A legal gem: Colleagues, friends pay tribute to longtime federal attorney


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Long known and admired as a skillful litigator, Ellen Christensen forged an impressive 35-year career with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, displaying an uncanny knack for disarming opponents while also charming friends and foes alike.

It was a gift that she displayed throughout her life, which was cut short April 6, when she died of complications from lung cancer at age 69 while under hospice care.

Her death came little more than two years from when she was diagnosed with the disease after being bothered by a persistent cough for weeks. The cancer diagnosis was delivered on Christmas Day 2016, making for a particularly difficult holiday, according to her husband, attorney Lyle Russell.

“It was the first of several calendar coincidences for her,” said Russell, her husband of 33 years.

The most recent occurred on her birthday, March 21, when her oncologists suspended further immunotherapy treatments due to the progression of the disease.

“Needless to say, she put up a valiant fight over the past two years, but it was an aggressive form of cancer that few if any can survive, even someone as fit and active as Ellen,” said Russell. “Her overall fitness level undoubtedly helped to prolong her life and for that we are all grateful.”

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Michael Riordan, who spent 14 years working with Christensen at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, said her passing “is incredibly sad” and “shocking” even as he prepared himself for the news.

“She was the last person in the world you would think would have been stricken by lung cancer,” said Riordan. “She was the picture of health and always maintained such a positive attitude about life.

“As someone who worked under her supervision for 14 years, I can say without hesitation that she was a brilliant attorney and a great boss, as good as they come,” Riordan added. “Probably the most apt term I have ever heard describing Ellen is that she was ‘really cool.’ That, she was.”

The adopted daughter of Veronica and Bill Christensen, she grew up on the east side of Detroit and graduated from the all-girls Dominican High School. A topflight student, Christensen took her academic talents to the University of Michigan and then to law school at the University of Detroit, where she first crossed paths with her future husband.

“I was intrigued by her after she scammed a law professor who called upon her in class for an analysis of a case,” Russell recalled. “She told him something to the effect that ‘Miss Christensen is not here tonight, professor, she is absent.’ It was an early indication that she was a problem-solver – in a creative sort of way.”

A year later, she transferred to Wayne State University Law School, where she obtained her degree with distinction in 1976. Her smarts helped land a job as a law clerk to then Chief Justice Thomas Giles Kavanagh of the Michigan Supreme Court, a two-year assignment that led to an opportunity in private practice with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss.

“She spent a year there, working in the First National Building before she made the move to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she was able to really put her courtroom skills to good use,” said Russell.

From her start in January 1982, Christensen would spend her entire career there in the office’s Civil Division, becoming the first chief of the Affirmative Litigation Unit when it was created in the late 1980s. She held that post for nearly 30 years, retiring in the spring of 2017 due to her declining health situation.

Peter Caplan, a longtime colleague and the current chief of the Civil Division, described Christensen as “wise, funny, but most of all, so very kind.” No matter what the life event, said Caplan, Christensen was always sure to bake a cake, to send a card, or to deliver a meal.

“When my mother died at the age of 84, after a long battle with dementia, Ellen was the first person at the shiva house with a basket full of food,” said Caplan, who admired her grace, wit, and professionalism.

Lynn Helland, executive director of the Judicial Tenure Commission, worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office with Christensen for more than three decades. Although they worked in different divisions – he in criminal, she in civil – the office was small enough and their paths crossed often enough that he came to know her work ethic, warm personality, and sense of humor very well.

“In the old days, our office was in the courthouse, and we all were on just two floors, eight and nine,” Helland recalled. “If someone was in trial, we all knew. Many years ago, Ellen was trying a forfeiture case in front of Judge (Avern) Cohn. I think the government was forfeiting a private plane, probably because it was used for drug trafficking or something. Judge Cohn, as is his wont, was giving Ellen fits. It was stressful and tense, but I still remember Ellen having us in stitches with her tales of her travails before Judge Cohn.”

Helland also remembered that those in the Civil Division “ate very well,” thanks in large part to Christensen’s culinary talents.

