Jay Brant (1937 to 2020): Former federal prosecutor was 'unflappable' in court

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For young lawyers intent on cutting their teeth in courtroom work, the traditional career path is to snag a job as an assistant prosecutor as a stepping stone to higher paying life in private practice.

Attorney Jay Brant, for whatever reason, followed a decidedly different road to legal success over an illustrious career that spanned more than four decades.

Brant, who died June 25 in East Lansing at age 82 after a lengthy battle with cancer, began making a legal name for himself as a litigator with Honigman, Miller, Schwartz, & Cohn, long recognized as one of Detroit’s premier law firms. It was there that he caught the eye of Jim Robinson, who already was heralded as one of the rising stars at Honigman.

Robinson was destined, however, to make his mark in public service, becoming U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1977 at the age of 33. Despite his impressive credentials, Robinson was a surprise choice for the plum job since he had never practiced criminal law.

“But he had a great reputation as a hard-working civil litigator and as an adjunct professor at Wayne State University Law School, teaching evidence law,” said Bill Richards, a retired district court judge in Oakland County who early in his career worked for Robinson in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Nowhere were Jim’s high standards of professionalism more evident than in his hiring of fabulous people to join our staff. One of those was Jay Brant.”

A Wayne Law grad, Brant had a mind for complex legal matters, a talent he may have developed while earning his bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. It was honed further during a stint as special counsel to Detroit City Council before he joined Honigman. His eventual move from a “silk stocking law firm” to the land of public service was an “extraordinary development,” according to Richards.

“We were lucky if we could get somebody to join our staff after a short clerkship with a federal judge,” said Richards, a University of Michigan Law School alum. “But then we would frequently lose those people after a few years to law firms which could pay far more than the government could.

“So for Jim to reverse that trend and bring in an accomplished lawyer like Jay from a top law firm was a startling change.”

Brant quickly became part of Robinson’s “hand-picked administrative ‘SWAT team of Big Dogs,’” according to Mark Werder, who was beginning his legal career as an
assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit at the time Brandt was hired. Robinson’s trusted triumvirate included Rich Rossman as his chief assistant, Lenny Gilman as head of the Criminal Division, and Brant as chief of the Civil Division.

“Robinson’s selection of Jay for chief of civil was like Zorro selecting a particular kind of swordfighter,” Werder said in his inimitable way. “I was in the Criminal Division at first so Jay didn’t supervise me, but I very quickly became aware of his high reputation within the office and at the Department of Justice as a brilliant young lawyer. He was not an armchair supervisor and had a docket of mega major cases he handled personally – the Wurtsmith Air Force Base contamination case, the Detroit Water and Sewer Department receivership – highly prominent, super-hot potato cases that would last over a decade.

“His insight into civil litigation, especially complex environmental cases, was comprehensive and highly technical at a time when environmental law was becoming the next big thing,” Werder noted. “He was one of those lawyers that seemed to have an engineering background of some kind with finely honed analytical instincts . . . if he thought there ‘might be’ an issue about something, there was definitely an issue.”

Brant later ran the Appellate Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, displaying yet another impressive skill set, Werder indicated.

“All briefs filed at that level needed Jay’s review and blessing, and he was a scholar and very strong critical thinker and writer,” said Werder, a longtime partner at Honigman before retiring. “Virtually nothing went across his desk that was ‘good enough as written.’ Jay was a diplomat as a lawyer, very soft spoken, unflappable in court, and an advocate well known to and trusted by the state and federal bench.”

Those remarks were echoed by Richards, who was among those line attorneys who had his work critiqued by Brant.

“Once we discovered Jay’s immense talent, we did not resent his new role or the extra time it took to get your draft brief to Jay in time for him to review it and get it back to you with suggested edits,” said Richards.

“Jay was as sweet and gentle a man as I have ever met,” Richards added. “He was incredibly soft spoken. He had a gentle wit. I never once heard him raise his voice.

He was never in a hurry. He quickly ingratiated himself to the staff with his own professionalism, high quality edits to our writing, and wry sense of humor. What a guy.”

To that, Lynn Richardson would wholeheartedly agree. As Brant’s wife for the past 11 years, Richardson first crossed paths with him in the early 1980s when “I was a ‘baby’ lawyer clerking for U.S. District Judge John Feikens.” But it would take another 20 years before they became reacquainted.

“By the time that I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1982, Jay had moved to Miami to become the executive assistant there,” Richardson recalled. “When Jay moved back to Detroit to join Honigman (for a second time), I was on my way to San Francisco to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office there. And while I returned to Michigan in 1987, our paths did not cross again until 2005. By that time, Jay had taken, or was about to take, ‘senior status’ at Honigman.”

When they met for a second time, Richardson was living in East Lansing and was a commissioner of the Michigan Supreme Court, providing analysis of cases for justices to review. She soon discovered that Brant was a “kind, thoughtful, and generous” man.

“I worried that he would not be happy in this little college town, or in my ‘old-fashioned’ neighborhood where people knew one another,” said Richardson. “My fears were completely unfounded. Jay quickly met one of our neighbors, Don Power, and together they, along with two or three other retirees, became familiar faces at City Council meetings. Jay’s thorough research and preparation, as well as his calm demeanor and presentation, were respected, especially when many in the gallery were emotionally involved. Jay was asked to serve on the city’s Housing Commission, in large part because of the skills that he demonstrated to City Council.”

His love for local politics dovetailed neatly with his passion for “civil rights and equal justice for all,” according to Richardson.

“It was one of his core values,” said Richardson. “He proudly carried his ACLU card in his wallet, and he supported the Southern Poverty Law Center’s activities. Jay became active in the Protect the Vote projects in Michigan, and in 2008 and 2012, he was an election monitor in Saginaw and Detroit. He truly believed that voting was the way to make your voice heard and to effect change.”

Brant – who also is survived by a daughter, Kathleen Brant (Jeffrey) Jones, and a sister, JoLane (Peter) Cecconi – was known for his engaging personality and his abiding interest in others, said Richardson.

“He would often engage waitstaff in conversation at the restaurants where we dined, asking the young people where they were from, if they attended the university, what they were studying, and what they hoped to do. Though some were a bit wary at first, I think that they enjoyed the interaction as Jay sincerely cared about the people we met.  That carried over to places that we visited.  A few years ago, after I retired, I took a fiber class at a New Hampshire mill and Jay accompanied me. 

We stayed at a bed and breakfast nearby, and by the end of the visit, we had gained two new friends, the inn owners who were completely charmed by Jay’s candor, humility, and fabulous sense of humor.

“Lastly, I could not have asked for a better husband,” said Richardson. “It would be an understatement to say that he supported me. Jay quickly became attached to my Airedales, and since I was active in Airedale rescue in 2005, he became active as well, and together we transported and fostered Airedales, participated in fund-raisers, and he helped as I took over the treasurer’s responsibilities for that rescue organization.  A few years later, a near-fatal heart attack forced my retirement from the Supreme Court, but Jay was by my side during my recuperation ... As you can see, I only participated in the last quarter of Jay’s life, but I like to think that he saved the best for last.”

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