Interview with JOHN D. VOELKER
Sponsored by Michigan Supreme Court Historical
Conducted by Roger F. Lane
October 1, 1990
Justice Voelker talks about the books he has written (under
the pseudonym Robert Traver), his family life in Ishpeming, and his educational
and work background. His discusses his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1957
and the atmosphere and workings of the court.
I knew most of these guys.
(referring to "Danny and the Boys".)
Yeah, I was a kid, but there used to be characters all over.
Characters are disappearing...local characters. They are out-talked by the T.V.
and the rest of it. It's changed. They're hard to find. They're dead or
something, but the real old local characters, you probably had them where you
lived as a kid. The place was crawling with them when I was a kid, and I must
have had a urge that I was attracted to them. They weren't teachers telling you
to "shut up and study", and this and that. They were local characters of all
kinds. Some of them were fanatics in a way, fanatics of booze and
How would you like to be Judge Souter down there in Congress?
How would you like to go through the confirmation process? How would you have
liked it when you were appointed back in...?
I think I would have not taken it as well as he did or as
calmly as he did. I probably would have had a judge, and I would have covered
it with some "blank - blank" words. Take it and shove it.
Can you imagine Charlie Feenstra sitting there in front of you
and you're in the chair and the lights are bright and he is saying, "Now, Mr.
Voelker, what is this you wrote in the book about 'Big Annie'? Would you kindly
explain all of this to us again. We're trying to determine your fitness to be a
judge." Can you imagine that?
Yeah. This "Anatomy of a Murder" thing came out while I was on
the bench. I had written it beforehand. I was a D.A. for fourteen years up
here. "Oscar, the Attorney", we call it poetically in Michigan. One of the
biggest copies east of the Mississippi and mixed lobbying, mining, God knows
what, farming, this, that, and there were still Justices of the Peace in those
days, some of whom couldn't even read, let alone speak English and I'd travel
around these various counties, I mean townships...and what the Hell was I going
Who are we talking about "what happened to the old characters
and how they got crowded out by television" and you were recalling the way it
was back in the 1940's and 1950's.
That's right, and earlier. I mean, I'm an old guy. I'm 87...old
Do you know...I suppose you do...that you come out of the same
law firm....that's just a sticker to reminder you of a guy's name...you come
out the same law firm as Adlai Stevenson? Did you happen to cross paths with
him? Was he there when you were?
No. What law firm?
Mayer, Meyer, Austrian and Platt. Adlai Stevenson was a...
If I knew that, I had forgotten it because I was an admirer of
his. He was an unusual candidate, an unusual guy.
He may have been there before you came.
He must have been.
Let's get this over with first. What's your name?
Let me try...Roger Lane...L-a-n-e...
Some spell that L-a-i-n-e, it's like "Joann" or "Joanna", you
know...Roger Lane. "To Brett Danielson from his friend, Roger Lane along with
the best wishes"...I better, I tend to run on.
That's all right.
"Best wishes"...I won't get into the judge thing..."Roger Lane
along with the best wishes of the author". How about that?
Television, you see a show on that; the show is created,
written by somebody, created by somebody, produced by somebody, I mean, it
sounds too complicated for words. Everybody wants his name...
And God help the man that wants to pick out the author. He
might miss him when the cascade of 35 names comes on the screen.
Well, the very fact that there are so many hands in it is
telling you that it must be...it would be a miracle if the story were
intelligible at all. It takes one person, I guess, to really spin a yarn that
tells a story, I guess. I don't know.
Well, that's the wonder of mankind in our civilization, the
product of one man, not a committee, but one man can do what you do.
That's right. An accident...I learned to spell and my parents
were mixed. My mother came here as a music teacher in the public schools.
She was from away. Her background...her maiden name was Traver
which I took when I began spinning yarns. I was D.A. than and I thought it
might be a little "im-politic" or the voters would think that the busy D.A. was
spinning yarns on taxpayers' time, so that's how I happened to get this Traver
name and finally, I was stuck with it.
When was that first...when was that "Northwoods D.A"....when
was that book published? Do you remember?
That was my third book after "Danny". The first one was
"Troubleshooter". I wrote two D.A. books and some day, I expect they will be on
television because this is a devouring world, television is. They'll get to it.
CBS once had it right up to a deal but somebody found some swear words..."Oh,
my goodness", and it didn't...and there are still grumblings. Most of my books
are out of print. A couple of the fishing books are still. There was a picture
book, a fishing book...do you remember that?
Was that "Laughing Whitefish"? No, no, that was...
"Anatomy of a Fisherman"...picture, like an old time life
photographer called Kelley. It was his idea and I guess picture books are
expensive to print now days, like everything else.
They are. You know, there has been a transformation in the
whole publishing business. You talk about being out of print, well, that's the
Not all to the good, by the way. I mean, publishing contracts
now, the publisher tells you what...you allow your book to be published on his
terms. I mean, it used to be a certain percentage of this, that and the other
thing of subsidiary rights. St Martins Press that published "Anatomy of a
Murder" had but 15% of the movie rights cut on my take of the movie rights.
Is that right?
Now it's 50% on any contract that I've signed since then, and I
think they're right. If a book isn't published, there aren't going to be many
subsidiary rights from it, so the publisher who brought it out has some
argument for the birth, I guess.
He's the mid-wife.
That's right. Let's see..."John Voelker" Anyway, she met a
small saloon keeper with a German name who apparently fascinated her and they
married, and I'm the youngest of six sons. He was a widower then with three
sons. I am the youngest of the six and the last.
Was he a saloon keeper here in Ishpeming or somewhere else?
So your whole life from birth on relates to this place.
