DMBA to honor legal legend


 Goodman to receive Frank Murphy Award posthumously


By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Ernie Goodman was such a good lawyer that he could work miracles with as few as four words. 

In 1970 Goodman represented 15 members of the Black Panther Party charged with murdering a Detroit police officer. After five weeks and 79 witnesses, the prosecution rested. Goodman rose from the defense table and said, “No witnesses, Your Honor.”

The courtroom appeared stunned, but Goodman’s message was clear: The government’s case was so weak that no defense was necessary. In his closing statement, Goodman then argued that the “charge of conspiracy has always been directed at people at the bottom who seek power to change society.” After 30 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict.

As part of its annual meeting and awards ceremony “Raising the Bar 2014” the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association will honor Goodman posthumously with its Frank Murphy Award, given to an attorney who has made great contributions to the legal profession. The award will be presented by Judge Elizabeth Gleicher of the Court of Appeals. 

The event will be held at the Gem Theatre in Detroit from 5-7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10. 

“The family is very honored by the award given to our father, which is named after Frank Murphy, who was one of his personal heroes,” said son Bill Goodman, a Detroit attorney. “Justice Murphy stood for things that my father strongly believed in, primarily the rule of law under the Bill of Rights. Also, the right of workers to organize on their own behalf.”   

“On behalf of the family, I would like to express our warmest thanks to the Bar for this recognition of the life and work of Ernie,” said Richard Goodman, also a Detroit lawyer and the oldest son of Ernest. “I join my brother Bill in saying that no figure in Michigan law was more esteemed in Ernie’s eyes than Frank Murphy, a man he knew. He would be thrilled to see his name joined with that of Michigan’s only United States Supreme Court justice in this presentation. For his family, this is an unforgettable moment.”

In 1983, Goodman obtained a $3 million settlement from AAA for discrimination against its black employees. Father William Cunningham, himself a Detroit legend and whose Focus Hope organization brought the lawsuit, described Goodman’s opening argument as “what Moses must have sounded like coming down from Sinai.”

Legend has it that Goodman became a lawyer because he was looking for a good place to play tennis. A fellow player suggested, in 1924, that the Detroit College of Law would be a good place to form a tennis team. Goodman supposedly wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a lawyer, but figured that as long as he was there, he might as well attend some classes. And the rest, as the cliché says, was history.

And what a history it was. 

An examination of the important legal and social struggles of the 20th century in Detroit will usually turn up some involvement by Goodman. His specialties were representing the unpopular and making people uncomfortable, and he was very good at both, always in a good cause. His client list included a member of the Scottsboro Boys, Ford Motor Company strikers, Attica prison inmates, Black Panthers, Communist Party leaders and Vietnam War protestors.

Goodman and George Crockett founded the country’s first integrated law firm and he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court seven times. 

Arrested at least once, he was also placed under surveillance by the FBI. This didn’t prevent him from being repeatedly honored by his peers, including, five years before his death, receiving the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice Award. 

Few first person accounts of Ernie Goodman fail to mention his perceptive eye and wry sense of humor. In addition to his devotion to justice, Goodman was an avid outdoorsman, something not common in his family or professional circle. He once talked about his love of hunting and fishing in a letter to his grandson, Carlos:

Neither my sons nor grandchildren have inherited my 45 years of interest in hunting deer. I appear to be an aberration in our family line, if not the entire Jewish population. In recent years I have felt increasingly under siege to amend my immoral desire to kill. Fortunately, perhaps, in the past number of years I find that I have not actually killed a deer although I have fired a number of shots. Is it possible that these insidious influences have affected my aim? Fortunately, I still love fishing, and no one, inexplicably, seems to have any objection to the killing of a fish.

A biography, “The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights,” by Steve Babson, Dave Riddle, and David Elsila, was published by Wayne State University Press in 2010.

For more information on the event, go to the organization’s website at or email Mitzy Sharp Futro at


A Remembrance

In June of 1972 I was serving as an acting judge of Wayne County Circuit Court on the Supreme Court’s crash program ( as a result of having been elected in 1966 to a 6-week vacancy on the Recorder’s Court). It was a Friday afternoon, and the assignment clerk walked in to ask whether I’d like to take another case. I could easily have said no on a Friday afternoon but I said OK, and he came back with a file in a big box. It turned out to be a suit to invalidate the disposition of a will that had been probated years earlier, on the basis that the will was a fraud, and that the rightful beneficiaries, therefore, were the surviving brothers and sisters in Poland of the decedent, as opposed to the one brother beneficiary of the will in the U.S. who had allegedly procured the fraudulent will. Representing the plaintiff (the Polish general consul representing the heirs) was none other than Ernest Goodman.

I was all of 36 years old at the time and at the first pretrial conference Mr. Goodman looked at me and asked whether I would consider having an advisory jury. I declined, saying that if the jury came up with a different opinion than mine, I’d go with mine anyway.

I had heard much about Mr. Goodman’s work in the civil rights area but hadn’t met him before and speculated to myself whether I’d be hearing a lot of shouting and pounding the table. Instead, I witnessed what was perhaps the most thorough and competently researched presentation I’d ever seen, and perhaps have ever seen since, and most respectfully and eloquently advocated. His very thorough investigation into events that had occurred years earlier proved quite convincingly that the will had been forged in favor of the named beneficiary. The appeal of the decision was later reported in the Court of Appeals, Kita v. Matuszak.

Ever since then I have felt privileged for having presided on a case in which Ernest Goodman was counsel.


— Ret. Judge William Giovan