Judge authors discuss commonalities of their Michigan notable books

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

There is both a surprising overlap and a wide divergence between books written by Michigan judges and chosen as two of the Michigan Notable Books for 2011.

Judge William C. Whitbeck and retired Judge Lawrence M. Glazer spoke at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids Wednesday, as part of a tour which covered all four of the Cooley campuses, including a stop in Lansing later that day.

Both books concern Michigan politics; both take place during the decades around the middle of the twentieth century. The protagonist of both books is a man who was wounded, and disabled, during World War II. The two books reflect on corruption in elected leaders, and have sad tales to tell about the repercussions of alcohol abuse. Both are based on true stories.

The differences between the two stem from the authors’ treatment of their stories: Judge Glazer’s is a factual history book, and Judge Whitbeck’s is a novel, a murder mystery which he stresses is purely fictional.

Glazer is a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge, a former assistant  Attorney General in Michigan, and a legal advisor to Governor James Blanchard. His book, Wounded Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Michigan Governor John Swainson, concerns the state’s second-youngest governor — the book jacket shows a very young man indeed.

Born in Canada, Swainson grew up in Port Huron, and fought in World War II in part so he could attain U.S. citizenship. He wound up losing both his legs by the tender age of 19. His hospitalization at Battle Creek’s Percy Jones veterans’ hospital acquainted him with many other wounded soldiers from diverse backgrounds, and he came to the realization that there were a lot of societal injustices he wished to work at eliminating.

Swainson entered politics, encouraged in part by Democratic leaders who saw his war service as an asset. He served as Lieutenant Governor under G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams and then, in an upset victory, became governor in 1960, still a strong advocate for civil rights. In his run for a second two-year term, George Romney defeated him.

After that Swainson became an attorney, a judge, and eventually a member of the Michigan Supreme Court. In 1975, he was accused of accepting a bribe — a charge on which he was eventually acquitted. However, he was convicted of perjury before the grand jury in conjunction with the events. He was therefore disbarred.

Swainson’s rise and precipitous fall resulted in a battle with alcoholism, one he eventually won. After that, license restored, he practiced mediation and arbitration. He was appointed to the Michigan Historical Commission, where he thrived.

In later life when the Supreme Court mounted his portrait, after hearing others praise him, Swainson said, “I will let history, of which I have become quite fond, be the judge of my public career.”

Lawrence Glazer regarded this as a challenge, which resulted in the expansion of what was originally an article to book length. In response to a question from someone at the Cooley presentation, he said that he is convinced that Swainson was innocent.

The book can be purchased at Amazon.com, where it has attained a five-star rating over the course of five glowing reviews, and through Michigan State University Press.

Whitbeck’s novel, To Account for Murder, may also be purchased at Amazon, through www.amazon.com/Account-Murder-William-C-Whitbeck/dp/1579622062/ref=pd_sim_b_1.

Judge Whitbeck, whose columns many have already read in the Legal News papers around the state, is the former Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals and still a judge on that body. In telling the  background story for his novel, he detailed a culture of corruption in Michigan that few people remember. The problems stemmed primarily from prohibition days, fueled by the fact that in Canada prohibition had ended. Detroit became a major liquor distribution hub, leading to widespread opportunities for bribery and power mongering.

The true story his book is “very loosely” based on was the 1945 murder of a bland but extremely corrupt senator, Warren Hooper. Explaining that Michigan is one of the few states that has a provision for a one-member Grand Jury as well as the more normal 23-person panel, Whitbeck said that Hooper’s death was attributable to his intention to tell all to that one man. Further real-life facts include the hiring of fabled trial court attorney Kim Sigler to prosecute the case; Sigler later served as Michigan’s governor.

Whitbeck said that his book not only deals with that corrupt period of time and the operations of a variety of very different power brokers, but addresses serious themes: he mentions loss and the juxtaposition of opposites, particularly appearances and reality. “Lastly, my wife and other readers suggest that it’s a love story,” Whitbeck says.

Seeing how these threads interweave is one of the pleasures of reading To Account for Murder. In an interesting twist on the traditional whodunit, readers of To Account for Murder know from the start who committed the crime, which becomes a tale of how the man who confesses “I’d shot him” deflects investigation into his role.

Or, at least, readers think they know who committed the crime.

A real page-turner with colorful characters, detailed court battles, and spot-on dialogue, To Account for Murder keeps its secrets until the very last pages.