I was born in town in an old frame house that is still there
but we rent it so that we don't have to tear it down, and it pays the taxes. It
is a block from the Carnegie Public Library.
Is that right on the main road now, or...?
No, Barnum Street. And as a kid, my mother taught me to go to
the library and read, read, read, and I think reading is one of the best ways
to educate kids that there is...reading ...communication of other people over
the years. Not that I started out with high falluting authors. I went through
the Rober Boys and Algier stories and this, that but I have been reading, and I
got a little familiar with using words, not judicial words. I think, as you
know, one of the problems with judicial opinions...so may of them are so God
They're written for their author and a couple lawyers, not the
Part of it is inevitable. I mean, these phrases and idioms and
judicial talk have now been interpreted so long that you stand...if you try to
re-phrase it in plain English, you're liable to lose your case and your client.
You've got to use some of this...well, the bottom line parameter. I mean,
there's a lot of...the way politicians talk...a good deal of the law, opinions
have been. I think the bar, as you know...Fred Baker said he's a good friend of
...and he is interested in, I guess, tried to ease legal and
He is. You know, he is, as you undoubtedly know, the main force
in the Michigan Bar Journal and there has been an attempt in recent years
He is a very interesting guy and it's encouraging to see a
young lawyer like him. Shall I date it?
Why don't you.
Is this October 1st?
The first of October.
I could say U.P. - or bust. I put on my old car "U.P or bust"
Tell me, how did you ever happen to run for public office the
first time and what was the year? Do you remember? Was it when you ran for
prosecutor the first time? Was that your first public office try?
I'll get to it. "October 1st, A.D., Ishpeming".
Do you want me to take that from you? Are you through with it
Okay. I'll just drop it over here.
Do you want this?
No, that was just for helpers.
You'd come up from Chicago and that would have been...
The reason I was in Chicago...I met a girl, this lady. Is she
here? Did you speak with Grace?
Oh, yes. At the door, right.
I met her in my senior year in law school. I mean, we breed
race horses with great care and all this, but romance...love. So, she was from
Illinois, Oak Park down near Chicago. Here I was a cynical senior in law
school, you know, the top...at the Crease Dance at the Quad
. It wasn't a law school then. The law school was still
further down State Street. It was the Law Club which has since become the Law
School and the whole works. Anyway, I graduated and came up here and worked as
Assistant D.A. for a while for the prosecutor, an excellent prosecutor for his
time, a fire-ball of a lawyer, a Mike Wallace prosecutor. There aren't many. I
never was that way, but he was and it was his way, and he was damn good at it.
Did you succeed him? Did he drop out or go somewhere else and
then you ran for his spot? Is that the way it worked?
Yeah, he ran for Congress on the Republican ticket. This was in
the F.D.R. days, early "New Deal" and up here, the unions were sprouting and
this, that and the other thing. He was defeated, and he moved west, and I think
ran out there. He was a terrific guy, and I say part of his problem - he was
naturally Republican when he started, but he was not a conservative Republican.
He was a fire-ball of a guy, his own ideas, but he couldn't very well turn back
then. He was marked, I mean, the Republican candidate. Anyway, I left there and
went to Chicago and married the girl, and I didn't know it when the chemistry
began in Ann Arbor that her father happened to be in one of the big downtown
banks. I did not know that. Well, it worked out that he waved a wand and Adlai
Stevenson's law firm gave me a job as a peasant back in the "bull pen", we
called it, where the young lawyers stayed, four or five of us in one big room.
I stayed there about three years. One thing I learned was how to look up law. A
lot of young lawyers...I don't know, but at that time, we didn't have much
experience in looking up law, chasing down a theory or a case or whatever, and
finally I learned that I didn't like city. I still don't. I hate to even see
them. I think they are uninhabitable. That's a large...and more and more, the
proof is coming on that this may be true. Strangers colliding with each other
and now they found guns and drugs and God knows what. Not that there isn't
drugs and crimes in smaller communities, but at least you can get the Hell away
from the crowd. I can. I have a little camp on a pond here. It's only a few
miles from my big airport, K.I. Sawyer Airport but when I get there, I'm the
Hell and gone away from the crowd. There is still trees, bears and deer, and
foxes and not many wolves anymore, but I used to see them. I had to come home,
and I ran for D.A., and I ran on F.D.R.'s ticket.
Would that be in 1934? Do you remember...1936 or right around
1934. Oh, wait a minute. When was Roosevelt, in 1932?
He was first elected in 1932, but...
Yeah, it was 1934, I ran as D.A. and with a big bunch of
candidates for the nomination. There were two or three on each ticket. It
happened that I was the only one that happened to be born and raised here.
The others were carpet-baggers, were they?
Well, they were...I mean, they were kids that moved in. I don't
say it clinically, but it happened that I was the only one, and I used that.
Campaigning was different then. You went around and visited the voters. You
went to the mines, here, there, the corset factory in wherever the Hell, and
you had meetings in townships, and you communicated with the voters instead of
speaking into a microphone on television accusing your opponents of eating
crackers in bed and similar crummy charges. I am quoting from something I wrote
"Press the flesh" - who was it that talked about "pressing the
I forget. I remember the phrase.
Well, that's what you're talking about, isn't it? Hand-to-hand
I did it for fourteen years and finally, I was beaten by a
young kid that never tried a case...never tried a case.
What were the circumstances of that?
Well, it was a...I mean, there are local and state...I mean,
politics is fluid. It isn't only a personal race. It is sometimes swayed by
this, that, or...
Would that have been 1948? Would that have been the time of the
Republican high expectations because...
