Historic case photo displayed at Genesee courthouse

A famous photo that has passed through many hands is now being displayed at the Genesee County Courthouse.

Flint attorney John D. Nickola wound up being the recipient of a photo that was used as an exhibit by Andrew Transue, who prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952 in Morissette v. United States.

The photo is of U.S. military bomb casings that Morissette found in northern Michigan. The chain of exchanges for the photo began with the photographer's son, who passed it along to an attorney, before eventually winding up with Nickola after other exchanges.

Nickola then passed it off to the court administrator at the courthouse, where it was unveiled before a crowd of lawyers and judges, as well as Transue's daughters, at an event in September at the courthouse.

"Andrew (Transue) was one heck of a lawyer. He was a tremendous, ethical, upstanding guy. We used to talk about him a lot," Nickola said.

"When I saw this, I was asked if I wanted it, I said 'of course, this is sacred, it's an icon of justice.' I said 'this doesn't belong to me or you, it belongs to the public, and it needs to be properly preserved and displayed.' We took it to our circuit court people and the court administrator and judges knew exactly how important it was," Nickola said.

The Morissette case set a precedent in American law involving criminal intent. Morissette found the bomb casings and wound up selling them to a scrap dealer for $84.

Authorities discovered the transaction and charged Morissette with selling property found on government land.

He was convicted locally and at the Sixth Circuit level, so Transue took the case to the Supreme Court.

"Transue marched up to the Supreme Court bench with this photograph, a justice takes it and looks at it, the justice said, 'this looks like a pile of junk in the woods,' Transue took a step back and said, 'Your Honor, this is what this case is all about, and I rest my case,'" Nickola said.

In addition to displaying the famous exhibit in the county courthouse, Nickola said he sent copies to law schools throughout the state to serve as a reminder of the importance of the case's legacy.

"The Morissette case is such an important case in American jurisprudence. It's studied at all of the law schools, they spend a week dissecting it, because it makes the distinction between cases that you have to show specific intent to commit the crime to be punished," Nickola said.

Nickola said many of the individuals who attended the courthouse event worked with Transue and recognized his importance to the Genesee community.

"He was just an outstanding representative of the best in the legal community. He was a true leader," Nickola said. "He was an outstanding lawyer who really set the standards. He exemplified true advocacy, but he also encouraged and challenged other lawyers, especially younger lawyers, to meet those high standards and to perform and give of yourself, not just go through the motions of representing somebody, but put your life into it."

Nickola said Transue exemplified those virtues by working the Morissette case at his own expense.

"He took it upon himself at his own expense to represent that person because he was right, and the judge was certainly wrong," Nickola said. "The circuit court judge was horribly wrong, so that lawyer took it to the U.S. Supreme Court and made a real change to better law in the United States."

Published: Mon, Oct 30, 2017

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