Former solicitor general reminisces during visit

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Kenneth Starr, former solicitor general of the United States and current president of Baylor University, took a “sentimental journey” recently in Detroit, even humming a few bars of the popular song from the Big Band era.

The March 5 occasion was the annual Wade H. McCree Jr. Memorial Luncheon, an event sponsored by the Federal Bar Association Eastern District of Michigan Chapter and held at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.

Before a packed audience that included a long list of federal judges as well as Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young and his state judicial colleagues Mary Beth Kelly and Brian Zahra, Starr invoked the musical metaphor in paying special tribute to the event’s namesake, a predecessor of his as solicitor general.

“He was a giant in the legal community, a man of great eloquence,” Starr said of McCree, a Harvard Law School graduate who served on the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and as solicitor general during the Carter Administration. “He was a friend, a colleague, and lawyer of tremendous intellect who believed in the importance of public service.”

McCree, who died in 1987 at age 67, was a native of Iowa who earned his bachelor’s degree from Fisk University.

He began his career on the bench in 1954 when then Governor G. Mennen Williams appointed him to a seat on the Wayne County Circuit Court, where he would serve until elevated to the U.S. District Court in 1961.

McCree spent 11 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals before accepting the appointment as solicitor general because he believed “it was the patriotic thing to do,” according to Starr, who regularly “broke bread” with McCree while the two worked in Washington, D.C.

It was there that Starr began to fully appreciate the brilliance of McCree, and the “elegance” and the “eloquence” of his legal writing.

He also recognized McCree’s commitment to improving the scope of higher education, which he fulfilled while serving for six years as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan Law School in the twilight of his legal career.

While Starr spoke of his great admiration for McCree, he also shared many “personal and career parallels” with his late colleague, according to U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, who invited Starr to serve as the keynote speaker at the March 5 luncheon.

“Although a generation apart, their careers in — and their commitment to — the law, academia and public service so closely tracked each other it’s remarkable,” Rosen said in introducing Starr. “Both began their legal careers in private practice, but soon moved to public service, Judge McCree to Michigan’s Workers’ Compensation Commission, Judge Starr to the Justice Department, where he served as counselor to then Attorney General William French Smith.

But the federal judiciary soon beckoned them both, Judge McCree to first our court here in the Eastern District of Michigan at the very young age of 41, then to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals at the still young age of 45.

Ken came to the federal judiciary even younger — he was only 37 when he was appointed by President Reagan to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, often referred to as the ‘second highest court in the land.

But both served only relatively brief stints on their respective appellate courts before leaving the judiciary for even greater national recognition.”

Both served four years as solicitor general, a position “often referred to in legal circles as ‘the 10th Justice,’ signaling the important role the solicitor general plays in representing our government before the Supreme Court and in helping to shape our precedents,” Rosen said. “Certainly, both Judge McCree and Judge Starr did that during their tenures in that office. In fact, both men did their jobs so well — and were so widely respected — that they were prominently mentioned among the legal cognoscenti as likely Supreme Court justices themselves.”

Even where the two men differed on the “jurisprudential and philosophical compass,” both “approached their careers in the law as a calling, and developed well deserved reputations as gentlemen in the truest sense who could argue their cases and causes with vigor, but without personal rancor or pettiness,” Rosen said in praising McCree and Starr.

As the keynote speaker Monday, Starr lauded Birmingham attorney Marty Reisig, the 2012 recipient of the McCree Award for the Advancement of Social Justice, acknowledging his efforts on behalf of those in need of a “strong and effective” legal voice.

A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Reisig began his legal career with the Appellate Defenders Office, later serving in a prosecutorial role, then as a defense counsel, adjunct law professor, and now as a civil mediator with American Settlement Centers in Farmington Hills.

Reisig’s desire to “bring a little peace” and “reason” to the sometimes contentious legal world are qualities that speak volumes about his “true sense of character,” Starr said in saluting the honoree for his life’s work.

Reisig, who expressed his gratitude to all who have assisted him with his various legal causes over the years, said he was “honored beyond words” when notified that he was this year’s McCree Award winner.

He follows such luminaries as University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, the 2011 award recipient, and former Governor William Milliken, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, and the late Detroit City Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey.

“Today I focus on mediating, mentoring, and guiding mediation clinic students at U of D Mercy, and watching their skills in bringing peace into conflict situations and finally stopping as often as possible to say thanks to my role models, friends, and colleagues,” Reisig said in his closing remark

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