Profile in Brief-- John Feikens Miracle worker

By John Minnis

Legal News

It took a third of a century, but federal Judge John Feikens finally got the suburbs and Detroit to do the unthinkable: They agreed on a joint management plan for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Some call it a miracle. John Feikens, 92, attributes it to "patient, long-term negotiations."

"Both the city and suburbs have realized they need each other," says Feikens, who began oversight of the Detroit water system in 1977.

Management of the unwieldy Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been just one of the many complex, thorny issues Feikens has taken on during his 39-year tenure on the U.S. Detroit Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Through the years, he has also taken on civil rights issues and prison reform.

The senior judge's path to the federal bench was not an easy one. He has the dubious distinction of having been nominated three times before getting his seat on the bench. He first received a recess appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960. That only lasted a year due to opposition from powerful Michigan Sen. Patrick McNamara.

"As chairman of the state Republican Party," Feikens recalls, "I criticized McNamara for use of union dues for political purposes."

He was again nominated by President John Kennedy in 1960, but the nomination was later withdrawn, no doubt due to McNamara's insistence. It was not until the Michigan Senator died unexpectedly in 1966 that Feikens's appointment by President Richard Nixon in 1970 finally stuck.

"Nixon is one of the most misunderstood men," Feikens says. "He was a great man on a one-on-one basis. He was a great jazz pianist."

Feikens has been a judge for so long that few people recall that he was in private practice for 22 years before his appointment. During that time, he became active in Republican politics.

As chairman of the Eisenhower for president committee in Michigan, Feikens took part in the convention fight of 1952 that saw Eisenhower win the nomination and then the presidency. Among Feikens's memorabilia, including pictures of the young attorney/politician with the president, is a thank-you letter from Eisenhower dated June 27, 1952, just prior to the Republican convention.

"We became friendly," Feikens recalls. "We were at lunch with him and were invited to his inauguration, the parade and a reception in the White House." He even attended some of "Ike's" stag parties. "They aren't politically correct," the judge says, "but they were then."

Born and raised in New Jersey to Holland dairy farmers, Feikens came to Michigan to earn a bachelor's degree at Calvin College. He earned his law degree at the University in Michigan Law School in 1941 at the tail end of the Great Depression. Not able to get any legal work, Feikens took a job as an insurance claims adjuster.

"Those were tough times," he says. "Times are tough now, but not near as tough as they were then."

A few years ago, his wife of 67 years died. He took over his wife's feeding of a peacock that roosts in the eaves of his Grosse Pointe home. "People come by my house to see the peacock sitting on my house," Feikens says.

Since his law school days, Feikens has sported a maize and blue bowtie -- a real one, not the clip-on kind.

"I had to learn after my wife died to tie them myself," he says.

Published: Thu, Feb 25, 2010