Legal honor roll: Former State Bar president FBA, OCBA awards

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Cranmer attributes much of his success to the 'serendipitous nature of life'

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

If he had a trophy room, it would be due for expansion to accommodate the latest awards to come his way.

In early June, Miller Canfield attorney Tom Cranmer was honored by the Oakland County Bar Association with its Professional Award for 2018, sharing the recognition with his longtime friend U.S. District Judge David Lawson.

Later in June, Cranmer was in the spotlight again, this time as the recipient of the Civility Award from the Federal Bar Association, Eastern District of Michigan Chapter.

The award is named in honor of U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman and the late U.S. District Judge Julian Cook Jr., two federal jurists whom Cranmer has long admired.

The awards come on the heels of two more coveted honors for Cranmer, who served as president of the State Bar of Michigan in 2005-06, helping champion its “Access to Justice” program. Earlier this year, Cranmer received the Integrity in the Community Award from WMU-Cooley Law School, where he serves on its board of directors.
The American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), in turn, recognized Cranmer last December with its Civility Award for 2017.

All this, in short, serves as collective praise for work exceedingly well done by Cranmer, whether in his role as one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in
Michigan or as one of the legal profession’s most dedicated community volunteers.

“Tom sets the standard for excellence in so many respects,” said Gerald Gleeson, a past president of the OCBA and a colleague of Cranmer’s at Miller Canfield. “He serves as a role model as a trial attorney and as someone who works tirelessly on behalf of good causes. He also is a true gentleman and a great friend to many across the legal community.”

Cranmer, as is his custom, deflects such praise, preferring to downplay his role.

“It’s humbling to be honored in such fashion, but obviously I’ve never had that in mind when I’m in court or working on behalf of a bar association or charitable organization,” said Cranmer, an alumnus of the University of Michigan. “I find joy in helping out and, quite simply, I love being a lawyer. I consider it a blessing to be part of the legal profession. I’ve been very lucky at each step of the way over the course of my career.”

That career, which spans more than four decades, began as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County under then Prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson. In the late 1970s, Cranmer joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit at the invitation of Leonard Gilman. A former colleague of Cranmer’s at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, Gilman was a gifted lawyer with an impeccable legal reputation. At the time, Cranmer viewed the move as an “important step” in his growth as a trial lawyer, affording him the opportunity to hone his investigative and courtroom skills on a bigger judicial stage.

“A year after I joined the office, I was assigned to assist Len with a high-profile case involving an alleged numbers operation in Pontiac,” Cranmer recalled. “It involved organized crime and members of the Pontiac Police Department who were accused of providing cover for the mob. There were something like 10 defendants and I was there to serve as second chair to Len in trying the case.”

On the eve of the trial, however, Gilman’s father became gravely ill and Cranmer suddenly was going solo, squaring off against such local legal heavyweights as Elbert Hatchett, Bob Harrison, and Edward Bell.

“There I was, in my late twenties with not a whole lot of trial experience, trying a very complicated federal case against some of the best criminal defense attorneys around,” said Cranmer, who earned his law degree from Ohio Northern University. “It was my baptism under fire.”

Funny he should use that phrase, which metaphorically speaking came true under the glare of the federal courtroom spotlight.

“Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in that case,” Cranmer reflected, “is never to wear a light-colored suit. Within minutes every day, I was in full body sweat. We’re not talking about a little perspiration. My suit was literally soaked through and through. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a change of uniform handy.”

Fortunately for the feds, Cranmer still had his wits about him, turning a severe case of the sweats into an eventual courtroom triumph during a month-long trial that ended with most of the defendants behind bars.

“That one trial taught me so much about the importance of preparation and having a command of the facts,” Cranmer said. “I also, in retrospect, was able to learn a lot from the opposing attorneys, who were very skilled in presenting their opening statements and ­closing arguments. Elbert Hatchett, in fact, really blew me away with his opening statement. I knew enough at that point to know that I was getting killed.”

But like the mythical phoenix, Cranmer was able to rise from the courtroom ashes to duel again, completing a four-year stay in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1982 before embarking on what is now a 36-year career on the criminal defense side of the law.

His first stop in private practice was with the Bloomfield Hills firm of Miro Miro & Weiner, which later would see most of its attorneys become part of Honigman. In 1982, however, it was viewed as an “up-and-coming” metro Detroit firm with a wealth of young legal talent.

