Judge used storytelling to share lessons

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

As the oldest public school in the United States, Boston Latin School has a distinguished group of alums, including the likes of Founding Fathers John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

Poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson along with Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom and the father of the 35th President, also attended the school that opened its doors in 1635, more than a century before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Their names, along with a legion of other notable alums, are inscribed in the school’s Hall of Fame that welcomed a new member in 1999, Wade H. McCree Jr., the first African American judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the second black solicitor general of the United States.

McCree, who died in 1987 at the age of 67, was a native of Iowa but spent his formative years in Boston. Like his father, McCree worked his way through Fisk University in Nashville, then served four years as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. He enrolled in Harvard Law School following the war, graduating near the top of his class in 1948. He and his wife then moved to Detroit, her hometown, where McCree would become a “Legal Legend” in the eyes of The Detroit Legal News.

The newspaper said as much in October 1995 when it celebrated its centennial with the publication of a booklet honoring 16 lawyers reflecting the “enormous contributions that the legal community has made to Detroit, to the State of Michigan, and to our nation.”

The law as a “noble profession” was a fact that McCree was ever mindful of during his 23 years as a judge.

“Perhaps the real genius of our government is that in its least powerful branch with its tradition of self-restraint lives the safest potential for resolution of the most divisive issues in the unfinished agenda of our democracy,” McCree told the Detroit Economic Club in 1980.

Throughout his time on the bench, which began with his appointment to the Wayne County Circuit Court in 1954, McCree was praised for his “great intellect, sensitivity, courage, strength, and integrity,” according to The Legal News profile in 1995. “Those sterling personal traits led to an impressive list of accomplishments: first black judge elected to the circuit court in Michigan, one of two black judges whose appointment broke the color barrier in federal district court, first black to sit on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and second black solicitor general of the United States.”

With Harvard Law degree in hand, McCree figured to be a hot legal prospect when he moved to Detroit in the late ‘40s, but the scourge of segregation got in his way. As a decorated World War II vet, he looked even more impressive to a prominent Detroit law firm that invited him to apply for an opening, evidently unaware of his skin color.

“That invitation was withdrawn the minute he walked in the door,” according to The Legal News profile.

Instead, McCree was hired by Harold Bledsoe, Detroit’s black legal giant at the time. After spending several years with the firm, he was appointed in 1952 by then Governor G. Mennen Williams to the Workmen’s Compensation Commission. Two years later, he was named to the Wayne County Circuit Court, which served as a stepping-stone to a pair of federal judgeships.

One of his colleagues on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Pierce Lively, said that McCree “was surely born to be a judge,” a compliment that was considered the highest form of legal flattery.

“His efforts to relieve the tension of a heated debate with bits of doggerel or a hastily written limerick endeared him to all who worked with him,” Lively said of McCree, whose memory bordered on astounding.

It was said that McCree often “recited lengthy passages of Latin and Greek entirely from memory,” wooing his friends and colleagues with his intellectual capacity.

“Because Wade had a remarkable memory, the vast store of knowledge that he accumulated always seemed available for retrieval and use,” said Lively, who died earlier this month at age 94. “In court conferences, he was often the panel member who could recall the previous decision of the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court that most nearly touched the matters at issue in a particular case.”
McCree left the federal bench in 1977 when he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as solicitor general of the U.S., the third-highest position in the Justice Department. After spending four years arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, McCree left his career as a public servant to teach at the U-M Law School, where he shared lasting legal lessons and cemented his sterling professional reputation. His contributions to the legal world were profound, said former Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams in eulogizing McCree in 1987.

“More than Jackie Robinson, Wade McCree had changed the rules, opened new gates of opportunity, and made us all not only prouder of him, but of ourselves.”

 

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