Steady Hand Michigan's longest-serving Supreme Court justice stays true to course

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

It was a crossroads, of sorts, for Michael F. Cavanagh. In the 1960s, he spent his summers working on Great Lakes freighters, earning money to help pay his college tuition.

One job he had was as a coal passer, with the inglorious task of shoveling coal into the furnace. But his mentor presented Cavanagh with an option. Sailors often used very colorful language to communicate, so this is the cleaned-up version of what he told his young Jedi helper. Forget all that reading, writing and studying, skip all that book knowledge, and stick with me. "I'll make a good fireman out of you," the crusty sailor told Cavanagh.

Instead, Cavanagh stayed true to the course he was sailing. He graduated from college, earned his law degree, became a district court judge, landed on the state Court of Appeals, and now is Michigan's longest-serving Supreme Court justice.

He might have become the best coal shoveler in Great Lakes freighter history. But his other career turned out pretty good, too.

He did pick up some important lessons from those months at sea, though.

"You learn to acclimate yourself and get along," Cavanagh said. "You also learn when to keep your mouth shut."

Besides hundreds of law books lining the shelves in his office, family photos and other mementos gathered over the years of a successful law career, Cavanagh has a handful of photos of Great Lakes freighters hanging on his walls. He said the pictures bring back great stories of his seafaring days, but also have been a blueprint to him in dealing with the differences and many forms of human nature.

"It was a great experience. The work was hard, the food was great and the pay was great. I met a lot of interesting people, it taught me how to deal with 30 different characters, and it was a lesson in getting along with others," Cavanagh said.

Being on the ship from June through September, Cavanagh said getting along meant everything. He said the ships docked at places such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, and Duluth.

"They were not the grandest of ports," Cavanaugh said, "but we were extra happy to get off the ship."

And in a way, those experiences helped put him where he is today. Cavanagh views life and a career as "a series of circumstances." The path those dominoes of life fall, and the choices one makes, can lead to places you could never have dreamed of as a kid.

"If somebody had told me back then that I'd end up here, I'd had thought they were crazy," Cavanagh said.

His parents were Canadian, both born on farms outside Ottawa, but moved to Detroit when his father got a job at a Ford auto plant and his mother went into teaching.

Cavanagh, 69, was the youngest of six children, but the Irish family became very prominent. His older brother, Jerome, became Detroit mayor from 1962-70.

"It was great growing up in Detroit," Cavanagh said. "Back then, you were identified by what parish you were from."

Like many cities, Catholic schools and parishes dotted the area. Sometimes with a number of those squeezed into a few square miles. Cavanagh attended St. Cecilia's grade school. After high school, Cavanagh attended the University of Detroit, graduating in 1962 with a bachelor's degree in political science, with minors in philosophy and Latin.

Cavanagh said he entered law school after being exposed to it because his older brother attended law school, and through meeting people through his brother who were attending. He names his brother Jerry, as a role model.

"He taught me a lot and set a good example," Cavanagh said.

He received his law degree from the University of Detroit in 1966, attending law school at night while spending his days working as an insurance claims adjuster, and later for the Wayne County Friend of the Court as an investigator.

Cavanagh married after law school, and took a job as a law clerk for the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing. In 1967, Cavanagh became an assistant city attorney for the City of Lansing. He soon became the Lansing City Attorney, a position he held until 1969. He said that job taught him much about the rudiments of municipal government and dealing with politics and politicians.

Cavanagh then went into private practice and became a partner in the Lansing law firm of Farhat, Burns and Story. He said Lansing in the late 1960s "was a great town for all professions." The economy was up and running well, auto plants were booming, and Michigan State University was thriving, giving a lot of people steady paychecks.

At the firm, Cavanagh handled divorces, personal injury, criminal cases -- the normal gamut of a practicing attorney.

"I learned a lot about the operations of the court system. And what it was like to take someone's money and deliver."

Cavanagh said it was a valuable lesson once he became a judge.

"It gives you perspective on what the client and attorney are going through."

In 1972, Cavanagh ran for District Court judge and was elected to the newly-created seat on the 54-A District Court, serving from 1973-75. Cavanagh said the mindset among many attorneys back then was learn as much as possible, and then run for a judgeship later in your career.

"But the opportunity fell my way earlier than I thought it would," he said.

Cavanagh said now, when he talks to young clerks or those just entering the profession "they all want to be judges tomorrow."

He said it was a great learning ground for his future endeavors.

"In district court, you see everything, and have a real sense of accomplishment. You make decisions and move on," Cavanagh said of the busy caseloads and hustle and bustle of that setting.

Cavanagh ran for the Michigan Court of Appeals, and won, becoming, at the time, the youngest person ever elected to that court. He served there from 1975-82. He said serving on that court brought him back to when he clerked there. But it also removed him from the day-to-day contact with cases, lawyers and litigants.

