Northern Exposure: Bay City federal court gets its day in the sun

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Photos by Paul Janczewski

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

A capacity crowd filled every seat in the historic Bay City federal court on September 4. Two television stations, several photographers and print media members also were on hand. The crowds were not there to hear testimony in a stunning trial, but rather for rededication ceremonies on the courthouse’s recent renovations.

To mark the event, more than half of the current and senior judges from the Eastern District of Michigan traveled north on I-75 for the festivities at the courthouse on 1000 Washington Avenue, paying tribute to its colorful history.

It also marked the first time the federal jurists have held their judges’ meeting in Bay City, the northern-most court of the sprawling Eastern District.
A handful of the U.S. District Court judges who began their careers in Bay City – some retired, some still active – also spoke of the court’s storied past, reminisced on times, cases and judges of the past, and added to the historical flavor the event presented.

“Things have improved dramatically in terms of ambiance and the décor,” said Eastern District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, who began his career as a federal judge here in 1990.

Although only located in Bay City for three months, Rosen spoke kindly of his predecessor, James Churchill, saying he made the transition for Rosen “seamless.”

“He was extremely helpful to me,” Rosen said. “I not only learned the ropes here in the Bay City courthouse, but also the best restaurants.”

Churchill was one of a few judges who spoke during the ceremony. And while most of the attention was leveled to an infamous 1956 event when an armed gunman burst through the doors and fired a shotgun blast that narrowly missed hitting Judge Frank Picard, the event consisted of equal amounts of levity, formality, and the required pomp and circumstance federal judges deserve.

Judge Thomas Ludington, the presiding judge in Bay City, earlier said he and Rosen had been discussing necessary renovations for some time, and concluded the building did not allow court employees to be as productive as possible.

The $1.2-million project began about four years ago to renovate the second and third floors. The building also houses a U.S. Post Office, the District Court and staff, Probation, Pre-Trial Services and the Clerk’s office. In the past, a Custom’s House and other federal agencies, including a bankruptcy court and U.S. Attorney’s Office called it home before moving elsewhere.

But as the functions of the remaining tenants changed, officials decided those spaces needed to be updated and changed as well. Although it had – and still has – 24,500 square feet of space for the nearly three-dozen employees, the space was not used to reflect modern day technologies.

Before the project began, Ludington, Rosen and key players in the project consulted with the people who know the building best – employees of the court, department heads in Detroit and others who had a stake in the building’s success. Ludington said state, local and federal officials and agencies all had a hand in the work, with funding coming from the Eastern District and 6th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Walls were knocked down, new spaces created, and amenities added, such as an improved sound system in the courtroom, computer displays and monitors for both attorneys and jurists, and 100 percent handicap accessibility. New chairs and carpeting spruced up the courtroom.

In addition, the renovations include adding a fitness room with a treadmill machine and elliptical machines and weights, a staff break room, training room, jury deliberations room, attorney witness room, and new spaces for Probation and Pre-Trial Services.

Ludington thanked all state, local and federal bureaus and people who were involved in the project, along with the construction companies, and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe with their input to celebrate this important event in the life of the Northern Division.

According to “The Court Legacy,” a three-page article that appeared in the February 2005 edition from the Historical Society for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Bay City got its permanent federal court in 1893, and the following year Congress divided the district into Northern and Southern divisions.

Saginaw fought for the right to house it, but Bay City prevailed. The building was demolished in 1931 and rebuilt, and renovated several times, most recently in 1994, when those bullet holes were patched and covered up.

The bullet holes came on March 12, 1956, when Stanley Wloch, a former mental patient who had threatened Picard in writing in the past, almost made good on those threats in person by barging through the door as Picard was conducting a trial and fired a 16-gauge shotgun blast at him. It left a pattern of pellets on the wall, but missed Picard. Some reports say Picard helped chase the man down, while others say Wloch was already in custody by an FBI agent, but all say Picard remained calm and soon continued with the trial.

Judge David Lawson, who also served in the Bay City court for six years, wrote a seven-page historical view of the court, complete with footnotes, sources and anecdotal information on history and some of the judges who served there.

The rededication event began with a tour of the updated court and offices, and the judges in attendance held their meeting. After lunch, Court Administrator David J. Weaver opened the special session for the public, and 16 current and senior U.S. District Court Judges, several magistrates from the Eastern District and a bankruptcy judge filed in the courtroom.

U.S. District Judges from the Eastern District of Michigan who attended included newest member Gershwin Drain; Robert Cleland; Stephen Murphy III; George Caram Steeh; Victoria Roberts; Mark Goldsmith; Paul Warner; David Lawson; and Ludington. Senior Judges included Avern Cohn; Marianne Battani; John Corbett O’Meara; Patrick Duffy; and Arthur Tarnow.

The meeting was conducted by Rosen, who introduced all the judges and magistrates, and peppered his remarks by interjecting jokes, stories, and colorful remarks. Noting that it was a cloudy, rainy day with terrible storms when he left Detroit, Rosen said it wasn’t until he crossed into the Northern Division that the skies parted.

“I took that as an omen,” he said.

Rosen said it was a “reflection and a measure of the commitment that all of us have for the Northern Division” that so many judges came to the rededication.
Cleland, who served in Bay City from 1990-99, presented a brief history of the court, said he has fond memories of his time in Bay City, and said the courtroom was “a fabulous place to try a case.”

He pointed out four portraits of former judges adorning the walls — Picard, 1939-63; James Churchill, 1984-89; James Harvey, 1974-84; and Arthur Tuttle, 1912-44. Cleland said the portraits, and the now-patched bullet holes, puts history not only on the walls, but also in the walls.

Churchill also spoke briefly, and began his remarks by saying, “I was not the one who shot that gun here,” drawing laughs from the crowd. Churchill, who served as judge here from 1984-89, spoke of a case he had before Picard and informed him he did not want a pretrial hearing on the case. Churchill said he learned a valuable lesson then.

“Don’t turn down a judge!”

He also told a story of Picard refusing to allow an attorney to cross examine a witness. Later, Picard asked the attorney if he had any questions, and the attorney told Picard no.

“It’s a funny story, but it’s the damn truth,” Churchill said.

Before the event, an unidentified attorney was overheard talking to another lawyer about Picard’s somewhat questionable antics and said Picard didn’t just preside over the court, “he ruled over it.”

Churchill said he learned a rapport had to be established between judges and attorneys, a trait that he tried to carry over when he was a judge.
Cleland said a lesson he learned as judge was to “listen first.”

Lawson joked that Bay City became a destination for new judges lacking any seniority.

“But it was a wonderful experience,” he said. “They say judges learn to somehow fend for themselves,” Lawson added.

The motto way back then for those in Bay City, according to Lawson, was “independence through isolation.” But Lawson credited the staff, and the relationships he gained with state court judges, and those bullet holes in the wall he saw daily, as adding to the “charm and functionality” he found in Bay City.

Rosen said the bullet holes and history “that was embedded over there for so many years has been covered up but not forgotten.”
He said the Bay City court has been in the “good, capable hands” of Ludington since 2006, and having the first meeting ever in Bay City speaks to his credentials.

“It reflects, and is a manifestation of, our court’s commitment to the Northern Division and specifically to the Bay City courthouse,“ Rosen said. “It’s a very important part of the larger court family of the Eastern District.”

Ludington said he was pleased that the first meeting of the district was held in his northern-most outpost.

“It reflects the court’s general commitment to the counties and the people that we serve,” he said. “I’m very pleased they made the decision (for renovations) and made the trip.”

And for once, Ludington didn’t need to drive to Detroit for the meeting.

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