Work of art: Portrait ceremony shines bright light on career of federal judge

In a keepsake photo, Judge David Lawson (second from right) is pictured at the ceremony with his wife, Janet (second from left), and the couple’s three sons (left to right), Kyle, Daniel, and Ryan. Daniel, an Episcopal priest, delivered the benediction at the October 7 portrait ceremony.

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

It is an event that some judges approach with a certain amount of trepidation, particularly those like U.S. District Judge David Lawson who has preferred to remain out of the public limelight during his 22 years on the federal bench.

And yet, on the afternoon of October 7 in a courtroom filled with family, friends, colleagues, and admirers, Judge Lawson was squarely in the spotlight at his portraiture ceremony where a striking likeness of the jurist was unveiled.

The portrait is the work of noted artist Jamie Lee McMahan, a man who has painted U.S. senators, governors, mayors, judges, university presidents, and acclaimed author Alex Haley, the mastermind behind the best-selling book “Roots.”

His portrait of Lawson was commissioned by the court after the University of Notre Dame magna cum laude graduate took senior status in August of 2021. The painting, which may well rank among McMahan’s most masterful works, will now hang in a second-floor courtroom at the downtown Detroit courthouse.

“This is a happy event, to present this portrait, which I hope one day will hang in the courtroom on the seventh floor of this building where I do my work at present,” Lawson remarked at the October 7 ceremony. “For the time being, my friend and colleague Judge Matthew Leitman has agreed to give it a home in his courtroom. And he has given me a break on the rent.”

The light-hearted comment was Lawson’s way of bringing a fitting end to a memorable ceremony that was rich in tributes and heartfelt reflections. The lineup of speakers included such notables as Chief Judge Sean Cox, former Chief Judge Denise Page Hood, retired U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Ryan, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, attorney Kenneth Mogill, and attorney Michael Shaffer, longtime career law clerk to the honoree.

Each, not surprisingly, took a turn lavishing praise on Lawson for his judicial brilliance and his steadfast commitment to applying the principle of equal justice under the law.

But when it came time for the honoree to speak, he began by framing the ceremony in his own terms.

“I used to think this was a venerable tradition, until it came time for my portrait,” said Lawson. “I had second thoughts. I considered that it was somewhat self-indulgent and perhaps elevated the idea of individual public service unnecessarily. But looking at the portraits of the remarkable individuals who have served in our court and devoted their lives and careers to the cause of justice, I came to appreciate how memorializing that service emphasizes the role that we have been privileged to play in the greater scheme of our national democratic experiment.”

He also took the opportunity to “publicly and enthusiastically thank Jamie McMahan, who has brought his talent and insight to the process in creating this work.” He added, “If any of my colleagues are looking to have their portraits painted, you cannot find anyone better, and the experience with Jamie is remarkably uplifting. He is a talented gentleman and a kind soul.”

Lawson was nominated to the bench in August 1999 by President William C. Clinton, an appointment that was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May 2000. Unanimity, of course, is a remarkable phenomenon, particularly when it applies to any act of Congress.
Yet, “remarkable” was a term that was used liberally at the ceremony to describe Lawson’s career and impact on the court.

After graduating first in his class at Wayne State University Law School, Lawson launched his legal career with a clerkship for Justice James Ryan of the Michigan Supreme Court. He then joined his father’s law firm in 1977, spending 9 years working with the family patriarch, a man who taught him and whom he admired so very much.

In 1999, Lawson’s legal skills and scholarly work were brought to the attention of U.S. Senator Carl Levin when an opening on the federal bench occurred. Levin, relying on his merit selection committee, “recommended me for appointment to President Clinton,” Lawson related in his remarks at the portrait ceremony.

“He did not know me and took a chance,” Lawson said of the late Senator. “I hope my record has confirmed the confidence he displayed when he made his recommendation.”

Lawson also took time to speak glowingly of each speaker who paid tribute to him at the ceremony, and made special mention of members of his “crackerjack judicial staff.”

He then “reserved the most important tribute to my family,” including his 96-year-old mother, Dorothy; his sister, Mary, and her husband, Leon; and his wife, Janet, and their three sons, Daniel, Ryan, and Kyle.