Maybe so. It was 1950. I lost by seven votes, and I thought,
"Well, a recount", and then I finally realized that I wanted out, but by then,
I had three children. Two of them were in college, and between my fishing and
yarn spinning and D.A.'ing, I didn't have much time to build a private
Had you benefitted financially from any of your writings at
You were then sort of on your "uppers", right?
I had three books, two D.A. and the "Danny" books that had
appeared and been respectfully, you know, not clobbered by the critics, but
they died a natural death like most books...then, at least. And so I
That would have been...
Oh, wait a minute. I'm trying to...
Was it 1950?
This was in the 1950's, and I tried. Oh, I ran for
You ran against Frank Hook one time, didn't you?
For the nomination, yeah.
He was a well-known fella up here, wasn't he?
He was a well-known guy that was losing to somebody called
That was a Republican, right?
That's right, and there was a trend towards the Republicans,
and I thought maybe I might be able to take Bennett because Hook had problems
including booze and a few other problems. I didn't make it, so then I
tried...this was after the war, the uranium looking - there was supposed to be
uranium up here. They found some in Canada, so I bought a Geiger counter on 18
easy payments, you know, and three of us went out and I found a mountain of
thorium. For a week, we were billionaires. A mountain sent the Geiger just
squeaking, squealing, except that the people came out from Washington, you
know, authorities, and they said, told us, "Yes, it is radioactive" and "Yes,
it can do everything else Thorium can but our system is geared to uranium". In
other words, we were going to blow ourselves up with Thorium...uranium instead
of Thorium, so that failed, Congress failed and then came a trial, and the
trial is what I wrote about in "The Young D.A.", defendant...he had little
experience in court, so he got a well-experienced Assistant Attorney General up
from Lansing to help him, and that's it.
Now, you were the defense lawyer in that trial?
I was, and it's pretty much the story of the trial. There are
some slight changes. For one thing, I didn't have an older lawyer who was
looking up this, that and the other thing. When I needed somebody to talked to,
a run of...you know, to help ..., I needed someone, I forget his name, McCarthy
or something, I called him.
Now, what happened between the time of that trial and when you
were tapped by Williams to the court? Was there some connection there? Was the
No, the book was accepted and published, accepted but not quite
out and the Williams thing intervened. I mean, after losing to Congress and
finding a mountain of Thorium, things changed a little, and I got this case
that gave me. I mean, I read a lot of books about trials, but here was an old
battered D.A. that had been through a dandy and finally...this guy from Lansing
was terrific. He's pretty much as I write it. He was a terrific trial lawyer,
almost too good for his case. I mean, he wanted to win, and you've read the
book...trying to keep the rape out and the fact that the lady was beaten to
Hell. Really, the guy that was the interesting one in that case was the
deceased. Why did he do this? What the Hell did he think would happen if he
beat up and raped the wife of a veteran?
Was he in a drunken rage or was he psychotic or what?
I really don't know...don't know. I know the guy. He was an
ex...I didn't put this in, but he was an ex-State policeman. He was a terrific
officer. When he handed you a case, it was closed. He had a confession and
everything. I am beginning to see that he probably got that confession. He was
a terrific cop and he retired and ran this hotel-bar in just a little town.
That's how I...really, the case and the book probably, well, it helped get the
kids through school.
Did it...somehow, it was a...
It became a best-seller before the movie.
Right, I remember that, but I'm trying to see if there is any
connection between the book and your trial and the fact that you were somehow
captive long-distance for the Supreme Court opening when it came. Now, what was
the magic there that you were chosen? You see, this could have been a lawyer
from Detroit with a lot of political clout and money. It could have been people
There was a down-state lawyer that was being...I heard not so
much then as later. He was already on the Federal bench, I think..Federal
District Court bench, and anyway, he became ill, and it was a question
of...they needed another judge, and so they settled on Voelker, and I don't
know. Perhaps because I was a best-seller.
But not then. You hadn't made it then, had you?
By then, it was well-known that I could speak, spell, fish or
"cat without a 'K'".
Let me ask you a specific question about something I heard on
the politics of this. Now, I was told one time that when you were being checked
out for this job that Zolton Ferency and Gus Scholle were sent up here to look
down your throat and see whether you were a proper candidate for this honor. Is
I don't know, but I knew both of them. I got to know Gus rather
well. He was an interesting man.
Hell of a man, really.
Yeah, and married to a very interesting daughter of an English
laborer man. I forget the names now, but Gus Scholle was an interesting guy,
and I got to know him, and Ferency was Ferency. I guess they were checking me
out to see if I could speak English a little, and so forth and so on. I luckily
got to know Phil Hart. I admired him very much. We took a ride campaigning once
and talked a lot, not so much about politics, but many other, many things.
He was one of God's nobleman, wasn't he?
Yeah, he was a terrific person.
Family of eight kids and a magnificent personality.
He was. Politics was so exciting back then. You know, we had
Soapy and Phil Hart. I mean, it was an exciting time. I was...well, I was
maturing, wasn't any longer a young lawyer, but I was in my mid-50's when I was
appointed to the court. It was 1957, I would be 54, I guess.
I would like to ask you something that may seem so stupid in
the simplicity to you, but with the passage of years, I think what you've got
to say on this subject would be very, very interesting to the people that
examine into the court and the judicial process. What I would like to have you
do is to recall in some detail exactly what it was that you walked into when
you accepted that appointment. You went down to Lansing. I would like to know
if you can remember, for example, where you slept. How many days in a row you
were there? Did you have a secretary? Did you write your opinions in your green
pen on long paper? Did you have a law clerk? How did you decide these things?
Did the A.W. get around a big table on the third floor down there?
We had conferences.
Do you remember...
