Case study: Documentary highlights history of courts in the Eastern District

Among those heavily involved in the documentary project were (left to right) former Detroit Free Press reporter Joe Swickard; Matt Lund, president of the Court Historical Society; Judy Christie, executive producer of the film; and filmmakers Scott Zuchlewski and Will Lawson.
(Photo by John Meiu)

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

More than four years in the making, an hour-long documentary highlighting five of the most impactful cases in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan received glowing reviews at its premiere showing November 1 in Detroit.

The film project was spearheaded by the Court Historical Society, and was produced by Capture Communications, a Detroit area firm that specializes in video work. Fittingly, the premiere took place at the Detroit Historical Museum, located in the city's Cultural Center District.

The documentary was narrated by former WDIV-TV anchor Carmen Harlan, an Emmy Award-winning journalist whose golden voice and on-air presence added a special luster to the finished product, according to Matt Lund, president of the Court Historical Society.

"We were incredibly fortunate and honored to have someone of Carmen's caliber involved in the project," said Lund, a partner with Troutman Pepper in Detroit. "She added a touch of class and gravitas to the documentary. We were all deeply grateful for her involvement and for the sense of community spirit that she displayed."

Lund, a past president of the Eastern District chapter of the Federal Bar Association, said that the documentary "evolved from a film focused almost entirely on the 'Million-Dollar Courtroom' in the federal courthouse" to a movie much broader in scope, "focusing on five important cases in the history of the court, while also offering an overview of how the court impacts the lives of those residing in the Eastern District."

The Million-Dollar Courtroom, which features more than 30 types of marble and is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent courtrooms in the country, has its rightful part in the documentary, according to Lund, but the meat of the film is filled with an overview of five cases decided between the years of 1942 to 2015. In chronological order, the cases include United States v. Max Stephan (1942); United States v. Sinclair (1971); United States v. Narciso & Perez (1978); Robert Kearns v. Ford Motor Co. (1978-98); and DeBoer v. Snyder (2015).

"We had a committee select the cases and we believe that those five are among the most significant in terms of importance and overall scope," said Lund, a University of Michigan alum who earned his juris doctor degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1993. "It was challenging to narrow the number of cases to just five, but we believe these five represent some of the most impactful in the court's history."

In the Sinclair matter, U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith was assigned the case in 1971 that involved the prosecution of White Panther members John Sinclair, Larry "Pun" Plamondon, and John Forrest for conspiracy to destroy government property. Plamondon also was charged with bombing an office of the Central Intelligence Agency in Ann Arbor.

In response to a pre-trial motion by the defense, Judge Keith ordered the government to disclose all electronic surveillance information that it had obtained during wiretapping of the defendants. The government appealed the order, filing a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to set aside the ruling. The appeal was denied in a 2-1 decision by the Sixth Circuit.

In what would become known as the "Keith Case," the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts, affirming them by an 8-0 vote. Justice Lewis Powell wrote the majority opinion, contending that, "We cannot accept the Government's argument that internal security matters are too subtle and complex for judicial evaluation," praising Judge Keith for staunchly defending individual liberties by prohibiting the federal government from conducting electronic surveillance without a court order.

The Narciso & Perez case drew national as well as international attention following the mysterious deaths of 10 patients in 1975 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor.

Following an extensive FBI investigation, Filipino nurses Leonora Perez and Filipina Narciso were charged with murder, allegedly causing the deaths of the patients by poisoning them through unauthorized IV injections. Both defendants were recent immigrants to the U.S., and the trial became a flash point for accusations of racism.

After a four-month trial and nearly two weeks of jury deliberation, the two nurses were acquitted in 1978 of the murder charge, but both were found guilty of three counts of poisoning and conspiracy to commit poisoning. Months later, the verdicts were set aside by U.S. District Judge Philip Pratt, who ruled that prosecution had withheld information from the defense and had made a series of prejudicial statements during the trial.

The government declined to retry Perez and Narciso, who had been released from prison by order of Judge Pratt.

The DeBoer v. Snyder case was based on a lawsuit filed by April DeBoer and Jane Rowse in 2012, challenging Michigan's ban on adoption by same-sex couples. The case, heard by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, was amended to challenge the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

Dana Nessel, now Michigan's attorney general, was among the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the DeBoer case. She is prominently featured in the documentary, setting the stage for a case that eventually would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015.

But before it could wind its way to the high court, the case was ruled upon by Judge Friedman, who found that the state's same-sex marriage ban violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. His decision was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed Friedman's ruling by a 2-1 vote on November 6, 2014.

The Supreme Court consolidated the case with several others, holding in a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriages are legal in all states. Several months later, in August 2015, Judge Friedman would preside over the marriage of DeBoer and Rowse, a ceremony attended by the couple's four children.

Lund credited Court Historian Judy Christie for "her tireless efforts in taking the film from the idea stage to a beautifully finished product," arranging interviews, assisting with fund-raising efforts, and collaborating on the screen writing process.

"This project was a huge undertaking that wouldn't have happened without Judy," said Lund, who also was involved in the screen writing with former Detroit Free Press reporter Joe Swickard. "Judy was vital to its ultimate success."

Lund also expressed his appreciation to those who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary, a list that includes U.S. District Judges Denise Page Hood, Robert Cleland, Bernard Friedman, Thomas Ludington, and the late Avern Cohn; the late U.S. Senator Carl Levin; former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade; Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel; author David Chardavoyne; artist Carole Kabrin; attorneys Richard Rossman, Thomas O'Brien, Alan Kellman, and Jeffrey Sadowski; retired Court Administrator David Weaver; and Tom Kirvan of The Detroit Legal News.

The film is 56 minutes and 56 seconds in length. The running time serves as a symbolic salute to WTVS, the Public Broadcasting Service station in Metro Detroit which long has been known as Channel 56. Lund and Christie remain hopeful that the documentary will find airtime on WTVS in the coming months, while noting that it eventually will be available for viewing in area schools, senior centers, and other educational outlets.

"This was a real labor of love for many of us," said Christie, who served as executive producer of the film and has spent the past 40 years working on behalf of the federal court system based in Detroit. "We were very fortunate to have worked with filmmakers Will Lawson and Scott Zuchlewski (of Capture Communications) on this project. Their guidance and expertise were invaluable."


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