“Ellen was a main contributor of way-too-sinful key lime pie with a graham cracker crust, to which she applied ‘real’ whipped cream at the last minute,” Helland said. “Ellen’s pies might sometimes benefit a lucky Criminal Division attorney who happened by . . .”

Alan Gershel, head of the Attorney Grievance Commission and a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, would second the motion about the tastiness of her key lime pie, yet that was just a small part about what made Christensen special.

“I had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Ellen for almost 35 years,” said Gershel. “We first met in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the mid-1980s. She early on established herself as an outstanding Assistant U.S. Attorney. She was smart, a creative problem-solver, and a tenacious but fair litigator.

“Her considerable skill and talents were quickly recognized by the U.S. Attorney at the time, who appointed her to lead the office’s efforts in affirmative litigation on behalf of the government,” Gershel noted. “This included, among other matters, asset forfeiture, health care, and environmental cases. In addition to her skills as a lawyer and manager, she was very well liked and respected by the staff – a consistently open-minded manager who took the time to consider multiple points of view. Every issue was treated seriously. Even if you were not successful, you always knew you received a fair hearing.”

Gershel said Christensen also possessed a “wonderful sense of humor” whose laugh was infectious.

“On a personal level, our families often traveled together,” he said. “We were often guests of her and Lyle in their Northern Michigan home. She was exceedingly generous and always made us feel welcome. It was obvious to all who knew Ellen that she had a truly wonderful marriage and partnership with Lyle, and had a deep and profound love for her two sons.”

Christensen and Russell were married January 2, 1986 in Leland, close to where they have a vacation home on the scenic Leelanau Peninsula.

“It was a courthouse wedding in the depth of winter, but we loved being up north at that time of year when we could ski and enjoy the special beauty of the outdoors,” said Russell, an avid downhill skier. “Trekking around the wilderness together was one of our favorite activities, and we took hiking and backpacking trips throughout the west, Alaska, Canada, the U.P., and Isle Royale. We had hoped to enjoy many more.”

Outdoor adventure was a joy they shared with their two sons, 32-year-old Ryan of Clawson and 29-year-old James of San Francisco, along with Christensen’s sister, Carol.

“Since we both were adopted, Ellen and I could draw comfort in knowing that ‘we were wanted’ by our parents,” said Carol. “And our parents were very loving and caring, and stressed the importance of a college
education as a means to a better life.”

Three years older than her sister, Carol also earned her bachelor’s degree from U-M, later obtaining her master and doctoral degrees from Wayne State University. She now serves as Director of Institutional Advancement for the Monell Center, reportedly the world’s only independent, nonprofit scientific institute dedicated to research on the senses of taste and smell.

“As we aged, I started to observe Ellen differently than just as a sister, appreciating her range of talents and the success she enjoyed in her legal career,” said Carol. “She knew how to grab hold of a situation and to prioritize, to problem-solve. That was one of her real gifts.”

It was a skill on display to her dying day, according to her sister.

“She was the master of command throughout her ordeal,” said Carol. “She was calling the shots to the very end.”

That would come as no surprise to Robert Glennon, a former law professor of hers at Wayne State who now teaches at the University of Arizona College of Law, where he is recognized as one of the country’s foremost experts on water rights.

“Ellen had a special talent as a lawyer and litigator, but more importantly she was one of the most kind, caring, and wonderful people you could ever hope to meet in life,” said Glennon, whose wife, Karen Adam, is a retired judge in Arizona. “She and Lyle have been as dear friends as we have, and her loss at such an age is hard to comprehend. It’s difficult to put into words just how much her friendship has meant to us over the years and how much she will be missed.”

Her husband, of course, will miss her profoundly yet will cherish the thought of her occasional mischievousness.

“Ellen had a thing for bears, and over the years we had close encounters with polar bears, a grizzly in Denali, and a fair number of black bears,” Russell related. “At the Porcupine Mountains facility that mandated checking in for back country camping, we were warned not to go to ‘that lake,’ the ranger explaining that there were too many bears there and we’d be certain to lose our food supply no matter what tricks we used to safeguard it and would be fortunate to get away unharmed.

“Immediately after assuring the ranger that we would not go there, Ellen turned to me and whispered out of his hearing ‘What are we waiting for? Let’s go.’”