Right place, right time-- Federal appellate judge brought a wealth of experience to the job

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

It was the summer of 1974 and then U.S. Attorney Ralph Guy Jr. had been invited to dine with a man of considerable political importance -- Robert Griffin, Republican whip in the U.S. Senate.

The dinner took place at Senator Griffin's home in Traverse City, the scenic resort town on the southern tip of Grand Traverse Bay. The evening meal was scheduled to begin at 7 o'clock and it figured to be spiced with talk of a possible federal judgeship for the U.S. Attorney.

When the judicial candidate in waiting arrived for dinner, Senator Griffin was there -- and not there. It was left to his wife and children to entertain the dinner guest, as minutes stretched into hours while Senator Griffin tended to some pressing business over the phone.

Some three hours after his guest's arrival, Senator Griffin emerged from behind the dinner scenes, noticeably preoccupied. He promptly asked Guy to accompany him on a walk.

"It was a rather perfunctory discussion," Guy recalled. "Nothing too detailed or substantive was discussed. It was clear that he had other things on his mind."

Such as the future of Richard Nixon, whose presidency was teetering on the brink of political disaster in the wake of his role in the Watergate cover-up. Senator Griffin, it would be later revealed, was being asked by Congressional leaders that summer night in Traverse City to have a political "heart-to-heart" talk with the President. His assignment was to tell the two-time Commander in Chief that he needed to resign from office to spare the country the pain of impeachment proceedings.

"As such, a fellow named Ralph Guy Jr. was not uppermost on his mind that evening," Guy said of Senator Griffin's thought process.

As a postscript to the anecdotal story, Guy didn't get the job on the federal bench. Senator Griffin recommended another candidate for the judicial post.

A year later, Senator Griffin had a second chance, at least as far as the U.S. Attorney was concerned. A second opening occurred on the federal bench for the Eastern District of Michigan. This time he recommended to a newly sworn in president, Gerald Ford, that Guy was the man for the job.

And he was -- serving as a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit from 1976-85 prior to be appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in the fall of 1985.

His career as a public servant has spanned 55 years, and included a 10-year stint as corporation counsel for the City of Dearborn, a time during which he served on the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, the Detroit-Metropolitan Regional Planning Commission, and the Detroit-Wayne County Building Authority. Following his years of service with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. District Court and while on the Court of Appeals, Guy was appointed in 1998 by then Chief Justice William Rehnquist to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. In 2002, he was named the presiding judge of the Court of Review, a post he held for three years.

An impressive record of service indeed, except perhaps as far as his mother would be concerned. She passed away before her son had become a district judge, but he speculated that she would have preferred that his career had taken a different direction.

"She would have been more proud if I had been president, pope, or a Supreme Court justice," he said with a wry smile. "She had high standards."

As did his father, Ralph Sr., a district court judge in Dearborn who formerly served as the city's chief of police as well as president of its city council. The family patriarch began his law career as a solo practitioner during the Great Depression, scrambling to make a living for his young family. He also had political aspirations, running as a Republican for Congress in 1932, the same year that a fellow named Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be swept into office at the crest of a Democratic landslide.

"He grew up in a family of Democrats and professed to be a Democrat, but he ran as a Republican that year," his son said. "It was a classic case of bad timing. That seat has been in Democratic hands ever since (currently held by John Dingell Jr.). My dad even ran against Orville Hubbard for mayor. He wasn't afraid of a political challenge."

His son, a graduate of Dearborn Fordson High School, initially had no intentions of following in his father's legal footsteps, opting to enroll at the University of Michigan with plans to pursue a career as a journalist instead.

"I loved to write, and like many students I had a romanticized notion of such a job," Guy said. "I then discovered that there were few good-paying jobs in journalism, so I shifted my career sights elsewhere. I went to law school with the frame of mind that getting a law degree would be great background for a career in upper management of a company."

Out of financial necessity, he worked his way through law school at the U-M, including a job with Owens-Illinois, the giant glass manufacturer. Following graduation, he practiced law with his father, handling a variety of legal matters over the course of the next year. He then applied for an opening as the assistant city attorney in Dearborn, a post he expected to land since his father was serving on city council at the time.

"I was moderately surprised when I wasn't chosen for the position," he said. "Although it was a civil service position, I found out that it had already been promised to someone else."

Some three months later, however, he was appointed assistant corporation counsel for the city, a job that afforded him the opportunity to prove his legal worth and to become involved in local bar association activities. During his third year in the job, he was courted by a group of young Dearborn lawyers who were forming a new law firm.

"Before I could give the matter serious consideration, the city's corporation counsel dropped dead of a heart attack and I was offered the job as his replacement," Guy related. "There I was, at the age of 28, in charge of a six-person legal department for one of the largest cities in the state."

Heady stuff, for sure. The job paid the worldly sum of $10,500 a year. In 1958 dollars, that was a lot of money. Such a fact was confirmed when the new corporation counsel went into an Ann Arbor men's store to buy a nifty new suit. In its pocket was a promotional card sporting the message: "For the man who wants to be making $10,000 a year." For Guy, it was further "confirmation that I had arrived," he quipped.