What happened was...I don't know if it still happens, but at
that time, there was no Interim Appellate Court, and the court was very busy
with mixed cases, a lot of them the equivalent of bent fender cases. I mean, we
were getting the full rush from Circuit trial courts and at this time, there
was apparently a conservative-liberal feeling all over the country, apparently,
and when I was appointed...let's see, there was George Edwards and Smith..
Talbot Smith, right.
Talbot Smith. I know Edwards well and knew Talbot well.
Gene Black, and there was one other. Some of them...it was a
chaotic time for me, I mean, a best-seller, a movie, two campaigns. It's a
wonder, in a way, that I survived the bloomin' thing.
Do you remember, for example, what time of the day that your
meetings started and how many of them there were, and were there...
We had a meeting place...we had a room of our own, and we would
meet and go over the cases. It was...what was the court, eight then or
Well, I think it was about five and three, the liberal. In
other words, at the time I sat there, the court was mostly inclined to be
You were said in the newspapers at the time to be the tilt
vote, that is, you made the fifth for liberal interpretation of the Workers
Comp. laws and that sort of thing.
Yeah, there was a lot of decisions. You might have heard of a
nudist case, too. I wrote a decision on that and John Dethmers was an old
friend of mine from law school days, was the Chief Justice at that time, and a
good Holland-Dutch conservative, and John and I disagreed on a lot of things,
even though we remained friends, and...
You know, I went over a lot of the cases in your time trying to
get a feel, you know, of what we're talking about, and one of the things that
struck me, and I would like your thoughts on this subject, was that even though
you had a split philosophically, time after time after time, cases that you
wrote, that came to you to prepare were either unanimous or if they were not
unanimous, there were be concurrent end result. There was not the kind of
sharp, bitter antagonism evident at that time in my observation that later came
to tear that court apart in figurative terms. Do you have any observation or
recollection of this?
Well, I think that we tried to keep it that way. I mean, I was
personally and socially more acquainted with the liberal judges. There was an
old judge...once in a while, if I dissented from an opinion, I dissented with
the most conservative judge.
I noticed that.
I forget his name...he was an old judge.
It wasn't Carr, was it?
You were with Carr on a fair number of cases. He was...
He was a shrewd, smart lawyer.
And a good judge, right?
And a good judge. He was a good...he was an old-time judge. He
followed the old order pretty well, you know, and...
Did you know that he ran an informal law school at night?
Yes, I did know that.
Back when you could read law, you know, and get your...
I was quite taken with him although he never became...I mean,
he was considerably older and he was a kind of a figure on a cliff, a legal
kind of Justice Holmes of the Michigan Court, and...
You and Black were very close, were you not?
Yes, we were.
What did you feel, a certain chemistry or how do you explain
Well, I think part of it was gratitude. I think he had a large
part. I do not yet really know. I think he had a large part when this other
judge became ill that was going to be appointed in seeing that I got appointed.
We had met each other before there was even any notion that I might be on the
court. We had known each other. He was an interesting guy.
But you were together on a lot of cases. You concurred in his
dissents, or he...or the other way around, although he was more of a...
Let me switch to something and tell you a little about Gene
End of side 1, tape 1.
Let me turn this thing over just a minute...
Justice Voelker talks about the election of 1957 against
Joseph Moynihan, Jr. and case experiences as a District Attorney, and then he
reads a selection from his book, Laughing Whitefish, describing the Supreme
Court room. He discusses the election of 1957 and his resignation from the
Supreme Court, decision making on the court, and the case of People vs.
Hildabridle concerning a nudist camp.
That's all there is to it.
I told you earlier that I ran twice in a year so state-wide was
in those days, and it may still be, the state...most of the judges are elected
on non-partisan tickets as is the Supreme Court but oddly enough, for some
reason, in its wisdom, the legislature provided that the Supreme Court justices
should be nominated by political parties. I was nominated by the Democratic
Party of Michigan and my opponent, my second opponent was nominated by the
Republicans, and he was the young Irishman whose name I cannot remember, but
the records have it.
What is it?
Oh, my God.
You remember that, don't you? Joe Moynihan.
Junior...all right, so he was from Wayne County which was, of
course, the biggest voting bloc in the state and so I moved down there to
campaign and lived some place. I discovered later that it was a party motel, I
guess. I don't know. Anyway, I stayed at some joint. That didn't get out, but I
guess you could even park there for a few hours with a lady, but I didn't know.
I had a room near downtown anyway, and I was campaigning, and then the ballots
came out and I'll have to check on this, but my recollection is that Moynihan's
father was an old Circuit judge that had been elected and re-elected
automatically for years.
He was, you know...
A fixture in Wayne County politics and so part of my problem
was to be running against his son, Joe Moynihan, Jr. Well, that was enough of a
problem in itself...this name. The "Old Saint's" son was running against this
guy Traver from up-state, or Voelker, rather. Then the ballots came out and of
course, for some reason that I still don't know, the ballots read "Joseph
Moynihan", no "Junior", although the lawyer...that my opponent was listed in
the Bar Journal, and this, that, and the telephone books as "Joseph Moynihan,
Jr.". He was a young lawyer, I guess, in Detroit, or a youngish lawyer. Anyway,
it...what to do. I had to do something. I had no proof that it was shenanigans.
It looked bad, but I had to do something, and I conferred with Gene Black. He
said, "This is very serious". He knew the Moynihan situation better than I did,
what a revered figure the old man was, the "old gentleman", should I say. I
called a press conference after talking with Gene, and there were reporters
there and Bar Association, State Bar, Representative "this", Ladies Bar and
blah, blah...a big crowd, and we met, I forget where, and I got up and I said,
"I have a statement to make about the election". I said, "I thought I was
running against an opponent called Joseph Moynihan, Jr.", and so I ask my
opponent to explain, if he can, "how come Junior showed up at the Republican
convention to be nominated but Daddy showed up on the ballot. Thank you.
