In Genesee County, son steps into the courtroom shoes of his judicial father

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by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

When Genesee County Circuit Judge David Newblatt walked into his courtroom this January, he may well have heard a familiar voice echoing in his ears – that of his father, 91-year-old Stewart, whose portrait also casts a large shadow on the courtroom’s far wall.

The elder Newblatt, a U.S. Army veteran with a distinguished service record, was a distinguished judge there from 1962 to 1970 before moving up the judicial ranks.

In fact, in one of his most important legal pronouncements as a Circuit Court judge, the family patriarch heralded his son’s “official” arrival.

“When I was born, in 1966, my dad wrote on the chalkboard in the courtroom that  the case for the day was ‘David J. Newblatt v. The World,’” said the younger Newblatt with a smile, noting that the local newspaper, The Flint Journal, made special mention of it at the time.

As judges, father-and-son Newblatt share a special bond, one that was further cemented earlier this month when David moved into the Genesee County courtroom where his father previously presided.

The move, from the fifth floor to the third floor of the courthouse in downtown Flint, was brought about by a convergence of circumstances, Judge Newblatt explained.

“All of the stars kind of aligned,” Newblatt said.

In short, the possibility began to take shape last spring when Newblatt was transferred to the Civil/Criminal Division of the court after he spent the first 14 years of his judgeship in the Family Division. The impending retirement of Judge Geoffrey Neithercut, who occupied the courtroom where the elder Judge Newblatt once presided, also was a major factor.

“Courtroom assignments generally run by seniority,” Newblatt related.  “That said, the chief judge, Richard Yuille, helped make the move happen because of the courtroom connection to my dad.”

When the move took place, the Newblatts rejoiced. “As you can imagine, this is very meaningful for both me and my dad,” said Newblatt, a Wayne State University Law School grad who has served on the Genesee Circuit Court bench since 2004.

His father, a University of Michigan Law School alum, concurred with the opinion.

“As a father, it makes me proud to know that my son will be holding court there,” he said. “I spent many years working there and it will be nice that a new family chapter will continue there. I’m especially proud of how innovative my son has been in his career as a judge.”

The elder Newblatt, who like his son earned a bachelor’s degree from U-M, was in private practice from 1953-62 before being appointed by Gov. John Swainson to the Genesee County Circuit Court at the age of 33. “At the time, I was the youngest circuit court judge in state history,” said Newblatt. “That distinction didn’t last all that long, but for a while it was pretty special.”

He spent eight years on the bench, returning to private practice from 1970 to 1979, when he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by President Jimmy Carter, serving mainly in the Flint federal courthouse until his 2004 retirement.

After initially planning to pursue an engineering career, Newblatt had a change of heart while in the Army shortly after the end of World War II.

“I joined the Army at the age of 18 and was sent to the Philippines as part of an investigative unit,” he related. “I was assigned the job of finding a deserter who had fled to Australia. He had been wounded in combat, but after he recovered, he was sent to work in a psychiatric hospital instead of back to his unit.”

The soldier was repeatedly subjected to physical and emotional abuse from patients, Newblatt said.

“He literally pleaded with his superiors to send him back to his unit, but they refused, causing him to flee to Australia in hopes of finding a better life,” Newblatt said. “When we found him and brought him back, the Army court martialed him, sending him to prison for

ten years. After witnessing such an injustice, that’s when I decided to change my career choice to the law so that I could help right such wrongs,” Newblatt said.

He held true to the promise while in private practice, representing a number of union officials in Flint who were wrongly accused of being communist sympathizers during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. “It, as you can imagine, wasn’t the most popular thing to do,” Newblatt said of representing clients before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “There was a lot of risk involved for a young attorney, but it was the right thing to do.”

As a Circuit Court judge, Newblatt received statewide recognition for striking down a restriction that prevented African Americans from being buried in a Flint area cemetery. In his opinion, Newblatt wrote that it was “highly grotesque that so much time and legal effort was spent in considering the rights of dead soulless bodies when we have not as a society yet secured full rights for the living.”

His ruling was upheld unanimously by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which cited Newblatt’s decision word for word, noting that his opinion was so spot on that it “leaves nothing further to be said.”

Newblatt and his wife, Flora, now make their home in the scenic Glen Arbor area. The couple has been married for 54 years, and have three sons and seven grandchildren. Son David, of course, followed his father into the law, while son Joshua is an emergency room physician at Hurley Hospital in Flint. Son Robert manages the breakfast-focused Anna’s House based out of Grand Rapids, which has now grown to seven restaurants.

Shortly after becoming a judge, Newblatt met his wife by chance. “I was visiting some friends for the night and they asked another couple to join us for dinner,” Newblatt recalled. “The couple then called to ask if it was OK to bring along one of their sisters who was in town.”

Newblatt – a confirmed bachelor at the time – said it was fine. “I said something to the effect that ‘It’s not as if I’m going to marry her.’”

Some eight weeks later, he did. “It was a pretty quick courtship,” he admitted, “but I knew that night she was the one for me.”
 

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