Friday, February 4, 2011

A NEW CHIEF (Number 7)

Excluding family, Jim Ryan is my oldest and dearest friend on the planet.

He is now a retired United States Court of Appeals Judge. Very distinguished.

As a college boy in the 1950’s, he used to come to our house on Sunday nights to sustain himself on Polly’s meat loaf and while away the hours afterward discussing life, love, marriage and the law.

When he came home from the navy, he joined our boot strap law firm. After I went on the Common Pleas Court Bench, he was elected Justice of the Peace.

I became a Circuit Judge. He became a Circuit Judge.

I went on the Supreme Court. He went on the Supreme Court.

I started a law school. He joined the Board of Directors and started teaching.

It has been my privilege to introduce and eulogize him on a number of occasions, and he has often returned the favor.

So I suppose it was only natural that in January of 1983, he agreed to be a candidate for Chief Justice.

The court met in the old Lafayette Building in downtown Detroit. It was only days after Dorothy Riley had been excluded from discussion about her status.

Ryan’s effort was hardly an example of political skill. Jim Brickley, an old friend and fellow Republican, would make the nomination. Dorothy Riley would add her support.

A fourth vote would have to come from somewhere.

Chuck Levin? The nominal independent who had supported Mary Coleman and John Fitzgerald in 1982? Was he really opposed to Soapy?

Giles Kavanagh? Though they were fellow Democrats, there was no love lost between him and Soapy. And he had also been party to the uprising that put Mary in the center chair.

Whatever scenario Ryan had hoped to see unfold on that January morning in the old Lafayette Building, he was quickly disabused of it when the issue was raised about Dorothy’s competence to participate in the election of the Chief Justice.

Once again, and with sugar coated condescension, it was suggested that it might not “look good” if Justice Riley participated in view of the Attorney General’s lawsuit.

When a majority chased her from the room, humiliated, Ryan knew he would have no chance to be the next Chief Justice.

After the vote was taken and Soapy had been elected by a vote of four to two, Giles Kavanagh, always a cheer leader for collegiality, suggested that, for the record, the vote should be made unanimous.

Ryan said no.

After the conference Jim Brickley pulled Ryan aside.

“We’re going to have to learn how to count better,” he offered with a smile.

Ryan thanked him for supporting a losing cause. A lesson had been learned. In the Michigan Supreme Court the name of the game is ‘four votes.’

It was just another instance of the rampant partisanship that infected the court.

Now it would be a six member court for as long as it took to decide the Attorney General’s challenge to Dorothy.

Soapy had his court. He was the leader. He was the boss. But at what cost?

Years later, recording an oral history of the court, Jim Ryan reflected on those days.

“Dorothy was deeply hurt and she was sure we were wrong, and I was sure we were wrong, and we, with that stroke, went a long way toward destroying the superb relations that the members of the Court had one to the other over the whole of the years I was there.”

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