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 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 for the book came during the summer of 2003, between Fedynsky’s second and third years of law school.
“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 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 was long out of print. So after taking the bar exam in 2004, Fedynsky spent the next years pursuing this project.
Working and traveling alone, Fedynsky took all of his own photographs for the book, with the exception of a few historical images, 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 U.S. 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. 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.
Fedynsky grew up in—and still resides in—Ferndale, so the Oakland County Court-
house is his “home” courthouse. It is a perfect example of a modern-day structure that began in the 1880s as a log structure and experienced several incarnations before becoming the current multi-building campus anchored by a distinctive tower.
History on the courthouses has been woven thought the book wherever possible.
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, ... Ludington,... Charlotte, and Mason.”
Fedynsky says the older wood clapboard buildings are striking, and he finds art deco buildings interesting as well.
The photographs and history of each courthouse from Alcona to Wexford are informative. 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 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. When he was asked what path his life might have taken if he hadn’t become an attorney, his reply shows 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.”
Michigan’s County Courthouses is available online and in local bookstores.