Goodbye."... and I walked out, and that apparently did it with the help of a
best-seller and God knows what. I think I carried Wayne County.
Do you? I was going to ask that.
I...you'd have to check it, but anyway, I won, and of course, I
don't...can't say it was that conference. There were many other things
including the book best-seller, movies, nightshirts, and...
That was the short campaign in 1957, right?
I guess it was the second one, yeah.
A short time after you had gone to court, three months or
something like that.
And I...what most of the candidates did was go from factory to
General Motors and hand out cards, but I certainly discovered that while Soapy,
with his 6'9" and his polka-dot bow tie could pass around the cards and they
wouldn't throw them away, they were throwing my cards away almost before I
handed them, and I finally said to myself, "This is a waste of time. These
people are so God-damned tired when they come out of work, they don't know me
and they don't give a damn. This isn't a campaign". So anyway, I had two young
guys that were helping...two young lawyers.
Who were they? Do you remember by name?
Bill Ellman and Damann Keith.
Two young lawyers. Well, one of them...
They were then two young lawyers. One had a brother
called...the writer, you know...yeah, Joyce, and anyway, we went campaigning
elsewhere and especially with Damann among the Blacks...Black churches.
Was he a judge at that time or was he just a young lawyer?
And Ellman was...that was Bill Ellman?
Bill Ellman, and his brother was the writer...a well-known
writer that has since died, and I've corresponded with him. I have met Ellman's
parents during this time. They were dear, old Jewish couple, smart, lovely
people. The father was a lawyer, I guess, but he should have been a poet or
something, I mean, a dreamy lawyer. There are a lot of people that drift into
law that should be picking apples or writing poems or some damn thing. It's
like boxing. You see guys in a boxing ring. They're big, heavy, powerful guys,
but they haven't learned...they shouldn't...they're in the wrong work. They
don't fight back. If you're in the ring fighting to save yourself and your
getting sat on your kiester, you'd better fight back, and you can almost see
it. There is similarity there.
You showed some of that feistiness, I thought, in a couple of
your opinions. Do you remember the dissent that you wrote on the Sunday sales
ordinance in Flint where the furniture companies were refused the right to open
up on Sunday by the local councilmen? In fact, you made in one footnote...you,
I think in that case, you talked about the "rule of unassailability of alter
manic decision" or something like that. Do you remember that case?
Yeah, vaguely, I do.
You let them have it, I'll tell you. You don't remember that
perhaps that there was an 1845 statute that preempted the whole feel, and you
said you couldn't do anything on a Sunday. You couldn't brush your teeth on a
Sunday without a permit.
You'd have to make that Ziegler now, too. God help us. It was a
wonderful, wonderful time.
Do you remember Hildabridle? Do you remember that case?
That was the nudist camp.
Was it? Yeah, I sure remember that. That was a direct...I mean,
I was...the prevailing decision, the main decision was made by my friend, John
Dethmers, the Chief Justice, and I had to...so, I was an old D.A....
You pulled out all the stops on that one.
Yeah, I can remember that we...when I was D.A. and for years
before, we had this whore lady in the county...what was it?
Yeah, "Big Annie", and we talked about it, the sheriff and the
officers I dealt with. She was a safety valve in the community. It was better
to have "Big Annie", but then one of "Big Annie's" girls began
distributing...not syphilis...gonorrhea, and it got so that it was affecting
the mines. She was apparently a busy girl, and there were a lot of miners that
were floored by going to "Big Annie", so I called in the chief of the county
and I said, "Chief, something's got to be done here. Would you pass the word to
'Big Annie' to call this girl out? Either have her cured or get on vacation.
This has got to stop." I mean, it was affecting the mining, it was getting that
bad, and he came back in about an hour. "'Big Annie' told me to tell you to go
piss up a hemp rope." "Well, all right," I said, "that's direct talk. Here's
what I want you to do. I want you to station a man"...she had an upstairs
entrance, a long flight of wooden stairs behind a tavern downstairs..."station
a man at her...a cop, a uniformed cop at the downstairs entrance night and day.
We've got to do it, Arnie. We've got to, and have him with a notebook and every
time someone leaves or enters, have him write his own name...the officer's name
in the notebook and then close the notebook. If you notice a guy, person, you
know, 'Good Morning', 'Good Night'". In three days began, she surrendered.
Well, in fact, she quit. I forget the details, but it worked.
That's the old-fashioned remedies. You know, like when the kid
would get constipated, in the olden days, there was always some pretty easy way
to fix it without going through all the doctors and...
Who was the police chief? Do you remember? Was he a good old
guy to work with?
Yeah, he was a good man to work with. I was very lucky. I had
some damn good cops. I am not talking politically. The county was mixed. I
had...during the strike, during the big strike in the 1940's, the mid-1940's I
guess it was, there was a Hell of a strike. They settled it nationally, but it
kept on up here, and we met, police chief, sheriffs, deputies, State police,
and I said, "Look, pinch everybody that's around, company or union. Pinch them.
If there's a fight, or this or that, if somebody commits what appears to be a
crime, pinch them and if it is bailable, bail them out and we'll pile them
out", I said, "If we don't, we're going to have the National Guard in here".
