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District Judge Stewart Newblatt feted at official unveiling of portrait

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Stewart Newblatt had picked his career. He was going to be an engineer, after a stint in the Army at the end of World War II.

But after being sent overseas as a young soldier in an investigative unit, with orders to find and bring back a deserter, Newblatt had an awakening that led him into the field of law.

He probably would have become an excellent engineer, but it’s hard to argue that Newblatt didn’t make a better choice becoming an attorney, given all he has accomplished. Newblatt turned heads in the legal world by becoming a skilled courtroom litigator. Later, as a Genesee County Circuit Court judge, he wrote opinions that were lauded by the state Court of Appeals. After another successful stint as an attorney in private practice, Newblatt cemented his reputation as a learned litigator.

And finally, after being named a U.S. District Court judge, Newblatt topped off a career in law that reached levels of excellence only a few could dream of. That career culminated November 20 with the unveiling of his federal judicial portrait at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Flint, where several hundred people gathered to honor his life in the law.

Although most of these affairs are solemn events, with the requisite amount of pomp and circumstance, the Newblatt ceremony had that, and a little bit more. Federal judges lined up to provide the dignity the event deserved, but Newblatt’s family and friends took that to another level, turning the scene into a combined love fest and roast, alternately heaping admiration and praise upon the retired judge with just enough intimacy and just enough humor that left no doubt that Newblatt was loved, respected, and honored.

Newblatt was born in Michigan in 1927, and enlisted in the Army and served in 1946-47. He said he was sent out to find a deserter.

“He wanted to be found,” Newblatt said of the man.

Newblatt said the man had been in combat and was wounded and sent to a hospital to get fixed up. After healing, and against his wishes, the man was sent, not back to his unit, but to work in a psychiatric hospital. The man was little in stature, Newblatt said, and faced brutality in the psych ward.

“Three times he asked to be returned to his combat unit, and all three times they refused him,” he said.

The man, fed up, got drunk, hopped a plane to Australia, got married, and even sent a letter to the State Department, explaining his story.

“I brought him back, and they court martialed him,” Newblatt said. “He spent 10 years in prison.”

Newblatt said the episode so outraged and offended him — that the military would take someone who did not desert to avoid combat but did so when he wasn’t sent back — that he decided he would enter the field of law to try to right those perceived wrongs in society.

“That was what made me go to law school,” Newblatt said.

Newblatt received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1950, and his law degree from the U-M Law School in 1952. He entered private practice in Flint from 1953 through 1962. That same year, he became a Genesee County Circuit Judge, and served until 1970. He returned to private practice until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the federal bench. Newblatt served as a U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District in Flint until taking senior status in 1993, and now he remains on inactive status.

At the portrait unveiling, Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan served as the master of ceremonies. He was joined by 10 other judges on the bench, including Judge Mark Goldsmith, who presides in Flint as one of Newblatt’s successors, and by Chief Magistrate Judge Michael Hluchaniuk, as well as numerous Newblatt family, friends, and associates.

“This is where our good friend, Stewart Newblatt, resided and presided for so many years,” Rosen said.

He told the gathering that Newblatt was explicit in asking that the ceremony be as informal as possible and devoid of formality.

“As all of you know, that is one of his most endearing traits,” Rosen said.

Rosen related a story of him coming up to Flint as a young lawyer venturing into the federal court for the first time for a pre-trial conference while Newblatt was here, and talking how unsettling and nervous the appearance made him feel. Imagine his surprise, Rosen said, when in Newblatt’s chambers, his cat, Buddy, also presided over the conference table. Rosen said that informality immediately put him at ease.

Rosen said the number of judges, family and friends in attendance showed “the respect, admiration and affection that all of us have for Stew.”

The first speaker was Genesee Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt, who presides in the Family Division. He started off by saying he appreciated Rosen’s nice comments, but he was here to tell the real story of his father.

David Newblatt joked that President Carter’s “crowning achievement” was appointing his father to the federal bench. He said his father’s storied legal career began 60 years earlier, and “he took principled stands even though they were sometimes unpopular.” He spoke of his father representing union officials who were under suspicion for communist sympathies during
the “Red Scare” even as other attorneys declined to do so.

David Newblatt said his father was appointed to the state bench in 1962 when he was just 33 years old, the youngest circuit judge in state history. He spoke of his dad’s decision four years later in a case striking down a restriction that prevented African Americans to be buried in an all-white cemetery. In his opinion, the elder Newblatt wrote that it appeared “highly grotesque” that so much time and legal effort was placed in considering “the rights of dead soulless bodies when we have not as a society yet secured full rights for the living.”

