Word 'brilliant' best described Rosenthal

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

By all acc-ounts but her own, she was a feminist, a trailblazer who made her mark long before women were afforded opportunities to shine in the legal world.

She was the first woman named as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County and became the first female to argue a case before the Michigan Supreme Court, and was one of five charter members of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan.

But Henrietta Elizabeth Rosenthal, who was admitted to the Michigan Bar in 1918, the year she graduated from law school at the University of Michigan, preferred to see herself in a different light.

“I am an attorney,” Rosenthal said, simple as that. “I learned to use books at law school, as all attorneys do.”

And yet, Rosenthal was recognized as one of Detroit’s true “Legal Legends,” a select few honored by The Detroit Legal News in 1995 as part of its centennial celebration. As such, she ranked among the likes of Jason Honigman, Wade McCree Jr., Frank Murphy, Martha Griffiths, and D. Augustus Straker.

She initially made a “name for herself as a thorough and trusted researcher whom the judges of Detroit Recorder’s Court could depend upon to quickly prepare opinions on ticklish legal points,” according to The Legal News profile of Rosenthal that appeared in 1995.

“She was a brilliant, brilliant woman,” described Anne D. Seeger of Detroit, the daughter of Rosenthal’s colleague, Anne Davidow. “Neither my mother nor Henrietta could find jobs, so they went into practice with their brothers. Then Henrietta found her niche as a researcher.”

Her work was so highly regarded that some legal observers called Rosenthal “the brains behind the judges she served,” while “even newspaper reports gave her credit for some of the court’s big projects,” according to the Legal News profile.

For example, when Judge John P. O’Hara introduced a court reform package, The Detroit News reported: “Behind his plan was four months’ work by Miss Rosenthal” along with the suggestions of fellow judges.
“Miss Rosenthal’s share in the project was to check and re-check existing laws, the state and federal constitutions, and to establish with legal certainty that the plan was in order,” the newspaper reported.

A native of Saginaw, Rosenthal graduated from U-M, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious national academic honor society. Upon graduation, she taught languages for several years before returning to her alma mater to pursue a doctorate in theology.

In the early days of her career, Rosenthal was a “political activist,” unsuccessfully seeking a seat on the Wayne Circuit Court in 1935, while also promoting President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.

“She helped found the Democratic Women of Wayne County and served as the group’s president,” according to The Legal News profile. “She served as an officer of the Democratic Women of Michigan and the Wayne County Council of Democratic Clubs.”

Yet, it was more than 20 years later when Rosenthal achieved true recognition for her legal knowledge and skill. In 1956, “researcher Rosenthal reached the mandatory age of retirement under Detroit’s civil service regulations, but the Recorder’s Court judges turned to the Legislature for a way to keep her on the job,” The Legal News reported.

“A law was quickly passed creating the post of judicial assistant for any Michigan court with 10 or more judges. Rosenthal had become a living legend.”
 

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