That was the story of the Upper Peninsula for years and years. It was the way
to break strike, call the National Guard. I said, "We've got to be playing...no
company playing or union playing...pinch anybody that commits...". Well, the
pinches piled up, the cases piled up, bail bound over to the "pooh-pooh" term
of court. It was summer vacation and what happened? They settled the strike,
finally, the local strike. The State police hailed me down one day in my car. I
happened to be going fishing, of all things. What a coincidence. They said,
"Mr. Prosecutor, they settled the strike, but they want to know if you'll agree
to dismiss the cases, all the cases". Well, I said, "I can't do that. Some of
them are felonies. Some of them are damn serious. But you can bring the word
back that if Judge Bell agrees to this idea, I won't oppose it. I won't fight
it", and there are still families that are split up from that very strike.
There were company guys that were leading what they used to call "scabs", you
know, and this was really rough and tumble, so the cases weren't dismissed.
Now, were those in the iron mines or was this a copper mining
strike? This is iron around here...
No, this involved the big...I don't know, I think it was the
United Mine Workers, but it was bigger. It was a national strike that got
settled nationally, but hung over here for some reason, and I forget...there's
a lot of stuff that I forget. Can I give you a short reading, Sir?
You bet. I'd be delighted, honored.
Have you read a book called, "Laughing Whitefish"?
Have not read that one, no.
Well, it involved a law suit over iron ore and finally got into
the Michigan Supreme Court, and I wrote a story about it called "Laughing
Whitefish" that did not become a best-seller or a movie...once in a lifetime,
and I tried to describe the old...this was back in the 1870's or 1880's, years
ago in Lansing, and I had heard that the court that I sat in pretty much...I
don't know if it was the same court or...it had been there for years, in the
old capitol building. I guess they've moved since, have they?
That's correct. On the third floor of the old capitol building,
the court took up in 1878, I think, and it sat there until 1970.
On chapter 28, page 273 of this volume...I tried to describe
the court that I knew..."The ancient Supreme Court chamber on the third floor
of the domed capital building in Lansing looked more like the inside of an
eccentric old church than a court room. Worn red carpeting covered every inch
of the creaking floor. Ill-assorted chairs lined the walls on both sides
supplementing the plain, high-backed wooden benches that looked rather more
like uncomfortable pews of some austere religious sect. A faded flag hung inert
and listless from a floor stand near the court crier's wooden cubicle and huge,
dusty portraits of bearded, by-gone judges, ceiling mostly roses,staring
cataleptic eyes peering out from great thickets of whiskers and billowy yards
of black felt robing, lined the walls like the forbidding images of obscure and
vanished saints." That's one picture of the court that I remember.
The surroundings are, to me, very familiar. Now you're talking
about the court room itself, right?
Yeah, and I used to sit on the end, I think, of the Chief
Justices in the middle. I sat at one end and I could look out...it was a stuffy
court room and in the summer, there were elms there, and I would look out at
those elms and hear the birds and sometimes wonder if I could find a rope to
get the Hell out of there.
That would have been the left end of the bench, would it
Yeah. I would be on the ..., the right, but...
Away from the building interior and where the windows were,
over on the south exposure...
I was where the judges sat which was damn close to one
end...the extreme end of the building, the back end of the room, I mean. There
is more, but that...
Go ahead, read some more of it...
"It was an unreasonably hot morning in mid-June and kind of
sticky antiverting heat one rarely encounters farther north. Several of the
tall windows of the court room had been cautiously raised, supported by most
unappeachable authority, bound volumes of Michigan Law Report, and some of the
reaching, leafy branches of the stately Capital elms seemed almost to nod in
our laps". Are those elms still there?
There are a good many. Now, they've, you know, tied them with
steel bars and wires and they preserved as many as possible, and there are a
good number of them.
"Birds twitted and squirrels scolded noisily with a fine
contempt of court and occasionally from far below, I could hear the distant
clapping of a horse's hooves along the cobbled streets"...a little historic
"poo-poo". It goes on and on.
You know, the reason that I wanted to get your recollections on
the particulars of how you went about deciding these cases is that...
I must interrupt. At my age, I get attacks of urinalysis.
Well, I think we all do.
Interruption in tape.
There's one in there around the...I'll be back
...and if you had three weeks. I'll tell you something.
You know, if you would pick up...you know how the books are
bound...Michigan Reports. I brought up 347 to 358 just in case there might be
some occasion that you want to look at one of those things or refresh your
memory or read some of it, and if you would look in the front of one of those
books, you know, it has the names of all the incumbent justices and the end of
their term, who is the clerk and that's about it. If you would pick up the most
recent issue of the Michigan Reports, before '40 or something like that, you'd
see the names of the members of the court and you would also discover that
there are listed maybe 15 commissioners and there are some others, assistant
clerk and that sort of stuff and the crier, and I just wondered if you realized
the enormous difference in the fabric of the Supreme Court as it is structured
today as against the time when you sat there. That's why I wanted to encourage
you to talk about what you remembered, you know, what kind of a table it was.
What did you do when you needed to get a copy of something? You didn't have any
copiers. You didn't have a law clerk, did you? Did you have a secretary at your
side all the time?
Not down there. I had a clerk and an assistant up here. Down
there, I was kind of on my own. It was very old-fashioned and slow.
Do you remember the phrase "window matters" and where that came
"Window matters" were...they got their name because the record
was put on the window sill. They didn't have another place to put it, and these
were, as I recall, motion cases where, for example, there was a motion for a
stay or there was an application for leave of something like that where the
case wasn't through the first door, you know, you weren't entertaining the
thing in a plenary sense, and I suspect those were the only copies of the
record, and you had to...