“I owe an unrepayable debt of gratitude to my family and the sacrifices they have made to allow me to pursue this career, both as a lawyer and as a judge,” he said before offering one final thought.

“I have saved the best for last, and that is Janet, the love of my life,” Lawson said. “None of the cliches – life partner, soul mate, confidant – are adequate to describe the bond that we share. Later this month, we are celebrating our 50th anniversary. She is a brilliant woman, a remarkable leader who has left her mark on the nonprofit community in Michigan. And she is generous to a fault, always putting the interest of others before herself. And she has enriched my life even more than she could know. And for me, she makes every day worth living.

Thank you, my sweet.”


Judge’s career law clerk puts an exclamation point on event

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

By his own admission, attorney Michael Shaffer says “working for Judge David Lawson isn’t easy.”

As one of Lawson’s law clerks for the past 10 years, Shaffer has been offered a special vantage point to size up his boss and to rate his leadership qualities and judicial abilities.

What he has witnessed “has been gratifying” and “uplifting,” as well as “been a masterful education in the law.”

He said as much at the October 7 portraiture ceremony held in Judge Lawson’s honor.

Shaffer, a University of Michigan Law School grad who formerly was an electronics technician in the U.S. Coast Guard, was assigned the task of speaking for all of the 22 law clerks who have worked for Lawson over his 22 years on the federal bench.

“Now I don’t need to say much about his devotion to the law,” Shaffer said in his opening remarks. “Everyone here knows – his command of the law is encyclopedic; his work ethic is prodigious.”

In preparing his speech, Shaffer discovered that Lawson’s case numbers tell an almost mind-boggling tale.

“I found more than 3,100 entries in Westlaw over his signature,” Schaffer said. “Six hundred and sixty-five of those are his published opinions. I did the math; that’s one published opinion every eight business days for the last 22 years. The impact of his work on the life of the law
in this district and this circuit is almost beyond exaggeration, because the scope of the work is so vast.”

In matters big or small, Lawson has brought the “same energy to every single case that he decides,” according to Shaffer.

Perhaps the finest example of such dedication and fairness appeared in the little known 2001 case of DeKoven v. Bell, said Shaffer. It revolved around a 205-page pro se complaint filed by Chad G. DeKoven, a prisoner at the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility in mid-Michigan.

DeKoven sued “a range of persons and entities; some real, and some imaginary,” according to Shaffer, who noted that the plaintiff also claimed that he answers to the name of “God-Messiah of the Holy Bible” among other monikers.

“His demands were extensive, including: the immediate establishment of a state of peace and disarmament in the Middle East; transfer of all wheelchair-bound prisoners at his prison to a facility where they could receive better care; and a full pardon, or in the alternative, an immediate parole – the full duration of which was to be, 60 seconds. In the alternative to meeting his demands, he prayed for compensation including: millions of tons of minerals and metals; 5-million breeding pairs of bison; and 45-million trees at least 50 years old.

“Now this is the sort of case that never was going far in federal court,” Shaffer noted. “It could have been brushed off with a one-page order, and no one would have given it a second thought.”

Instead, the case rated a 16-page published opinion in the federal supplement, compliments of Judge Lawson, who concisely and precisely addressed each element of the plaintiff’s complaint, according to Shaffer.

In ruling against the plaintiff, Lawson wrote: “The debunking of such claims may seem to some a waste of judicial resources, and an inappropriate dignification of allegations that should be rejected out-of-hand. However, the fundamental right of claimants to their day in court – their opportunity to be heard – is so deeply ingrained in our judicial tradition that summary dismissal of even the most fanciful complaint requires genuine analysis and consideration. It is the judicial process that is dignified by such effort, not the complaint itself.”

To Shaffer, the judge’s words amounted to pure “poetry,” the kind that he has regularly read in opinions that Lawson has authored.

“The message of this case, to me, and to every party that comes before this judge, is that no matter your station in life, however great or small; no matter your situation, however low or desperate – whoever you are out there in the world, is left at the door when you enter in
here,” Shaffer said. “Because in this place, before this judge, every one stands equal before the law – every company, every agency, every human being. You may go away disappointed. But you will never go away unheard.”


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