MY TURN: Solemn ceremony served to solidify lifelong friendship

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It was a friendship that traced its roots to the softball diamond, flourished while they were in the formative stages of their legal careers, and was in many respects highlighted by a profound swearing-in ceremony that cemented their bond on the federal bench forever.

Yes, U.S. District Judges Arthur Tarnow and David Lawson were longtime friends and colleagues, but they were much more than that, sharing many of the same personal and professional qualities that have helped define their judicial careers.

Both were graduates of Wayne State University Law School who began their careers with clerkships for Michigan appellate judges. They, in turn, went their respective ways in criminal defense work, building reputations for excellence in the state’s legal community while representing a mixture of high profile and run-of-the-mill clients.

Tarnow became the first state appellate defender, an assignment conferred by future U.S. Senator Carl Levin, and later both he and Lawson would owe a debt of gratitude to the longtime Senator for his role in their nominations to the federal bench.

For all those reasons and many more, Tarnow and Lawson were especially close friends, sharing an admiration and respect for each other that stood the test of time.

Yet, time can be a cruel force of nature and it sadly caught up with Judge Tarnow last week when he died of complications from a series of heart procedures that had been performed in recent weeks.

The loss, of course, has been felt deeply across the federal bench and greater legal community, where Tarnow was universally admired for his smarts, wit, dedication, compassion, and self-effacing nature.

For Lawson, Tarnow embodied many other special qualities, perhaps most notably with how he “comported himself” while on the bench.

“In many respects, he was the conscience of the court, a guiding light for us in many ways,” Lawson said of Tarnow. “He never discounted the marginalized and had little tolerance for those who did. He desired to do justice with every fiber of his soul.”

That desire was especially evident during Tarnow’s days in private practice when he made a name for himself as an appellate lawyer, according to Lawson.

“He specialized in second appeals, in certain cases leading the charge in what would become known as ‘innocence projects,’ helping those who had been wrongfully convicted obtain a new trial,” Lawson indicated.
And in other cases, said Lawson, Tarnow sought to mitigate harsh punishments on those who got more than they deserved.

Such work eventually earned Tarnow a seat on the federal bench in 1998, two years before Lawson was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Lawson’s nomination was a special point of pride for his father, Jim, with whom he practiced for many years.

His dad was a graduate of University of Detroit School of Law, earning his juris doctor degree after returning from World War II service in the South Pacific, where he was wounded in action and suffered from a bout with malaria. After obtaining his law degree, the elder Lawson would establish a successful general practice, later serving as a justice of the peace.

When the younger Lawson was nominated to the federal bench in August 1999, he expected to be seated by the end of the year, offering his father the chance to see his son take the oath of office for the first time.

Time, after all, was of the essence, because his father was battling cancer and his health status was in question. But Lawson’s Senate confirmation hearings were unexpectedly delayed and it would take nearly 10 months before the new federal judge would receive the official blessing. By that time in the summer of 2000, his father’s health had deteriorated further and it became clear that it was unlikely that he would be able to make his son’s scheduled investiture ceremony in October.

So, Lawson decided it was time to improvise, asking a favor of a judicial friend, U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow, the same fellow he had teamed with years earlier on a softball squad for the Federal Defender Office.
That favor involved administering the oath of office in a decidedly different setting than the normal federal courthouse venue.

In this case, Lawson’s swearing-in ceremony would take place at the bedside of his father, whose days were dwindling fast.

So there, in his parents’ home in Troy, Lawson was sworn in by his friend Judge Tarnow in a ceremony attended by a handful of family members. Two days after the swearing-in, his father was dead at age 75.

For Lawson, the experience is framed in pictorial terms with a treasured photograph that adorns a wall in his home office. There he will be fondly reminded of his father and a cherished friend, two men – and two mentors – whose legacies will be forever remembered and valued.