I have forgotten a lot of the mechanics of the court. I do
remember that it was a busy, trying...and an almost exalting experience. I
mean, here's a country lawyer that finally found himself on the state's top
court and I doubt that I'd even seen the room before and here I was sitting in
it in a black night shirt, trying to look judicial. I wouldn't have missed it,
and I wouldn't want to go through it again.
When it came time in 1959 for you to go through another
campaign, do you remember what the circumstances were? You were later...some of
the Republican senators got on your case and criticized you for running,
winning an eight-year term...
Yes. Now, what do you recall about that part of your
I discovered that...I decided that my life was getting so
complicated, what with writing and movies and best-sellers and the
best-seller...I mean, that doesn't happen to a lot of old, experienced writers
and here was an ex-D.A. with a national best-seller and all this hoopla and
Johnny Carson calling and this one "come and see us", and I was going through
that, too. I went through it...I probably wouldn't again, but that was the way
it was. I decided that I'd better...well, one thing, my old circuit judge told
me after this...or did he live into...my old circuit judge, Judge Bell, was an
old friend. We became friends, and he was an old woodsman. We fished...I'd take
him fishing. I mean, we liked each other, kind of a rare thing to like your
city judge, and when he retired, I would go and visit him at his house, and
wind up with a bit of Bourbon, maybe.
Old "court-wood", maybe?
Yeah, I forget, and he told me about the case. It was actually
three cases that made up "Laughing Whitefish", the book...I guess you haven't
It's really a historical novel or as one reviewer said,
"hysterical", which made me laugh, "ha, ha". It's the only one I ever wrote I
did a lot of research on it, and I wanted to write it but no time. It was too
busy. You still didn't have the Interim Appellate Court, busier than Hell. The
Supreme Court job was the busiest job I ever had in my life and up here during
strikes and things, it was pretty busy being D.A., and the pressure was too
much and I could afford finally...I mean, some guys work at things they hate
because they cannot afford not to...they have families and responsibilities. I
could afford not to, and I figured that while, as I wrote Soapy finally when I
would resign, "I'm sorry, Governor, but while other men may write my opinions,
they can scarcely write my books. Goodbye and thank you". And I miss Soapy and
I'm saddened that he's dead. He was quite a man.
He was, and he lived a long, full life, really.
Yes, he did. He did.
Do you recall in the spring? In those days, in those times, the
Supreme Court justices were elected in the spring election, were they not?
That was right.
So you ran, let's say, in April or...
I think, even in May.
...for an eight year term that was to start after the year had
ended, correct? Your term that you were running for in those times didn't start
I think it was the June. We had four...roughly four terms, and
there was a June...that was the longest period. There was a fall term, the
winter term, the Christmas term, the early spring term, the summer term, I
guess. There were roughly four terms, and...
How long would you spend in Lansing during those...?
I got out of Lansing as fast as I could.
I mean, would that be a matter of a few weeks though, or
Well, yeah...we had to get down there, I mean, before the court
started. We reviewed the cases and things that were coming up. They weren't all
big cases. There were motions and God knows what.
How did you travel in those days? Did you travel by car or by
Well, I think there were still a few trains, but I drove a lot,
and I remember coming home in a snow storm from Lansing and landing at the
straits and wanting to get home, and driving in a blinding snow storm. The only
way I could see the road was to see the banks that the plows had left. I could
not see the road and still, I made it. It was almost suicidal, crazy to do, but
I got home. I figured that this sort of thing had got to stop. I knew that I
didn't want to spend any more time in Lansing than was necessary. I wanted to
get home to my family and my back roads and fishing, and all the things that
really count, sir...no, I'm kidding.
You know, getting back to your cases, in the magic of modern
technology, you know, they can...you spit certain things into the machine, and
they'll bring up all the titles. You know that, I guess.
I guess so.
And I got all your dissents and all the cases that you wrote
majority opinions in, and it is interesting to me that the way it came out was
that you were the author of 94 opinions, at least by what this computer scan
shows, and you were listed as a dissenter in only 14 cases, of which you must
have written probably six or seven and concurred in dissents in other cases.
Now, what I see in this and what I'd like to call your attention to is that
there were about six cases that you wrote, you were the author of those
cases...to every one where you found it necessary to be recorded as against the
majority. I did the same thing for Justice Lindemer who served back in '76, and
he came out an even number, I forget whether it's 22 and 22...he wasn't on the
court too long, but I just...if you recall, I would like to hear your thoughts
about the fact that for a lot of the recent history, there has been evidence of
a lot of strife and division.
In the present court?
Well, not so much...I'm not thinking of right now, but in
recent...the last couple of decades.
And back when you served, there must have been a different
atmosphere, and I suspect it was one of civility and "don't beat the other guys
brains out...you can disagree but say 'Well, okay, I disagree. Let it
We tried to avoid personalities, rank...we tried to...even if
we disagreed, we tried to be judicial about it.
And concur in the result, or...?
Well, I mean that dissent from Dethmers, John Dethmers, my old
friend, was kind of rough and tough but respectful. I respected his view. He
was taking the traditional view of nudity, and I forget the exact charge. John
What it turned on in your analysis was illegal search. The cops
came...remember one time, and they were snooping.
And they did it under the guise of a warrant. Then, and there
was some more...
They knew that the thing had been there for years. This was an
old-time and mostly family thing, and it was a raw case...it was the wrong case
for nudity thing, and I couldn't swallow it, and I dissented and got enough
votes, I guess...
Edwards concurred in the results in that case. Do you remember
No, I don't.
Well, Edwards was the fourth vote, and he apparently didn't
want to go along with some of your rhetoric, and you went into this thing in
...both legally and in a rhetorical way. I got the book out if
you have any yen to see what it looks like. I didn't bother to bring it in from
the car, but I would guess, off-hand, that your opinion which was labeled
"dissent" but got four votes and became the opinion of the court probably ran
25 or 30 pages and in those days, that was a lot of pages.