“It was another great opportunity to develop my trial court skills and to get some exposure to the civil and commercial side of the law,” said Cranmer, a past president of the local FBA Chapter as well as a past president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation. “We were small enough to remain nimble, but big enough to take on some very interesting cases that demanded a lot of time and expense.”

Such as the case involving former Detroit Police Chief William Hart, who in 1992 stood trial in federal court on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, witness tampering, and conspiring with a former deputy chief to loot money intended for undercover drug operations.

Cranmer, facing his former federal colleague Alan Gershel, tried to paint Hart as an honest cop but inept administrator, an argument that the jury chewed on for eight days before convicting the city’s top police official of embezzling approximately $1.3 million over a seven-year period. He was acquitted of tax evasion, witness tampering, and conspiring with his former right hand man, although Cranmer considered it somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory considering that Hart ultimately was carted off to jail for his involvement in the public corruption scandal.

Despite the outcome, Cranmer’s legal star took on even more luster as the Hart case was the talk of local TV news with broadcast crews from Detroit’s three major stations camped out at federal court throughout the four-month trial.

“I got to know Chris Hanson from Channel 4, Cheryl Chodun from Channel 7, and Vince Wade from Channel 2 all pretty well during that trial,” Cranmer related. “It was as an outgrowth of that case that the next lucky phase of my career came about.”

Within months, Cranmer was enjoying a second career as a legal analyst for Channel 7, the top-rated news station in the Detroit market with anchorman Bill Bonds.

Cranmer would periodically appear on camera to comment on such riveting courtroom dramas as the Malice Green case and the O.J. Simpson trial, while in 2009 he offered legal food for thought on the Stephen Grant murder trial and the text messaging tango involving Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff Christine Beatty.

“At first, I totally felt like a fish out of water,” Cranmer said of his early TV appearances. “Television is a different animal than being in the courtroom in front of a judge and jury. When that red light goes on, there is a sense of nervousness that is hard to describe. But once the words start tumbling out, the anxiety somehow mysteriously goes away.”

Cranmer attributes much of his success to the “serendipitous nature of life,” the place where “luck” somehow keeps intersecting with “talent” in ways that can defy explanation.

“I’ve been very fortunate in life, both professionally and personally,” said Cranmer, a graduate of Birmingham Groves High School.

His father, William, spent his career in the construction and real estate industries before retiring, while his mother, Betty, was a housewife dedicated to the upbringing of the couple’s two children. His brother, Richard, who earned his master’s degree in architecture from the University of Colorado, died of AIDS in 1987, not long after disclosing his sexual orientation to his parents.

“He was one of the early victims of AIDS,” Cranmer said of his younger brother. “His illness and the suffering he went through were very difficult on everyone in the family.”

Cranmer has three children, Jackie, Taylor, and Chase. A U-M alumna, 38-year-old Jackie is a forensic psychologist at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Ind., after earning her Ph.D. in forensic psychology from the University of Denver. Taylor, 31, a graduate of U-M-Dearborn, owns a computer business and lives in Brighton. Chase, 28, a U-M grad, works in the I.T. department at his alma mater.

Cranmer met his wife, Maria, who is of Greek descent, while she worked as a legal secretary at his former law firm. They share interests in golf, downhill skiing, and travel. The couple will celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary on July 22.

Their wedding ceremony was at the Oakland County Courthouse and was performed by Circuit Judge Gene Schnelz, a now retired jurist who was well known for his sharp sense of humor.

“We did our best to keep it short and simple,” Cranmer said of the ceremony.

But for a lawyer who takes pride in being fully prepared once he sets foot in a courtroom, Cranmer uncharacteristically came up short on his wedding day.

“It was quickly pointed out to me that we didn’t have any witnesses, which, of course, is necessary to make the wedding official,” Cranmer recalled, somewhat sheepishly.

Fortunately, two of the couple’s close friends, Mary Schloff and Linda Papelian, were nearby, waiting outside the courthouse to welcome the newlyweds.

“Suddenly, they were pressed into duty,” Cranmer said with a laugh. “Mary was Maria’s maid of honor and Linda was my ‘best man.’ It couldn’t have worked out better.”

The story rates among the Cranmer classics and reflects his humble, good-natured personality.

“As I’ve said, I truly have been lucky in life,” Cranmer said. “I have a wife who is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, terrific children, a wonderful group of friends, and a career that I find challenging and fulfilling. I am also fortunate enough to work with extremely talented colleagues at Miller Canfield. The titles, the acclaim that I have received have been nice, but life begins and ends with family and friends, and in those areas I have really been blessed.”

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