Scholarly Trail WSU professor continues to show zest for legal life

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

For Wayne State University Law Professor Robert Sedler, there was never any doubt that the path he would take was a career devoted to the law. Now, 50 years and nearly 6,000 students later, Sedler still loves teaching, discussing, and writing about contemporary legal issues as much as he did in 1959 when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh.

"If you were a boy in my era, growing up in a Jewish family of modest means, you knew you were going to go to college, and the choice was either to become a doctor or a lawyer. A definition of 'lawyer' in my era was 'an ambitious Jewish boy who couldn't stand the sight of blood,'" Sedler quips, referencing the popular Philip Roth book of 1969, Portnoy's Complaint.

As a college student active in Democratic politics in Pittsburgh, and president of the organization Students for Stevenson, Sedler says his original plan was to finish his law degree and go into politics.

"I had gone to the Democratic Convention in 1956, but the election defeat of [Adlai] Stevenson that year was a real downer for me," says Sedler, and "I thought that my left-wing views could make a political life difficult for me. By that time, I was in law school and really liked the law. Upon graduation, I got a job as a teaching and research associate at Rutgers Law School in Newark, and I decided that I wanted to go into the academic side of law."

At the same time, Sedler wanted to devote his skills as a lawyer to advance social causes he supported. In his first tenure-track position at St. Louis University in the early 1960s, he successfully litigated a school desegregation case for the Missouri NAACP. Sedler continued to dedicate his career to academics and legal activism as a professor at the University of Kentucky and, ultimately, Wayne State.

The academic side of his career has Sedler teaching two popular courses at Wayne, Constitutional Law and Conflict of Laws. Sedler says students like the Constitutional Law course because it deals with current issues, such as civil rights and civil liberties. He explains, however, that people are often confused about the course called Conflict of Laws.

"Conflict of Laws is not about conflict in the ordinary sense," says Sedler. "It is that body of law that deals with controversies between people of different American states or an American state and a foreign state."

The professor gives an example of two drivers from Michigan who are involved in an auto accident in Ohio. Michigan tort law allows recovery, while Ohio tort law does not.

"So the conflict of laws question is whether Michigan law applies or Ohio law applies," he explains.

The legal activism side of Sedler's career has played out a multitude of times in a multitude of ways.

"I did a good deal of civil rights and civil liberties litigation in the '80s and '90s, and I came back in 2008 to litigate one of the cases involving the former mayor," says Sedler.

One memorable case from 1986 was Committee to End Racism in Michigan's Child Care System v. Mansour. It had been the practice of the Michigan Department of Social Services (now called the Department of Human Services) to use what Sedler calls "rigid racial matching" in adoption and foster care.

"A number of foster parents were white, and due to a shortage of African-American foster parents, a number of white foster parents were fostering African-American foster children. As soon as an African-American foster home became available, the African-American children were taken away from their white foster parents, in some cases literally kicking and screaming," says Sedler.

Additionally, the department would not allow white foster parents to adopt African-American foster children or African-American foster parents to adopt white foster children -- even if this rule meant that the children who could have been adopted would remain in the foster care system.

The federal court decree in Committee to End Racism in Michigan's Child Care System v. Mansour changed everything. Racial discrimination in child care and adoption is now illegal.

"The white foster parents in that case adopted the child they were fostering after he was returned to them," says Sedler. "Today, African-American and white foster parents work together, and the result is that racial discrimination has been removed from Michigan's child care system. This has resulted in a substantial number of African-American children being adopted who otherwise would have remained in foster care until they 'aged out.'"

In addition to his professorships at Wayne State University and the University of Kentucky, Sedler has held a number of appointments, in the United States and abroad. His most notable appointment was in Ethiopia at what is now known as Addis Ababa University School of Law from 1963-66.

"This was an opportunity to help develop the rule of law in a country which then was operating under an emperor, but which saw a democratic country in the future," says Sedler. "Things didn't quite turn out that way, but there is still hope for democracy there."

Recruited to be part of the Ford Foundation's efforts to support legal education in English-speaking countries in Africa, Sedler and his wife Rozanne thought they were signing up for a one-year commitment, with the possibility of staying for two. The couple stayed three years, with Rozanne taking a position in the University's School of Social Work while they were there.

The couple spent their summers traveling in the Middle East and Europe, and in the spring seasons visiting the game parks in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. From those experiences, the Sedlers learned about life in a variety of cultures and were able to view our American culture differently from that distance.

Sedler says that he and Rozanne are both "first-generation people." Neither of their fathers was educated beyond the sixth grade, and neither side of the family had traveled at all.

"Living abroad and traveling opened up a new world for us," says Sedler. "We have traveled extensively over the years and continue to do so. We estimate that we have traveled to at least 50 countries."