Yeah, I got into that. It was a tough one. It was a tough one.
There is no doubt that it was a place where people could go and take off their
clothes and relax, but their children and so forth...and...
There was a passage...
Let me, before I forget it...At that time, apparently I was
being interviewed and some Life photographer was up here and he wanted to
interview me and take some pictures and one of them that he wanted to take was
in a Finnish sauna so I was on the court then and I was wary enough to not want
to be in the sauna alone, so I got a young lawyer friend to sit with me in the
sauna with a towel over us...we were bare-ass...excuse me...idiom creeps
out...with a towel over where the towel should be, and he took a picture of
many pictures, local, and fishing and so forth and it wasn't Life but Time, I
guess. Time ran a picture; they got it from Life, apparently, about the nudist
judge who had written the opinion. They didn't say I was a nudist but the
picture they showed was without the lawyer and without the towel. I don't know
what the Hell they did with the towel, but the implication was that I was a
nudist writing an opinion, prevailing opinion sustaining nudity, so I
wrote...it's the only letter I ever wrote to a periodical, but it was a dirty
trick and somebody had planned it...it was a dirty, it was a false picture, and
I said, "You know damn well that a lawyer that was a nudist, a judge would not
be sitting on the case. He would either withdraw voluntarily or he would
be...he wouldn't be permitted to sit on the case".
End of side 2, tape 1.
Do you recall that in the course of writing the case, there was
a passage where you said, "Now, despite all that I am writing here, I want to
make it clear that I have no sympathy with..."
Justice Voelker continues to discuss the People vs.
Hildabridle case, quoting from the opinion he wrote in part to clarify that he
is not a nudist. He briefly discusses Justice George Edwards before the end of
Start where you started before...
I will now read a passage from 353 Michigan Report, beginning
on page 578, an opinion I wrote back in 1958. "Lest I henceforth be heralded as
the patron saint of nudism (which I probably will be anyway), I hasten to
preface what follows by stating that I am not a disciple of the cult of nudism.
Its presumed enchantments totally elude me. The prospect of displaying my
unveiled person before others or beholding others thus displayed revolts and
horrifies me. I think these people have carried an arguably valid basic idea
(the deliberate de-emphasis of the prevailing Western body taboo, with the
anticipated lessening and ultimate disappearance of the undoubted eroticism
frequently attendent upon such taboo - that is, the very opposite of indecency)
to excessive lengths." I haven't read this in a long time. Are you still
"Having said all that, I have at once veered to the heart of
this case. It is this: Whatever I or my associates (or the circuit judge or the
prosecutor or the police, for that matter) may personally think of the practice
of nudism has nothing to do with the case. More controlling is the fact that
there are a number of earnest people in this world (including these defendants)
who do subscribe to organized nudism and who think that it is morally, mentally
and physically healthful. But we need not speculate on or defend or attack the
philosophy of nudism. The question before us is much simpler. Were these
defendants guilty of making an indecent exposure? I say no. It is said that
there are hearty bands of sincere and earnest folk among us who likewise insist
that all mental, moral and physical health depends absolutely upon the regular
consumption of vast quantities of bran. Others possess a similar passion for
goats' milk. Few molest them or even bother their heads about them unless they
try too strenuously to impose or inflict their queer beliefs upon those who
happen to loathe these items. Thus, on the facts before us, do I equate the
criminality of private social nudism - at least so far as a violation of this
statute is concerned. Private fanaticism or even bad taste is not yet a ground
for police interference. If eccentricity were a crime, then all of us were
That's a good...don't you like that? Aren't you proud?
I like it. I worked hard on it. I stayed up late that
Judge, I don't want to...you know, they say that...I would
dearly love to go on and hear some more of what you are willing to talk about,
but I know that this is...it's going to soon become an imposition if it hasn't
already, and I'm going to take my leave. I would, if you are willing, and you
think that it makes any sense, I would like to come back for another helping
tomorrow morning. If you say it doesn't, I'm not going to argue the point at
all because I feel very grateful to you for what you've done to this point.
Break in tape.
Have you talked to George...?
You need...it's up to you.
We're talking about George Edwards, and his...
Is to clear up the whole idea of socialism. The people, the
people, the people's right. I'm not making a speech for socialism, but it was
at least an arguable political proposition, and communism has been so confused
with socialism that to use the word, I mean, it's almost as bad as calling
someone a liberal, damn-near.
Do you know that he went up for confirmation, George Edwards,
before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he was nominated to be a U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals judge...do you remember that? In about the early
1960's. This all came back to haunt him, and the people there including some of
the old ...
from the south looked right square down
his throat, but he had such good support and he had such good answers, and he
said he was so disarming in his candidness, at least this is my analysis, that
his nomination was accepted without too much rancor. Everett Dirksen, I think,
got on him pretty hard.
Yeah, I remember dear Everett.
The "wizard of ooze".
The "wizard of ooze" is right. Yeah, son-in-law Baker, is
Baker, I think, was his son-in-law.
His daughter, yeah. A very interesting guy, not equated with
I thought he served very creditably - Baker, and remember at
one time, apparently he thought...
Some of my best friends are Republican... admission.
By the way, for the benefit of the tape, I want to make the
announcement here between you and me and for anybody that will listen in the
future that this is October 1, 1990, and this is former Justice, John D.
Voelker sitting in his chair in his living room in a remote setting outside of
Ishpeming, and this is Roger Lane doing the...what...the other talking, and
this is all for the benefit of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society,
Oral History Project. That's what we're here for.