A touch of winter

A touch of Winter

Steven Winter had no intention of leaving New York nine years ago when he got a call from Wayne State University Law School telling him that he was the sole choice for an endowed chair.

"That seemed like a pretty good opening offer," recalled Winter, who admits his love for New York rivals Woody Allen's. "It was the right offer at the right time. I wasn't looking to move, and I wasn't particularly looking to relocate here. But it seemed like a pretty good deal."

Now Winter has happily accepted another honor that's come out of the blue.

Winter, a Walter S. Gibbs Professor of Constitutional Law, will be honored for his work as a philosopher and legal theorist by the Dutch Association of Legal Philosophy at an international conference in June.

"I am honored and humbled to be included with such world-famous philosophers and legal theorists as Philip Pettit and Gunther Teubner," said Winter, who is Wayne Law's first faculty member to hold an endowed chair.

Winter, who turned 58 this month, was raised in a working class family that became the classic Jewish-American success story of the children going on to college and the grandchildren becoming doctors and lawyers.

A graduate of Yeshiva University, Winter decided to go to Columbia Law School in part to change the world.

"As a child of the 60s, I grew up watching the civil rights movement on television," he said, "and one couldn't help but be affected by that."

From 1978 to 1986, he served as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, litigating a range of civil rights cases.

It was the most exciting time in his career.

"The Defense Fund years were absolutely fabulous," he said. "At the time, I thought they were great. And I had no idea how great they were."

"We were doing really good work and working with good, smart, capable people --it was a little scary at the time, because I was only 25. But it was also very empowering. There I was, a nice little Jewish boy from New York flying down to North Carolina and Georgia, places I'd never been in my life, going into court. And it was great fun."

His first trial was a federal civil rights case of a prisoner who had been severely beaten by guards. On the first day of trial, he asked an African American attorney he was working with where he wanted to go to lunch.

"Woolworth's," he replied.

"I said, 'Jack, why do you want to go to Woolworth's?'" recalled Winter. "I'm pretty sure there are some good restaurants in Savannah."

"You don't understand," he replied. "I went to college near here. I sat in at that Woolworth counter. So whenever I'm in town, I go to lunch at the Woolworth counter."

"What do you say to that?" asked Winter, with a laugh. "So we went to Woolworth's and I had a tuna fish sandwich at the counter where Jack sat-in as a college student."

The bond among his fellow civil rights attorneys was unlike anything he's experienced since.

"You form bonds with your co-workers wherever you are, but when you're all part of the same cause and believe in the same things, it's quite a different experience," he said. "It's not quite to the same degree as the bond between soldiers who share a foxhole, but it's close to that.''

Winter grew up studying the Talmud, and says his temperament is a blend of one who likes to read and write, and one who likes a good, aggressive litigation.

While at the LDF, he worked on more than a dozen Supreme Court cases.

"I don't miss the stress of trial work, but I do miss the excitement and the adrenaline," he said. "It was good as a young person's gig. It was very intense, and when you're 25, 30, 31, that's good. A lot of trial lawyers burn out after that."

Winter and his wife, Lynn, a former psychiatric social worker, live in Grosse Pointe Park with their daughters, Elizabeth, 17, and Emily, 14. His son, Charles, 20, is a sophomore majoring in political theory and constitutional democracy at James Madison University.

Do they have an interest in the law?

"I try to downplay it," he said. "My strategy is to not say anything, and they'll do what they do. "

Winter, who is working on a book about consumerism and democracy, says he's content at this stage in his life to teach and write. He's been teaching fulltime since 1986, and was in Miami and Brooklyn before coming to Wayne State.

What advice would he give a law student today?

"You should have been born 40 years ago!" said Winter, with a laugh. "Times are obviously very different, and they're stuck with the market and the world as it is today. So I give them very basic advice: Get good training. Learn the law. And find something that interests them. It's not about money. It's about being happy and fulfilled."

Published: Wed, Apr 20, 2011

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