Married since 1960, the Sedlers celebrated their golden anniversary this past January. They epitomize the partnership that marriage is supposed to represent - supporting each other's educations, careers, causes, and interests from day one. The couple raised two children, whose families they enjoy visiting at every opportunity.

Their son, Eric, lives with his family in Chicago, where he is the principal partner of a public policy public relations firm, ASGK Public Strategies. The firm was established in 2002 by David Axelrod, now senior advisor to President Obama. ASGK was intended to be a complement to Axelrod's other firm that was responsible for communications for the President's 2008 campaign.

"Eric was invited to the Inauguration and Home States Ball and has visited Axelrod in the White House. He and his wife Marla went with our grandchildren (Braden, 5 -1/2, and Chloe, 4) to the White House Easter Egg Hunt in 2009," says Sedler.

The Sedlers' daughter, Beth Foster, lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Tom, and their two children, Brielle, 5, and Jayce, 1. Beth followed in her mother's footsteps and is a social worker.

"Beth is a graduate of Oakland University and received her M.S.W. from Loyola-Chicago," says Sedler. "She worked as a school social worker in the Chicago area and at a home for abused children in the Los Angeles area. After her first child was born, Beth did contract social work at home."

The years in which the Sedlers were raising their young family were the same years that found America taking sides on social issues such as school desegregation, racial discrimination, women's rights, the war in Vietnam, and the draft.

"Two of my cases, one a draft resistance case in 1970, and a lawyer contempt case in 1974, made it to the United States Supreme Court. I managed to win both cases," says Sedler.

Interestingly, those are the only two of Sedler's cases to reach the Supreme Court, but he estimates that he has argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and before other Courts of Appeals on 60 occasions.

After taking time off from her career to assume primary responsibility for raising their children, Rozanne Sedler resumed her career in the 1980s and has been a geriatric social worker at Jewish Family Service in Oak Park and West Bloomfield ever since. Rozanne is a past president of the Oakland Branch of the ACLU, and she currently sits on the board of Citizens for Better Care, an organization that monitors nursing homes and other senior facilities.

"In 2009, Rozanne was appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court to a three-year term as a layperson member of the Michigan Attorney-Grievance Commission. The Commission currently consists of six lawyers and three laypersons who are responsible for hearing complaints against lawyers and, in appropriate circumstances, recommending disciplinary action," Sedler explains.

Robert and Rozanne Sedler are strong supporters of the ACLU, their temple, and the Reform Jewish Movement.

"I have been involved with the ACLU throughout my career, and Rozanne has been involved more recently. And we support the Democratic Party -- we confess to being partisan Democrats," he adds. "As Jewish-Americans, we are strong supporters of Israel, although at times, such as the present, we are very critical of the government."

Sedler is the first to admit that he and Rozanne are busier than other couples in their age bracket, and he attributes their continued energy to maintaining cultural interests such as going to the symphony and the theater and to exercise.

"We want to live as long as we can and be as healthy as we can. So we manage to exercise most days that we are in town. Rozanne uses the treadmill, and I do walking and treadmill," says Sedler.

Whether his exercise routine is the source of his stamina, we may never know for sure, but none will argue that Robert Sedler has earned his excellent and extensive reputation as a lawyer and scholar. Elected to the Faculty of Scholars at Wayne State University in 2005, Sedler says he was "honored" to be nominated by former dean of the Law School, Frank Wu.

When he arrived in Detroit to begin teaching at WSU in 1977, Professor Sedler could not have predicted that 33 years later he would still find his life and work vastly rewarding.

"Because I grew up in Pittsburgh, an older city like Detroit, I found coming to Detroit and Wayne State was like 'coming home' to an urban area, with all the amenities that an urban area offers," says Sedler.

He still enjoys working with the WSU students, who, he says, come mostly from Michigan, primarily the Detroit-Metropolitan area and Ann Arbor, and continue to be as hard working as his first students back in the '60s.

"The students know that they are not attending an 'elite' law school, and that if they want to get good jobs upon graduating, they have to have an outstanding academic record."

Sedler says WSU's law school plays a unique role in Michigan.

"It engages in scholarship in the same manner as any top-tier law school, but at the same time, Wayne provides lawyers, judges, and political leaders for the State of Michigan. My goal is to see it as the best WSU law school it can possibly be."

At 74 years old, Sedler plans to continue teaching at WSU for the foreseeable future.

"As I say to my students, there are certain groups of people, such as senators and representatives, who can continue to get elected, and there are Supreme Court justices, other federal judges, and university professors who can continue to work until the point of dementia and perhaps beyond," he jokes.

Sedler has long been involved with the City of Detroit. While he acknowledges that the city has many problems, such as a large population living at or below the poverty level, he remains hopeful about Detroit's future.

"I am optimistic that things will get better, as the economy improves and as Detroit finally gets a leadership that will serve it fully. To the extent that I can, I would like to be a part of this effort."

Published: Mon, Mar 29, 2010