Chiefly responsible: Head of Federal Defender Office prepares for retirement

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– Photo by John Meiu
 

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

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

Over the course of a career than spans more than four decades, 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, according to those who have admired her work.

In fact, as her final day as chief of the Federal Defender Office for the Eastern District of Michigan draws near, Siefer maintains a busy schedule each week, crisscrossing the region to meet with defendants facing drug, weapon, fraud, and assorted other criminal charges.

“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.

Lawsn said Lawson’s 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 graduate.

“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, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1992 after formerly serving as a commercial litigator for Dykema Gossett. “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 eventually retiring last spring as head of the Attorney Grievance Commission in Michigan.

“I have had the personal and professional pleasure of knowing Miriam for over 35 years,” said Gershel, who twice served as interim U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “Although in that time we were on opposite sides of the aisle, I always admired and respected her.

“She is not only an outstanding criminal defense attorney, she also was a great leader of the Federal Defender Office. She truly led by example. She managed to not only skillfully handle some of the most challenging and complex cases, she also was an excellent manager. She built and developed a staff of criminal defense attorneys that were among the best in the Eastern District of Michigan. An indigent defendant who is represented by FDO consistently receives a devoted, zealous, and skillful advocate.”

In his former capacity as the criminal chief, Gershel said there were times where Siefer sought his review of an assistant U.S. Attorney’s decision.

“While she was a passionate advocate for her position, our discussions were always cordial even when we disagreed,” he said. “Miriam had the respect of not only the attorneys and staff who worked for her, but also among my former colleagues, law enforcement, and the judges. I know that in some places the relationship between federal prosecutors and the Federal Defender’s Office can be a contentious one. It was not so in the Eastern District of Michigan due largely to Miriam’s personal and professional skills.”

Siefer, who graduated from Mumford High School in Detroit, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1972 before setting sail on law school at Wayne State.

It was there that 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 with a chuckle.

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, Rachel and Jodi, and two grandchildren, Sloane and Micah. 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, the daughter of Mary and Ellis Siefer. Her father, who passed away 10 years ago at the age of 92, was the chief of surgery at several Detroit area hospitals over the course of his career. Her mother, who died last year at the age of 99, worked at the landmark Hudson’s store in downtown Detroit before raising a family that includes a doctor and two attorneys.

“My parents were real gems —my role models,” said Siefer, who has returned the favor by helping her two daughters find their way to the path of success.

Her 38-year-old daughter Rachel holds a Ph.D. and is a research fellow and clinical psychologist at a Veterans Administration Hospital in Pittsburgh. Siefer’s younger daughter, Jodi, has a master’s degree in public health and social work and now is pursuing a career in interior design.

“As parents, my husband and I are very proud of what they’ve accomplished and that they have blessed us with grandchildren,” Siefer said.

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.”

Borman, who holds law degrees from U-M and Yale University, is inclined to view Siefer’s “chance” in a different light.

“I got to know Miriam while I was teaching at Wayne State Law School and saw her as someone so bright and dedicated that I recruited her to the FDO,” said Borman, who headed the Federal Defender Office from 1979-94. “She was whip-smart and I look back upon it as if I won the lottery, working 15 years with her at the FDO and then marveling at what a fantastic job she has done there over the past 25 years.

“She has assembled a great staff and the court has a comfort level with them and the panel lawyers assigned to cases. In short, the Sixth Amendment is alive and well in the Eastern District of Michigan thanks to Miriam and her staff.”

That staff, Siefer said, has become “part of my family” and will make next month’s 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.”

Whoever is chosen to succeed Siefer will have the proverbial tough act to follow, according to Gerald Rosen, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District.

“Miriam Siefer is a class act,” said Rosen, now one of the principals in the Detroit office of JAMS (Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services). “Not only was she a skilled advocate for her clients in the courtroom, but over her tenure as the Chief Federal Defender, she elevated the quality of the office by bringing in and promoting talented lawyers and ensuring the office was committed to providing a vigorous defense for their clients while maintaining integrity and high commitment. She will be missed.”

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