a
continuum of collegiality. As time went on, it was interesting to note that
most opinions, if not unanimous, were signed by justices having different
backgrounds, political and in other respects.
This mixture of backgrounds, experiences and philosophies brought
various considerations to bear upon each case. I viewed this as a positive
process to a majority opinion, whether I agreed with it or not. I still enjoy
an amazingly comfortable feeling when I think of the vigorous arguments we had
over issues in case conferences, but without any diatribes or vicious personal
entanglements. I like to think that this level of collegiality was a product of
dignity, civility and legal scholarship. I cherish almost every minute I served
on the Court - even the many challenging events which had to be met and
resolved. Life needs some spice. Even the tragedies can bring enhanced
appreciation of all that has passed our way and all that the future may hold -
but I grow too philosophical.
While speaking of collegiality in the Court, I should report that
we met on a personal basis at times in the homes of members. I remember one
especially beautiful experience which was not in a member's home, but in the
former home of the Edsel Ford family. Justice Williams arranged for the use of
the home for three days. The justices met in a rather isolated room each day as
a kind of "think tank". We tried to envision plans for the future of Michigan
courts, especially of the Supreme Court, the Office of Court Administrator and
other facets of our responsibilities. We even tried to conjure up a new
approach to obtaining a new building.
Land had been purchased for a court building many years before.
When I had asked for a small appropriation to commence planning, it was
refused, so we continue to this day in inadequate "temporary" quarters. The
University of Michigan School of Architecture assumed such a building as a
project while I was Chief Justice. The students designed not only the exterior,
but the interior placement of necessary quarters. They considered whether the
Court of Appeals and/or the Attorney General's offices should be included. They
made mock-ups of their various ideas and displayed them in the Supreme Court's
reception room - and they won the national competition of student
Justice Williams had the pleasure of going to New York to receive
the award in 1983. I think I have expanded too freely upon this one subject
discussed in the Ford home. Aside from work, we enjoyed a social aspect of this
experience when our spouses would join us in the evening for a delicious meal
and conversation before fires burning in each fireplace before retiring to our
respective bedrooms. There were just enough for all of us. On Valentine Day, my
husband Creighton and I hosted a formal, beautifully catered dinner. I even was
so bold as to write poetry about each justice which I ambitiously tried to make
humorous. Each day was a productive and happy experience.
For the most part, the Court staff shared the justices' good
humor. I will share one example. When the Court in conference would be arguing
about some issue, about which Charles Levin felt particularly strong, he had a
habit of rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. On two occasions, he
rocked so vigorously that the chair, with him in it, toppled over
Each time, we called the Crier to assess the damage to the chair
while we assessed the damage to the justice. One day, when we came together in
Lansing for a case conference, Justice Levin found a seatbelt attached to the
arms of his chair and a motorcycle helmet in the seat. This turned out to be
the work of Phil Sprague, the Crier. It started the day with a good laugh. I do
not recall further such hazardous problems after that creative joke.
On a more serious subject, when it was suggested that I speak of
some other areas of importance to me, the subject of "children" was mentioned.
Somehow, I have strayed far, but that is a subject dear to my heart and of
continuing interest. I do want to tell about the remarkable work of some
remarkable people who comprised the interdisciplinary membership of the
so-called "Coleman Commission". They chose the name, probably because I
appointed them, but I am proud of it. They were charged with identifying and
proposing recommendations to remove the road-blocks to the permanent placement
of children, some of whom had been "caught in the system" for years. They had
been removed from their own homes, but never placed permanently in anybody's
home. The termination of parental rights was postponed for years in some courts
and for varying reasons cutting across agencies and other disciplines.
The role of the judiciary in timely permanency planning cannot be
overlooked. One case which confronted our Court - and over which I spent an
inordinate amount of time - concerned a child who had been placed in an
adoptive home after parental rights were terminated (and after much family
assistance had previously been given). This child was truly "caught in the
system". After the adoption, the biological mother appealed to a federal court,
then the case came back to our Court and then back to the federal court until
eight years later, a settlement of a sort was reached. Of course, in each court
proceeding, much time was consumed with briefing, calendaring and the usual
slow court process. After eight years, the child's roots were deep in the
admittedly wonderful home of the adoptive parents, so that was a positive.
