Head of Federal Defender Office puts finishing touches on career

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Miriam Siefer, retiring from the Federal Defender Office this month, has guided the agency since 1994, overseeing the work of 25 attorneys, five investigators, two IT specialists, and a dozen other staff members in Detroit and Flint.

Photo by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

With a milestone birthday  months away, Miriam Siefer is in a reflective mood as she ponders what retirement will look like when she says a “fond farewell”  to the Federal Defender Office where she has been its guiding force for the past 25 years.

Siefer has touched every base in criminal defense work, representing defendants ranging from the infamous “Underwear Bomber” to a laid off autoworker charged in the baseball bat beating death of Vincent Chin.

And while she has deftly handled more than her share of high-profile cases, including representing a suspect in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 168 lives, Siefer is known for devoting just as much energy and attention to the garden-variety criminal defendant.

“Just because a case doesn’t attract a lot of media attention, doesn’t mean that we think of it in a lesser light in terms of the work that we devote to it,” said Siefer, who will mark her 70th birthday in June.
“Every defendant that we represent gets our best, whatever the stakes may be.”

That even-handed approach has been in evidence throughout her career, according to U.S. District Judge David Lawson.

“I first met Miriam in the early 1980s when we tried the so-called Vincent Chin case together,” said Lawson, a member of the federal bench since 2000. “She was a passionate, skillful advocate then, and her skill and passion have endured throughout her career. Her advocacy and administrative expertise are the main reasons that the Eastern District of Michigan’s Federal Defender Office has flourished during her tenure. Our bench has looked to her office as establishing the gold standard for criminal defense, and we are rarely disappointed. Thousands of people charged with federal crimes over the last 30 years have been well represented and had their rights protected, and they have Miriam to thank for that.”

The comments were echoed by U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who like Siefer and Judge Lawson is a Wayne State Law School grad.

“Miriam Siefer is an extraordinary professional,” Edmunds said. “She is one of the few attorneys I know who is both a gifted courtroom lawyer and a superb administrator. Her management of the FDO has seemed effortless to those of us who have benefitted from her organizational skills, but the smooth operation of the organization is the result of her hard work and great instincts about which people are best for which tasks, and which tasks should be prioritized. She also always seemed to know which Federal Defender or panel attorney was the best fit for a difficult defendant; she has always had the respect and admiration of everyone who worked in the FDO.

“Miriam is also a wonderful colleague and friend,” added Edmunds. “I could turn to her for advice on a wide variety of issues, and often did so. She will be a hard act to follow; she has set the bar high. Anyone who has practiced in the federal criminal law arena during her tenure will recognize how fortunate we have been to have her leadership.”

Among those who have squared off with her in court is Alan Gershel, who spent 28 years as a federal prosecutor before retiring last spring as head of the Attorney Grievance Commission in Michigan.
Siefer earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1972 before setting sail on law school at Wayne State. It was there she met her future husband, Joseph Bachrach, who for much of his career has served as in-house counsel for AAA of Michigan. Their relationship got off to a bit of an awkward start, she acknowledged.

“He couldn’t sit next to me in class because I was saving the seat for a friend,” Siefer said. Eventually they would find their footing as a couple thanks to the matchmaking skills of a mutual friend.

“So, officially we met in 1975 and were married in 1979,” said Siefer of a marriage that will mark its 41st anniversary this year.

The couple has two daughters and two grandchildren. It was the birth of her second grandchild last June that served as the “tipping point” for Siefer to march toward retirement. “I want to have the time and the freedom to enjoy my grandchildren without keeping one eye on my e-mail,” Siefer said.

One of three children, Siefer grew up in Detroit. Her father Ellis was chief of surgery at several Detroit area hospitals over  his career. Her mother Mary worked at Hudson’s in downtown Detroit before raising her family.

Siefer began her career with a small criminal defense firm in Southfield, which led to a teaching opportunity at her legal alma mater. It was at Wayne Law where she met another professor, Paul Borman, who was about to be appointed chief of the Federal Defender Office headquartered in Detroit. One of his first moves was to pick Siefer as his chief deputy.

“He was kind enough to give me a terrific opportunity, which allowed me to learn under his guidance and to work with a group of dedicated federal defenders,” Siefer said of Borman, a U.S. District Court judge since 1994. “I will always be grateful for that chance.”

Her staff, Siefer said, has become “part of my family” and will make the parting bittersweet. “I love the people in the office, which made it a difficult decision to leave,” said Siefer, who in 1994 was the recipient of the coveted Leonard R. Gilman Award presented annually to an “outstanding practitioner” of criminal law. “But after all these years, it’s time for me to move on, and I believe the office will benefit from a new leader and a new voice.”



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