A look back at 'Legal Legends'

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Some 20 years ago, in celebration of the centennial of The Detroit Legal News, the paper published a magazine honoring 16 “Legal Legends” from Detroit over the 1895 to 1995 time frame.

“It was a daunting task,” the then-editor of The Legal News admitted in the introduction to the magazine.  A few paragraphs later, the editor would up the verbal ante, calling it a “Herculean task.”

Indeed it was, and it was left in the hands of a blue-ribbon selection panel headed by U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn. He was joined by Judge Maura Corrigan of the Michigan Court of Appeals, Judge Barbara Hackett of the U.S. District Court, attorney George Roumell, and Judge Myron Wahls of the Michigan Court of Appeals.

“Without the tireless leadership of Detroit lawyers, the auto industry might not have made the successful transition from a collection of family-owned garages, the Mackinac Bridge might still be just a ‘good idea,’ and the nation’s talented work force might never have found adequate representation through collective bargaining,” it was said in the magazine’s intro.

With that – and more – in mind, the selection panel narrowed a list of more than 80 lawyers and judges to 16. In alphabetical order, the honorees included: George W. Crockett Jr., Don M. Dickinson, William Henry Gallagher, Ernest Goodman, Martha W. Griffiths, Jason L. Honigman, Ira W. Jayne, Damon J. Keith, Joseph W. Louisell, Wade H. McCree Jr., Sidney T. Miller, Frank Murphy, Henrietta E. Rosenthal, D. Augustus Straker, Maurice Sugar, and Richard C. Van Dusen.

“It is the strength of their intellect and the courage of their convictions that set the ‘Legal Legends’ apart,” it was said. “They bravely stuck to the fundamentals of making the laws of the land work and keeping the promises of our forefathers.”

Each of their stories were told in riveting detail throughout the pages of the magazine, and will be re-told by us in coming months as a reminder of their legal legacies.

As an opening taste, we offer an anecdotal gem about Jason L. Honigman, founder of one of Detroit’s prominent law firms and “author of the rules that governed court procedure for three decades.”

Honigman, who graduated first in his class at the University of Michigan Law School in 1926, “helped draft the state’s no-fault divorce law, the statute abolishing garnishment before judgment, and an amendment to investigate and discipline misconduct by judges,” according to the magazine profile.

At a 1990 dedication ceremony of a law school auditorium named after him at U-M, Honigman was described by U.S. District Judge Charles Joiner in particularly glowing terms. “He demonstrated the kind of public commitment to the improvement of the law and the process of administering justice that is equaled by no one,” Joiner said of Honigman, who died in 1990 at age 85.

Aside from his legal and business brilliance, Honigman also was a self-admitted “workaholic,” a character trait that almost proved to be his undoing one evening.

Milton Miller, his law partner, witnessed as much. “It was 11 one evening shortly after Honigman and Miller had founded their own firm,” wrote Eric Pope in the profile of Honigman. “Honigman was writing his book on Michigan court rules in his office. Miller, researching in the library, smelled smoke. When he opened the hallway door to investigate, black smoke blotted out the red exit signs and began to choke him. Frantic, he ran back to Honigman’s office.

“‘Jason, I want to show you something right now,’” Miller exclaimed.

His partner’s reply: “No, no, I’m occupied right now.”

After Miller uttered a few choice words to his partner, Honigman finally got up from his desk to take a peek at flames lapping at their office door.

“Close the door, you’re letting the smoke in,” Honigman yelled.

Within minutes, help was on the way.

“‘Then, I heard fire engines. I heard glass breaking. I couldn’t concentrate not knowing whether I was living or dying,’” Miller recalled.

Honigman, on the other hand, had better things to do. “Honigman continued to work right through the fire that had burned everything down to the masonry in the suite next door,” Pope wrote in the profile of the Detroit Legal Legend. “When the firemen finally reached the two lawyers, Honigman was still busy at his desk.”

No doubt hard at work polishing an age-old expression dear to his heart: “Burning the midnight oil.”
 

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