It remains my strong belief that the courts must be geared to a
timely disposition of abuse and neglect cases and that appellate courts,
although deluged with too many cases, must place children's matters at the top
of the agenda and the matters decided as quickly as possible. Some progress has
been made, but much remains to be done. The Legislature has passed some of the
Coleman Commission recommendations, and the Supreme Court has passed some
recommended rules. The agencies need funding in some areas and this always is a
problem, but they are making progress. County Commissions have been brought
into the process, as well as lay citizens. I could tell dozens of stories about
families I have known through the judicial system and the fate of their
children, and they may have shed more light on the monumental problems that
these generalities, but time is my enemy.
On another subject, I want to give some accolades to some splendid
workers in the life of the law and of the courts. One well-deserved salutation
must go to Justice James Ryan, now a judge on the Federal court of Appeals, 6th
Circuit. Not only did he head the Michigan Judicial Institute which reached out
to educate judges and other members of the judicial system, but when I asked,
he accepted the awesome task of supervision of the reorganization of the Wayne
County and Detroit courts as mandated by the state funding of court statutes. I
know from personal experience that it was an incredibly difficult, even chaotic
task. I doubt that anyone else could have been so successful.
I also would be remiss in failing to commend the work and
implementation of the recommendations of rules committees. We now have
nationally respected Rules of Criminal Procedure. Obviously, we had to have a
committee on Rules of Civil Procedure. This committee also proved to be of high
level excellence - even when faced with the seemingly impossible task of
keeping up with the demands emerging from our Supreme Court opinions which set
forth new concepts or twists in previously accepted interpretations of statues
and common law. Release of such opinions demanded immediate guidelines.
Speedy work by the committee and adjustments leading to the
adoption of the rules were necessary. The committees on Probate and Juvenile
Court procedures also worked diligently and productively. There is much more
that could be told about the efforts to smooth the way for lawyers and judges
and citizens before the courts. Perhaps some mention should be made of some
developments. For instance, in contrast to prior hostile meetings of some
Supreme Court members with judges of the various courts, we seemed to have
achieved a feeling of good will and even friendship which helped us over many
This may be a good time to make a personal observation and add a
note to a comment I made earlier about the promise of the Probate and Juvenile
Court judges to help me win election to this Court, regardless of t heir
political proclivities. I failed to add that they were true to their promise.
Some good stories could be told, but time does not permit. I give them great
credit for my nomination and election not only in the 1972 but also in the 1980
campaigns. Finally, I want to acknowledge that life, taken as a whole, has been
very good to me despite early traumas and post-retirement attacks on our
health, bringing new challenges.
I consider a good life not to be an easy life, but one which
includes stimulation by confrontation of whatever challenges fate sends our
way. As I look far back, we were very poor financially and the means by which
we coped is a story in itself. However, I always have felt that my parents gave
me a life rich in love and the belief that any honorable undertaking should be
pursued thoroughly, but with dignity and integrity. I can remember no unkind
word about a person's color or ethnic background, so I grew up with no
prejudices of that nature. I think that this background has enhanced my
pleasure in traveling later in life to many countries and enjoying the people
of various races and traditions. At home, it has helped me to enjoy people of
many different backgrounds.
I also am aware that I have been fortunate to have had unsought -
and even undeserved - opportunities come my way which I had only to seize and
then work hard to realize their potential. I have a wonderful husband who has
been supportive in all of my undertakings. We have two loving daughters who are
excellent physicians and we have three grandchildren who, of course, are
superior in every way. The friendship and loyalty of good friends cannot be
The opportunities to have experienced and been a part of many
worlds do not come to many. Each day has been a learning experience which
continues into this so-called retirement - another new world filled with new
challenges. I am deeply grateful for my life of many dimensions and
opportunities to know people different from me. They have broadened my
understanding and appreciation of the varied qualities of the human race and
the workings of the human mind wherever found - in the little traveled places
in remote spots of the world, in great metropolitan and commercial cities - and
even in our own Supreme Court!