In his work as corporation counsel, Guy was named to the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, a governing panel that included the likes of such heavyweights as Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union. He also handled a "lot of trial work" for the city as well as appellate cases in front of the state Supreme Court. His courtroom talents caught the eye of James Brickley, a Detroit city councilman who was about to be named the U.S. Attorney in Detroit.

"He asked me to be his chief assistant," Guy recalled. "At the time, I was a big fish in a small pond and I had thoughts of someday becoming Dearborn's mayor, so I declined his offer. He later made a second run at me, and by this time I was convinced that (Mayor) Hubbard was never going to retire and that it would be a good career move to join the U.S. Attorney's Office."

One day into his new job, Guy had different thoughts.

The office furnishings were shabby and quarters were cramped. Staff morale was at low ebb and the workload was daunting.

"It was all I could do that first night to stop from crying," he said. "All I could think of was that I just made the biggest mistake of my life. The place was in turmoil and the cases were stacked up a mile high."

Of particular importance were a dozen cases that were bound for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Guy was assigned with the expedited task of writing the briefs and then arguing the respective cases in the Queen City. His first real taste of federal appellate work came in a courtroom where his portrait now hangs.

By the spring of 1970 and within a year of joining the U.S. Attorney's Office, Guy was about to take on even more responsibilities. Brickley had been asked by then Governor William Milliken to be his running mate in the fall election. By August of that year, Guy was now in charge as the chief federal prosecutor.

"It was another case of me being in the right place at the right time," Guy said. "There was no way of predicting my career path up to that point."

Nor was there any way to anticipate how increasingly unsettled the job would become. During his six years as U.S. Attorney in Detroit, Guy would answer to five different attorneys general, largely as a result of the Watergate crisis.

"The office joke was that, 'If the Attorney General calls, make sure you get his name,'" Guy said with a grin.

Guy, coincidentally, would become part of an important legal footnote to Watergate. In 1973, as pressure mounted on President Nixon for his role in the crisis, Guy was in Washington for meetings as chairman of the U.S. Attorneys Advisory Committee. His stay in the nation's capital coincided with the October 20, 1973 "Saturday Night Massacre" when Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a move that resulted in the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus in protest. Eventually Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the firing of Cox and then sought the advice of Guy and other members of the Advisory Committee on a replacement for the Watergate Special Prosecutor. Their recommendation was Leon Jaworski. The Texas attorney, who assisted the Warren Commission in its investigation of the Kennedy assassination, would assure his place in political history by skillfully pressing the Watergate case to the U.S. Supreme Court where justices unanimously sided with the Special Prosecutor in his quest to obtain tape-recorded conversations involving President Nixon in the Oval Office.

A year later, in July 1975, Guy was in an altogether different national spotlight. Jimmy Hoffa was missing and U.S. Attorney Guy suddenly was thrust into the media glare as law enforcement authorities attempted to determine the whereabouts of the Teamsters' president.

"For months I was a fixture on the nightly news -- the 'Brokaw' part of the news," Guy said of the NBC anchor who held sway on TV sets across the nation during the 6:30 to 7 p.m. time slot. "As the ranking federal law enforcement officer in the Detroit area, I was the official point person to keep everyone updated on the Hoffa case. The hoopla surrounding that case lasted for a good year until it finally settled down."

Guy's ascension to the U.S. District Court bench took place in June 1976, a stay that lasted until October 1985 when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals by then President Ronald Reagan. Mark Werder, a former clerk for Guy and chief of the Civil Division for the U.S. Attorney's Office from 1982-84 before beginning a distinguished career in private practice, said that the Detroit jurist was "uniformly worshipped" by those in federal circles.

"When he was elevated to the Court of Appeals, the sentiment was widely held in the Detroit federal litigation community that the Sixth Circuit's gain was an enormous loss for our district," said Werder, who graduated first in his class at the University of Toledo College of Law. "There was a real sense of misfortune and shock among litigators over permanently losing one of the district's truly outstanding trial judges to the appellate bench."

Added Werder: "It was always striking to me that he could roam extemporaneously during rulings, yet it was next to impossible to tell from the transcript where he had actually departed and rejoined the language and analysis that he'd carefully crafted in advance. As a young lawyer still drafting and endlessly re-drafting research memos and laboring over word choice to the exasperation of the judge's secretary -- during the time of carbon paper -- it was dumbfounding to me that Guy had this incredible facility for executing 'perfect product' off the top of his head. I don't think he was all that impressed when they invented the IBM Selectric Typewriter with the ball that could correct text without doing the whole page over."

Guy now holds senior status on the court, allowing him the opportunity to work on a reduced caseload from his home outside scenic Harbor Springs. There he and his wife, Yvonne, share the beauty of northern Michigan, as well as their love of golf, tennis, biking, and travel. They met while on a sightseeing trip to Japan and have been married for 21 years. She, he admitted, regularly beats him in golf, and has won the club championship for women two of the past three years.

Their travels have taken them around the globe and to regular visits to see Guy's two sons in Seattle and Alaska. His son James, who holds a Ph.D., is an executive with Microsoft. Son David, who is married with two children, works in the construction business in the Last Frontier. Neither decided to follow in their father's or grandfather's legal footsteps.

"Perhaps they were too smart to do that," he said with a smile.

Published: Tue, Jul 13, 2010


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