Portrait of a judge-- James L. Ryan portrait unveiled at federal courthouse


By John Minnis

Legal News

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James L. Ryan accumulated a lot of things during his nearly five decades on the bench, not the least of which were the loyalty of scores of assistants, the admiration of legions of jurists and attorneys and the unfailing love of 41 grandchildren.

Those sentiments and much more poured forth at the Retirement and Presentation of the Portrait of the Honorable James L. Ryan on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at the Theodore Levin United States Court House in Detroit.

Ryan's retirement ends 47 years on the bench. For the past 25 years, he has served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit following appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Prior to that, he served on the Michigan Supreme Court to which he was appointed in 1975 by Gov. William G. Milliken. He began his judicial career with election to Justice of the Peace in Redford Township in 1963, followed by nine years as a Wayne County Circuit Court judge.

Upon graduation from the University of Detroit School of Law in 1956, Ryan entered the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School and was commissioned in 1957. He served as military lawyer for the U.S. Marine Corps for three years. Upon release, he served as a military judge for the Naval Reserve for another 31 years, retiring in 1992 with the rank of captain.

A devout Catholic, Ryan was married to Mary Elizabeth for 50 years. They had four children: Daniel, James, Colleen and Kathleen. As a widower in 2007, Ryan married Loretta Nagle, also a widow. Together they have 41 grandchildren.

Chief Judge Alice M. Batchelder of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, presided over the proceedings, attended by most, if not all, of the judges of the Sixth Circuit and the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. Also in attendance were many of the lawyers who had clerked with Ryan, past and future judges and justices and city, state and federal elected officials and judges.

Two courtrooms were required to house all those who wished to honor Ryan. Those in the overflow courtroom were allowed to watch the proceedings on a screen via closed circuit airing. Though rare in a federal courthouse, the videotaped session worked out well (except Judge Batchelder speaking without a microphone much of the time).

"I would like to thank Judge Ryan for allowing me to preside over these proceedings," Batchelder said, following a call to order by Leonard Green, clerk of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, and the singing of the National Anthem by Andrew Langlands of St. Regis Catholic Church in Bloomfield Township and the posting of the colors by the U.S. Navy Color Guard.

Batchelder said that while these ceremonies normally fall to the chief judge, "I like to think the real reason he asked me is because we are such deep friends."

She noted that while Sixth Circuit portrait dedications are normally held in Cincinnati, Ryan insisted his be held in Detroit "where the people important to him are."

Batchelder introduced her Sixth Circuit colleagues present.

"We are honored today to have a distinguished array of judges present," Batchelder said.

Chief Judge Gerald E. Rosen acknowledged his colleagues from the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan.

"On behalf of our bench," he told Judge Ryan, "I would like to offer you godspeed. The good turnout from our bench shows the great respect we have for you, even when you are reversing us."

Rosen noted that he and his fellows on the bench were wearing green ties in honor of Ryan, a proud Irish American.

He also acknowledged the presence of Barbara McQuade, U.S. attorney general for the Eastern District of Michigan, and retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Charles Levin.

Of those addressing the court was Thomas E. Brennan, a lifelong friend and schoolmate of Ryan's at Detroit Catholic Central High School. Brennan also served on the Michigan Supreme Court and went on to found the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

"I've known Ryan since Truman was president," Brennan said. "I waved him off in the Navy and stood up in his wedding.

"I have a thick file of speeches I've given about James L. Ryan, and I am running out of superlatives."

He called Ryan a "man for all seasons" and a "renowned scholar."

"His 47 years of judicial service are over," Brennan said. "I can safely say for the record, may it please the court, that James L. Ryan will be sorely missed."

David M. Lawson, now a judge on the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, spoke on behalf of the 77 law clerks who worked for Ryan over the years. Lawson was one of Ryan's first clerks on the Michigan Supreme Court in 1976.

"Seventy-seven law clerks and five judicial assistants," Lawson said. "That's a lot of people to help one guy get his work done. ... When it comes to Judge Ryan, we all speak with one voice."

He noted that portraits of justices used to be awarded posthumously, one advantage of which, Ryan once told him, was one less speech.

Lawson said Ryan's was a voice of reason and patience. He cited Ryan's unwavering dedication to his principles.

He also noted the clerks' influence on their master.

"Exposure to youth and pop culture," Lawson said, "has propelled him into the Nineties."

To honor their judge, Ryan's law clerks pooled together $10,000 to form a Judge James L. Ryan Camp Scholarship for Angel's Place, a Christian organization that provides assistance and housing for developmentally disabled adults, one of Ryan's favorite charities.

Ryan's eldest son, Daniel, who followed his father's footsteps as a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, spoke on behalf of the Ryan children.

"It's truly a privilege to address the court, friends and family," he said, before launching into a lengthy speech and relating many of the family tales.

He said he gave one reporter a headline for his father: "Judge Framed, Then Hung."

"In various ways," he said, "my father has been a role model for his children and his grandchildren."

In unveiling his father's portrait, son James R. Ryan acknowledged the artist, Jamie Lee McMahon of Memphis, Tenn. McMahon has painted U.S. senators, governors, mayors, judges, university presidents and many other prominent individuals.

With the help of his sisters, Colleen M. Hansen and Kathleen A. Ryan, who is running for the first time for the Oakland County Circuit Court, James R. Ryan unveiled the bigger-than-life portrait. There was an audible gasp of appreciation from those attending.

Finally getting his turn to rebut, Judge Ryan quipped, "My remarks have been reduced by 60 percent by the oldest son's remarks."

He noted the presence of retired Sixth Circuit Judge David P. Kerwin and Roman Gribbs, former Detroit mayor who went on to serve on the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Ryan also thanked Laurie J. Michelson, president of the Federal Bar Association, Eastern District of Michigan, for the chapter's sponsorship of the ceremonies.

Besides thanking his many clerks and past judicial assistants, Ryan made a special point of singling out his current assistant of 19 years, D'Arcy Moffitt.

He also acknowledged the the many Catholic clergy present, including the Rev. Allen H. Vigneron, archbishop of Detroit.

"My chances of being here today," Ryan said, " would have been nil had it not been for the fathers at Catholic Central High School."

Of course, Ryan credited Mary, the mother of his children who died three weeks after celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and his current wife, Loretta, for much of his success and happiness.

"If I could write the life path (I would have taken)," Ryan said, "I would write it exactly as (it happened), but I wouldn't be so presumptuous."

Published: Mon, Sep 27, 2010