Adept learner: Judge honed legal skill set along winding career path

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

If he was a name-dropper, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Edward Ewell Jr. would have quite the collection to choose from in terms of those he has had the pleasure of working with over the course of his legal career.
For starters, there was Judge Damon J. Keith, of federal court and civil rights fame, for whom Ewell served as a senior law clerk.

“He was the gold standard,” Ewell said of the legendary U.S. Court of Appeals judge who died in April 2019 at the age of 96. “He was a man of such integrity and conviction, and taught me so much during the time I worked for him.”

Then there was former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, the recently appointed U.S. Energy Secretary, who Ewell worked with at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit. Their working ties would eventually help pave the way for Ewell’s appointment in 2003 to the Circuit Court by then Governor Granholm.

The stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office also cemented his admiration for his two bosses there, Stephen Markman, who recently retired from the Michigan Supreme Court, and Saul Green, former deputy mayor of Detroit who now is a prominent criminal defense attorney for Miller Canfield.

Two more names of note – former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan – would become part of Ewell’s daily life from 1995 to 2003, when he served in various key legal roles for the most populous county in Michigan.

“Ed McNamara was one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with, and had such a presence and charisma as a leader,” Ewell said of the political power broker whose name became synonymous with the expansion of Detroit Metropolitan Airport.  “And, of course, Mike Duggan was Deputy County Executive and then Wayne County Prosecutor during my time with the Corporation Counsel Office. Two great leaders that I learned a lot from during my time with the county.”

Of course, by that time in his legal career, Ewell also had made a name for himself, rising to the rank of Corporation Counsel for Wayne County, handling myriad responsibilities while overseeing a staff of 40 attorneys and a multi-million-dollar budget.

“It was a job that presented a new set of challenges almost daily,” said Ewell, a University of Michigan alum who earned his law degree from Wayne State University. “I spent eight years in that office and it probably seemed like 20 because of the pace and the amount of the work. It prepared me well for becoming a judge, especially on a court that is as busy as the Wayne County Circuit.”

Ewell, who majored in economics at U-M and holds a master’s degree from Atlanta University, was Governor Granholm’s second appointment to the Wayne Circuit bench, following the selection of David Groner. Assigned to the Criminal Division of the court, Ewell “hit the ground running right out of the chute,” presiding over a double homicide case (see related story) that garnered heavy media attention during a three-week trial.

“It can be very difficult to keep your emotions in check when you’re dealing with some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, but that is our responsibility to ensure that the accused gets a fair trial and that justice is served,” said Ewell, who spent 10 years in the Criminal Division of the court.

For the past six years, Ewell has served as a business court judge, a role for which he seems particularly well-suited based on his experience as Corporation Counsel for Wayne County. True to its name, the Wayne County business court handles business and commercial cases where the amount at stake is more than $25,000 and includes matters where all the parties are “business enterprises.” The court also hears disputes between a business and individuals connected with it, such as owners, managers, directors, shareholders, officers, suppliers, and employees.

“The stakes can range from tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars,” Ewell indicated. “The issues can be very complex, requiring a lot of expert testimony to sort out the facts. I find it particularly fascinating work.”

In fact, he said, some of the cases involving disputes surrounding family-owned businesses can be especially vexing as “they can be more of a marriage than a real marriage.”

Ewell grew up on the east side of Detroit and was the product of a single-parent home headed by his mother, Beverly, who worked in a managerial role for the Michigan Department of Corrections before retiring.

“She has been a great influence throughout my life and imparted the importance of a strong education,” Ewell said of his now 81-year-old mother. “She set a great example for me and my two sisters and brother (Laurie, Angela, and Toure).”

A Cass Tech grad, Ewell played football for the Detroit high school on a team that included such U-M stalwarts as running back Harlan Huckleby and defensive standout Curtis Greer, both of whom excelled in the NFL.
“I played linebacker and on the offensive line,” said Ewell, who suffered a knee injury in high school that effectively ended his gridiron career. “We had a team that was loaded with talent.”

Now, Ewell finds his athletic joy on the tennis court, where he plays several times a week, harboring a “wish that I had picked up the sport at a much earlier age.”

His daughter, Simone, did play varsity tennis at Roeper High School and at Xavier University in Cincinnati, proving to be the star of the family in the sport. She now is exploring the possibility of attending vet school, while her brother, Edward III, is pursuing a graduate degree in the performing arts after graduating from Yale University and serving in the Teach for America program.

Ewell and his wife, Florise Neville-Ewell, met as law clerks, she for U.S. District Judge Julian Cook Jr. and he for Judge Keith.

“We worked right across the hall from each other during that time,” Ewell said of their courtship which spanned several years. “She grew up in Chicago and earned her undergraduate degree from Yale as well as her law degree, which shows you the kind of smarts she has.”

A former attorney with Honigman in Detroit, Neville-Ewell has taught law at Wayne State University and currently is a professor at Cooley Law School, where she teaches contracts, ethics, and property courses. In 2013, the Federal Bar Association Chapter for the Easter District of Michigan honored her with the coveted Wade H. McCree Jr. Award for the Advancement of Social Justice.


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