"It's a change. You sometimes feel cloistered," he said. "You're a little more removed from seeing people. The focus is more on research and writing. But it has its own sense of satisfaction, and the impact of your decisions are much wider because you're setting law at the state level."

In 1982, he ran for the state Supreme Court, and won re-election in 1990, 1998, and 2006. He served as Chief Justice from 1991-95. His current term expires January 1, 2015.

Reaching the pinnacle of state law as a Supreme Court justice, was Cavanagh intimidated, awed, impressed or humbled?

"Probably all of that," he said. "It's a whole different chemistry," he said. "You're dealing with six other individuals. You become very aware of the impact of your decisions."

In the past decade, the tenor of the state Supreme Court has changed, leading to more split decisions. Cavanagh said he rarely finds himself in the majority, and said he wishes it wasn't that way.

"You have to understand the process, which is one of compromise. You just try to give it your best interpretation," Cavanagh said.

"You always like to get 7-0 votes, which create stability," he said. "Great efforts are made to reach as great a consensus as possible."

He said 4-3 votes make those rulings "fragile" and may lead to "revisions, rethinking and a revisit later down the road."

But despite the split votes, which Cavanagh calls "a variance of philosophies," he believes all the justices "are sincere in their beliefs and give their absolute best effort" in crafting Michigan laws.

"I've worked with an awful lot of outstanding individuals, and I've learned much from each of them," he said.

And Cavanagh relishes it when he is able to get the majority on his side, or at least persuade some to see an issue in a different light.

Cavanagh said he's seen many cases over the years, some more newsworthy than others but all important to the masses. Several that stand out are those involving Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Baby Jessica adoption case, and "appropriations, which is always a hot topic every 10 years."

"Some cases have blended into the mist of history, but you can pick any area of the law, whether medical malpractice, torts, or criminal, and every term, one or two really stand out and generate public opinion," he said. "But some of the cases you think are significantly important hardly generate any notoriety outside of here," he said.

All the cases, whether considered newsworthy by the media or not, are given Cavanagh's best effort.

"You're constantly reading appeals, briefs," he said. "Not a day has gone by where I haven't taken something home. It never leaves you, and the cases keep coming."

For many attorneys, appearing before the state Supreme Court evokes a sense of pride, and fear. Cavanagh said he appreciates that factor, and tries to put the attorneys at ease, but still expects them to present a solid case with well-thought out arguments and solid law to convince him or persuade him to look at the issue in a different light.

"If I think my colleagues are peppering them with too many hardball questions, I may give them a slow pitch," he joked.

Cavanagh learned years ago, while in district court, "that it costs absolutely nothing to compliment an attorney while he's standing next to his client," and he remains aware that he doesn't have to appear God-like on the Supreme Court bench, floating a few feet in the air off his chair.

"But each court I've served on has its own level of reward," he said.

Cavanagh has served on many boards and with numerous community and professional organizations, including the American Heart Association, past president of the Incorporated Society of Irish/American Lawyers, on the Board of Directors at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and others.

He has served as Supreme Court Liaison for the Michigan Indian Tribal Courts, and has attended national Indian law conferences.

One of legacies will be overseeing the Michigan Hall of Justice, which brought all the justices together in Lansing after years of having scattered offices.

Cavanagh said "the planets were aligned correctly" in 1998 to hasten the project forward and begin construction, with a governor and law makers holding the majority, and a monetary state surplus.

"We couldn't get the shovel in the ground fast enough," Cavanagh said.

He was rewarded with his choice of office location when the building opened in 2002, on time and under budget. He said employees were often brought to the site to see the progress because "it made them feel like they were a part of it."

Because of age limitations, Cavanagh cannot run for the Supreme Court when his term ends in four years, and is comfortable with that, saying it "allows room for new spirit, new blood" on the bench.

"It's not a bad thing," Cavanagh said. "I think the system works okay. And from my perspective, I've had a pretty full career."

He is not sure what he will do then, perhaps teach law, "but I can't imagine doing nothing."

Cavanagh loves to hunt and fish, and travels up north in the summer to enjoy time with his wife of 44 years, Patricia, their three children, and five grandchildren.

They also enjoy traveling, and have been to Germany and elsewhere. And, yes, being an Irish-Catholic, he's visited Ireland at least four times.

One thing many may not know about Cavanagh is that he is a Latin scholar, and recently came upon an old Latin grammar book on an Internet site, and bought it.

"Show's you how weird I am," he said with a laugh.

Another little-known fact about Cavanagh, at least outside his inner circle, is that he loves to cook.

"My wife is a great cook, but she says 'Be my guest.'"

Published: Fri, Mar 19, 2010