He also said his father’s opinion in striking down the restriction on Equal Protection grounds was upheld and cited word for word by the state Court of Appeals, saying the young Judge Newblatt’s opinion “leaves nothing further to be said.”

David Newblatt said his father retired as a Genesee County judge after rules affected the ways judges could handle domestic dockets, and he told his son in disgust that now “a monkey could do this job.”

“He couldn’t have possibly appreciated the irony of this comment that would come to fruition when his son, 34 years later, would be appointed to do the monkey’s job,” David Newblatt joked. “Thanks, Dad.”

After his father was appointed to the federal bench, David Newblatt said his father was so excited that he bragged he could ground all the airplanes in the country with a single pen stroke.

“I was impressed by this but confused as to how a man vested with such powers couldn’t find a way to be on time picking up his son from Hebrew school,” David Newblatt joked.

He recalled that his father’s ruling angered many people — tax  protestors accused Newblatt of implanting listening devices in their brains, Ponzi scheme investors picketed him with signs likening his father to Hitler, and other unpopular opinions probably got him scratched from a number of Christmas card lists.

“But everyone I ever met that knew my dad … respected him immensely,” David Newblatt said.

In fact, one of his father’s rival attorneys told David Newblatt that, “Your dad is the smartest man I ever met, but I never agreed with one goddamn thing he said.”

David Newblatt praised the photographer of the portrait, Dan White, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer who was also at unveiling. While at The Kansas City Star, White shared in the prize for coverage of a Hyatt hotel skywalk collapse, and continues working as a commercial photographer based there.

He said White, who also worked in Flint, took photos of him and his brothers years ago, eating pizza and swimming. He said he hoped White wouldn’t be offended to know those photos hang to this day in a place of esteem in the Stewart Newblatt household — the bathroom.

David Newblatt said his father often joked that one of the perks of being a judge was having your own bathroom, and father and son have bonded over this perk. But the official portrait would likely find a place of esteem in the courtroom, even if the Newblatts think otherwise.

Robert Newblatt, another son, joked that when asked for words to describe his father, he harkened back to his youth, when those words would be “big and smelly.” He also jibed his father for his consistency, recalling when the family gathered to watch the news and ask his opinion on some event, he would always give the same response in failing to answer any questions, that he didn’t read the briefs.

“But he was an unbelievable father and role model,” he said. “He never let me down.”

Joshua Newblatt, another son, said he had great memories visiting his father’s court as a child. And later, when visiting courts “under different circumstances” with his mother, who also
was an attorney.

“But this is where (my father) did a lot of his great work,” he said of the federal courtroom that was now filled with admiration. “He was the only guy who was able to do a crossword
puzzle, half-asleep, and still be able to rule on objections, all at the same time,” Joshua Newblatt said. “But the way he interacted with people and treated people with respect, no matter the circumstances or level of education, when you are a judge, a leader, it’s important to set the tone.”

Susan Mashour, a former law clerk, joked that she Googled speeches on former law clerks for portrait hangings and found those to be formal and stiff.

“This is not going to work for Stew,” she told the audience.

She spoke of the wonderful office she had as Newblatt’s law clerk, of the cat allergy she did not disclose, and of meeting her boss’s wonderful family.

“He was a pioneer in many, many ways,“ she said, calling Newblatt a “great person, great mentor and a great human being, with the highest ethical standards, who taught her to start with the basics in each case, that the law was dynamic,” and that mistakes can be corrected. “He had a tremendous humility,” Mashour said.

One thing that she also kept was his love of National Public Radio, which he insisted on listening to in the car when she picked him up for work. She marveled over Newblatt’s great sense of humor, and regaling her with stories of colorful litigants.

“He touched many people in a positive way,” she said.

Howard Grossman, a former law partner, called Newblatt a terrific litigator and legal scholar who was great at presenting motions. And despite all his legal accomplishments, Newblatt would list his “marriage, wife, children, and grandchildren as his greatest,” according to Grossman.

Throughout the ceremony, through the stories, barbs and outpouring of love, Newblatt listened proudly and laughed the loudest. And when it came time for his acceptance speech, he stayed true to form.

Later, Newblatt said he’s had a wonderful legal career, in private practice, as a state judge, and as a federal jurist.

“It was great to end up as a federal judge,” Newblatt said of his legal career progression. “It’s a great profession.”

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