Minnis Minute- Retired AG Frank Kelley leaves a legacy best summed up as 'The Eternal General'

By John Minnis
Legal News

   I was fortunate to have lunch recently with Michigan’s “Eternal General,” Frank Kelley.
    I would like to say Kelley and I are close friends, frequently “doing lunch,” but that would be a lie.
   Actually, the occasion was the annual Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club. The seat next to me was not taken, so Kelley asked to sit there, and I eagerly assented.
   Kelly is my first memory of a state attorney general, and little wonder.
   He served as the state’s top prosecutor for 37 years, 1961 to 1998. He has the distinction of being the youngest, oldest and longest-serving state attorney general in U.S. history.
   I was fed Kelley’s AG Opinions with my mother’s milk, all most. Actually, I was off the bottle and in first grade when Kelley was appointed attorney general by Gov. John Swainson to fill the vacancy left by Paul L. Adams, who became a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
   The point is that during my formative and college years, Kelley was the state’s legal voice, and I grew up to respect and admire him.
   Kelley was prolific. He issued more than 3,000 AG Opinions, nearly 100 a year, going back to 1963, the farthest the searchable online database goes back.
   By comparison, 244 AG Opinions have been written by his successors — Jennifer Granholm and Mike Cox — since Kelley left office 11-1/2 years ago. That’s about 20 a year.
   At the luncheon headed by Wally Riley, husband of the late Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley, who founded the society, Kelley pointed out to me that he ruled — make that “opined” — against the appointment of Comstock Riley to state’s high court in December 1982 by Gov. William Milliken.
   Comstock Riley had just lost her bid be elected to the state Supreme Court a month earlier. Furthermore, Milliken was leaving office in less than a month, and incoming Gov.
   James Blanchard felt he should be the one to make the appointment to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Blair Moody in late November.
   A majority of Comstock Riley’s new colleagues on the court agreed with Kelley and voted 4-2 to have her removed.
   Gov. Blanchard then replaced her with Patricia Boyle.
   Two years later, Comstock Riley got the last word by winning election to the state Supreme Court. She served on the court for 12 years, four as chief justice.
   In January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a previous High Court decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a 1990 decision that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates.
   “They overturned me on the Austin case,” Kelley said.
   Looking across the room, Kelley pointed out “Charlie Levin,” the retired justice who in 1972 created his own political party and nominated himself as a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court.
   Charles L. Levin, son of Theodore Levin after whom the federal courthouse in Detroit is named, won the election and served on the court for 24 years before retiring in 1997.
   A shrewd politician and lifelong Democrat, Kelley took on Dennis O. Cawthorne, former Republican leader of the Michigan Legislature, to be his partner in a lobbying firm he formed in Lansing upon his retirement.
   “We didn’t want to be labeled as being one-sided,” Kelley said.
   In private practice, Kelley has attracted some big-name clients, including Marge Schott when she sold her majority interest in the Cincinnati Reds.
   He also represents a number of major clients, including DTE Energy, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan, The Palace of Auburn Hills and the Detroit Pistons organization.
   Besides attending lunches of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, of which he is a board member, and keeping his hand in the legal community, Kelley is writing an autobiography, though he is in no hurry to publish given the lackluster sales of his contemporaries’ life stories.
   Kelley says he doesn’t have a title for his autobiography yet, but he hasn’t ruled out the obvious: The Eternal General.