John Feikens (1918-2011): Wise man and crafty judge dies at 93: Judge's memorial to be held at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The Detroit legal community is expected to be well represented at a memorial service for Federal Judge John Feikens at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Grosse Pointe Memorial Church.

Feikens, who served 39 years on the U.S. District Court -- Eastern District of Michigan, died Sunday at the age of 93.

Feikens is remembered as a principled defender of the law who was unafraid to take a stand. He's been described as a creative, dynamic, and demanding judge, and a champion for the environment.

In 2006, he was honored at a portrait unveiling ceremony attended by many Michigan dignitaries.

After listening to accolades, he spoke on his love for the law, and for resolving conflict. He said he disagreed with those in his profession who saw settlement as inferior to having a judge or jury impose a solution on the parties.

"The opposite is true," he said. "It demands far more creativity from a judge to get parties to come to a solution than it does to state the reason for imposing a decision on them."

"I relish these opportunities for creativity, because it allows me to use the law to shape solutions that are more just and more lasting than those available as a remedy after trial. It also gives all parties the chance to be part of the resolution process which is invaluable to our society ... I find my career most satisfying in those moments when a conflict is resolved in a manner I know is just and better for all involved."

The Legal News interviewed Feikens last year after the suburbs and city of Detroit finally agreed on a joint management plan for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Feikens -- one of the longest-serving federal judges -- had overseen the decades-old case, and attributed the new agreement to "patient, long-term negotiations." He began oversight of the Detroit water system in 1977, and throughout the years, also took on civil rights issues and prison reform.

When he was in the presence of Feikens, District Court Judge David Lawson had the sense that he was in the presence of not just a great jurist, but someone who was in touch with history.

Feikens once told Lawson about how he became interested in politics and government when he was a student at Calvin College

"He went to a political rally in Grand Rapids and he was impressed by this presidential aspirant who was speaking -- and it ended up to be Franklin Roosevelt," Lawson said.

Lawson made sure the two had lunch together every few weeks.

"The thing I'll miss the most is the opportunity to share time with him and gain perspective on the events of the day just because with his legend and personal experience, he lived through some pretty turbulent times in our country and was able to put a gloss on it that younger people aren't always able to do simply by book learning," said Lawson. "He had a sense of history and perspective, and he wanted to share that."

"He was a wise man and a crafty judge," he said, adding that Feikens knew how to navigate a case from Point A to Point B, usually to the benefit of everyone involved.

District Court Judge Avern Cohn said he'll miss having a sounding board with such extensive experience.

"I'll miss most having a friend I can exchange ideas with and test my conclusions in complicated cases," he said. "He had considerable more judicial experience than I did."

Cohn was most impressed with Feikens' determination in pursuing a goal. He said it was Feikens' idea that the courthouse should be named after Theodore Levin.

In 1963, Feikens and Damon Keith became the first co-chairs of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

"He was dedicated to that principle of equality," Larson said.

Raised on a dairy farm in New Jersey, Feikens moved to Michigan to attend Calvin College. He went on to earn his law degree at the University of Michigan Law School in 1941. Unable to find legal work as the Great Depression came to a close, he took a job as an insurance claims adjuster.

Feikens was nominated three times to the federal bench before finally getting his seat. Nominations by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were withdrawn due, Feikens told the Legal News, to opposition by Michigan Sen. Patrick McNamara, whom Feikens had once criticized while serving as chairman of the state Republican Party.

Feikens was appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1970 -- four years after McNamara's death in 1966. By then, Feikens had been in private practice for 22 years.

Feikens' wife of 67 years, Henriette, died in 2007. He told the Legal News that following her death, he had to learn to tie his familiar maize-and-blue bow ties himself.

The Grosse Pointe Memorial Church is located at 16 Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Published: Wed, May 18, 2011