By Debra Talcott
When the American classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was published 50 years ago, Harper Lee’s famous character Atticus Finch explained the tremendous “leveling” power of the American court system: “…there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal-there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”
Author John Fedynsky hopes readers will experience that same sense of awe for our justice system when perusing his new book, “Michigan’s County Courthouses: An Encyclopedic Tour of Michigan Courthouses.” The book is published by The University of Michigan Press and documents the stories of the Michigan Hall of Justice and the circuit courthouses of all 83 counties across the state, many of which had their humble beginnings as simple log or clapboard structures.
“Within the four corners of the courthouses meticulously pictured and described in this book, Michigan has pursued, and mostly succeeded in securing, the ideals of ‘Freedom, Equality, Truth, and Justice,’ inscribed upon the stone of our state’s Hall of Justice in our capital city,” says Justice Stephen Markman of the Michigan Supreme Court, in the foreword he wrote for Fedynsky’s book.
The idea to write this book came to Fedynsky during the summer of 2003, when he was between his second and third years of law school at the University of Michigan.
“My book started with a full tank of gas and a new digital camera. I was on a trip up north, where highways tend to connect county seats, which often have charming, photogenic courthouses,” says Fedynsky.
Fedynsky photographed several courthouses during that Upper Peninsula trip then began to wonder if anyone had ever visited every county and compiled a book about all of the courthouses.
He discovered that a book had, indeed, been published in 1974 by Maurice F. Cole, but that book was long out of print. So after taking the bar exam in 2004, Fedynsky spent the next several years pursuing this project.
“I spent a good chunk of that first summer touring the whole U.P. and the northern tip of the mitten. After that, I had no particular order — just a map that I would highlight county by county as I could find time away from my day job to visit more counties.”
Working and traveling alone, Fedynsky took all of his own photographs for the book, with the exception of a few historical images that have been reprinted with permission.
“Seeing the book finally published is a great feeling; after spending so many solitary days on the road, it is nice to share the photographs, the history, and the experience with others,” he says.
After earning his B.A. from Georgetown University and graduating magna cum laude in 2001, Fedynsky went directly to University of Michigan Law School, where he graduated cum laude. He has been licensed to practice law in Michigan since 2004 and currently works in Lansing as an Assistant Attorney General, defending mainly tort and employment cases in federal and state court.
“I joke that law is genetic for me. Other attorneys in my family include my older brother, my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather,” says Fedynsky.
Fedynsky’s great-grandfather and grandfather were trained in Europe. His grandfather emigrated to the United States in the wake of World War II.
“So I grew up admiring the law and learning to advocate at the kitchen table,” he says.
After law school, Fedynsky worked as a research attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals in Grand Rapids then Detroit.
“I then had the great honor of clerking for a little over two years for U.S. District Judge Robert H. Cleland in Detroit,” says Fedynsky.
Attorney General Mike Cox offered Fedynsky the opportunity to continue his career in public service at the Department of Attorney General. In his position as Assistant Attorney General, Fedynsky represents state agencies and their employees. His clients include the Michigan State Police, the State Court Administrative Office, and the Department of Management & Budget.
Fedynksy grew up in-and still resides in-the city of Ferndale, so the Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac is his “home” courthouse. This courthouse is a perfect example of a modern-day structure that began in the 1880s as a log structure and experienced several incarnations, including a brick Italianate building before becoming the multi-building campus anchored by the distinctive tower at 1200 North Telegraph Road.
History has been woven throughout the current county courthouse whenever possible. The bell that had first been installed in 1913 (on the building completed in 1905) was mounted in a place of honor in 1995 after spending many years in storage. Likewise, Lady Justice, the zinc figure that had been stored since the demolition of the 1905 building, was rededicated in 1983. However, after harsh weather tore off her scales of justice and cracked her arm in 2008, she now stands on an indoor pedestal. A bronze replica took her place in the outdoor location in 2009.
When asked which courthouse is his favorite building from an architectural perspective, Fedynsky is candid.
“It’s a bit like asking me to name my favorite family member,” he says. “Each courthouse is unique and charming in its own right, but I will say that I enjoy older architecture that features stone, clock towers, cannons, monuments. Good examples include Traverse City, Crystal Falls, Bellaire, Ludington, Houghton, the Soo, Ithaca, Corunna, Hastings, Howell, Adrian, Hillsdale, Charlotte, and Mason.”
Fedynsky says the older wood clapboard buildings are striking too, including the courthouses in Lapeer, Berrien Springs, and Eagle River. He also finds the art deco buildings interesting, such as those in Bay City, Mount Clemens, Caro, and Alpena. Finally, he mentions the Tudor style of Midland County as something not often seen in public buildings.
The photographs and history of each courthouse from Alcona to Wexford are informative and interesting. However, it is the little-known facts Fedynsky provides that give each courthouse or the county it serves a flavor all its own.
“Check out the chapter on Iron County. You’ll find a great story there about a county seat battle involving a poker game, theft, the threat of invasion, and a contested election,” he says.
Likewise, the chapter on his home courthouse in Oakland County tells about an infamous case from 1846, in which the defendant was a handsome, young doctor who had been accused of methodically using arsenic to poison his wife.
“There was local outrage when he was acquitted, reportedly by a jury that the doctor’s defense team managed to completely hoodwink,” writes Fedynsky.
Fedynsky’s book will, undoubtedly, garner many readers-both inside and outside the legal community. Among his biggest supporters are his parents, George and Christine, who are currently deployed in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father, a retired Army JAG officer, is a contracting officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fedynsky’s brother Alexander lives in Irvine, Calif., where he uses his J.D. and his M.B.A. in the financial industry.
When John Fedynsky was asked what path his life might have taken if he hadn’t become an attorney, his reply revealed his sense of humor.
“I could give you the lawyer answer and object to the hypothetical, but I won’t. The writer’s answer is that I would be writing something somewhere. Journalism definitely made my short list of contemplated careers.”
With his journalist’s eye and historian’s hand, John Fedynsky chronicles the legal history of every corner of Michigan in his captivating first book. It is available online and in local bookstores.