One of a kind-- Former U.S. attorney viewed as 'bright light' in legal world

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

His name evokes almost a reverential tone among his legion of legal admirers. They speak of him as a "legal giant," a "bright light," a "scholar," a "mentor," and a man of "exceptional integrity."

The tributes have come from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., distinguished members of the federal bench, and a host of former colleagues who feel indebted to have known someone of such profound influence.

James K. Robinson, in virtually every legal sense, was "the man." His death last Friday at age 66, of gastrointestinal cancer, cut short a career that was marked by its brilliance, according to U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn, an early colleague of Robinson when the two were with Honigman Miller in Detroit.

"His accomplishments in the law were wide-reaching," said Cohn, a member of the federal bench since 1979. "He was an excellent scholar, a practicing lawyer of merit, and a fine public servant. It truly can be said that a giant has fallen. We are all the poorer for his passing."

Today, Cohn will further extol the virtues of his late friend. The U.S. District Court jurist will be one of the featured speakers at an August 12 memorial service for Robinson. The 2 p.m. service will take place at the Wayne State University Community Arts Center, 450 Reuther Mall, in Detroit. Also scheduled to speak are U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ralph Guy Jr.; John Reed, former dean of the Wayne State Law School; Richard Rossman, former U.S. attorney in Detroit; Michael Horowitz, one of the principals at the Cadwalader law firm in Washington, D.C. where Robinson was a partner; and William Hochkammer, a partner at Honigman and its former chairman.

Former dean of Wayne State Law School, Robinson rose to legal fame as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, earning the appointment at age 34 from President Jimmy Carter in 1977. He came to the federal post after a clerkship with Judge George Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals and then as an attorney with Honigman. He brought with him an innovative mindset, according to Ross Parker, former chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit.

"Jim reorganized and modernized the U.S. Attorney's Office in ways that are still followed today in this and other districts around the country," Parker wrote in a tribute appearing in Monday's edition of The Detroit Legal News.

"He convinced the Justice Department to let him hire several dozen new lawyers and support staff, and he filled the positions with a diverse group, including women, African Americans, and former defense counsel, three groups which had been greatly under-represented."

Miller Canfield attorney Tom Cranmer, widely regarded as one of the top criminal defense lawyers in Michigan and a past president of the State Bar, was among those early hires by Robinson, as were Parker, Joe Papelian, Keith Corbett, and Sam Damren.

"I was extremely proud to work in the office under Jim because the atmosphere that he created was the best," said Cranmer. "He wanted people who worked hard, took pride in being the best lawyer they could be, and above all would represent an extraordinary client, the United States of America, with honor and integrity. The motto in the office was never 'win at all costs,' but rather 'do the right thing.' Jim led by example. He himself was an extremely hard worker, a great legal scholar, and above all else a lawyer who understood the awesome power of the government. He would never tolerate the power being abused in any way."

A native of Grand Rapids, Robinson graduated from East Grand Rapids High School in 1961. He was awarded a bachelor's degree with honors from Michigan State University in 1965, earning his law degree magna cum laude from Wayne State in 1968. Editor of the Wayne Law Review his senior year of law school, he served as the chief federal prosecutor in Detroit from 1977-80.

Alan Gershel, now a professor of criminal law at Cooley Law School and former chief of the Criminal Division for the U.S. Attorney's Office, was hired by Robinson in 1980, later joining him as a deputy assistant attorney general when he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division in Washington.

"Jim was a brilliant lawyer and manager," Gershel said. "He earned the respect and admiration of all those who were fortunate to have had contact with him regardless of what side of the aisle they sat. When I worked for him in Washington, it was obvious that the Attorney General (Janet Reno) held him in the highest esteem. He was a man of exceptional integrity who had a wonderful sense of humor. The legal community has lost one of its giants."

Following his three-year stint as U.S. attorney, Robinson returned to Honigman as head of its litigation department before being named dean of the Wayne State Law School in 1993, a post he held until 1998. It was then that he returned to public service, accepting an appointment from President Clinton for a key position with the Department of Justice.

"With a distinguished body of work in government and across the private and academic spheres, it was no wonder that President Clinton called Jim back into service to serve as assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division in 1998," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. wrote this week in a condolence letter to Robinson's beloved wife, Marti. "It was then that I had the privilege to witness firsthand Jim's impressive leadership and to benefit from his wise counsel. As assistant attorney general, Jim embodied the steady and steely resolve under pressure that we need and expect from our public servants. Every action that he took, and every decision that he made, reflected his singular desire to do justice and serve the people of this nation."

President of the State Bar of Michigan from 1990-91, Robinson joined the Cadwalader firm in Washington following his three-year stay at the Department of Justice. He was a partner in the firm's Business Fraud and Complex Litigation Practice. According to his online biography on the firm's website, Robinson frequently testified before Congress on various criminal justice matters, including money laundering, encryption export control policy, campaign finance, and grand jury reform. He also served as head of the U.S. delegation to the G-8 government/industry cyber-crime conference in Paris and the South American Justice Ministers conference in Argentina. In addition, he was retained as a consultant to the United Nations Centre for International Crime Prevention in 2002 to conduct a global study on the transfer of funds of illicit origin.

Attorney Mark Werder, who worked for Robinson as an assistant U.S. attorney and then followed him to Honigman, said his former boss was "a very bright light in the Detroit litigation community, probably the single brightest light I saw over 30 years of practice." Yet, said Werder, Robinson was the "kind of guy you'd want to drink a beer with knowing it would always be time well spent."

He added: "In an intense environment that had a constant of short notice, looming deadlines, and very high stakes disputes, he was incredibly grounded," Werder said of Robinson. "He was one of the great metaphor strikers in the dark hours before dawn and I learned most of what I learned about perspective from him."

Robinson chaired the Michigan Supreme Court committee that drafted the Michigan Rules of Evidence and co-authored a three-volume treatise and a courtroom handbook on evidence published by West Publishing Company. Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed Robinson to two terms on the Advisory Committee on Rules of Evidence of the United States Judicial Conference, according to Robinson's online biography.

"Jim was a true high scholar of the reference-source type and as much as he smoothly fit into the upper reaches of the power structure of the law in Michigan, there was no self importance about him," Werder said of his mentor. "I still regard as the best citation I ever saw an insert he scrawled into a draft brief for the Michigan Supreme Court that quoted (Harvard) Professor (Alan) Dershowitz, in a pearl of absolute wisdom, cited to a Penthouse interview."

Such gems were regular legal fare for those privileged to work with Robinson, according to Werder.

"Even as a young U.S. attorney, he was a recognized evidence expert with enormous stature and authority at a time when the ink was still wet on the new Federal Rules of Evidence," Werder said. "When he left private practice to become the dean at Wayne State and then went on to head the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, it felt a little like watching Haley's Comet, with no small amount of regret that he had looked like a meteor coming at me and looked that way from the back too."

Survivors, in addition to his wife, include: a son, Steven Robinson; a daughter, Renee Stromberg; his mother, Marge Robinson; two sisters and two brothers; and five grandchildren.

Burial will take place in Mears, Mich., at a private family service in a few weeks.

Memorial contributions may be made to the James K. Robinson Dean's Scholarship at WSU Law School, Division of Development, 5475 Woodward, Detroit, 48202.

Published: Thu, Aug 12, 2010