ASKED & ANSWERED: David Chardavoyne on federal court history

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has been front and center in dispensing federal justice in its jurisdiction from its origin in 1837 to the present day. David Gardner Chardavoyne recounts the history of the court in his latest book, "The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan: People, Law and Politics," published by Wayne State University Press. Chardavoyne brought dozens of cases before the U.S. District Court during his more than 20 years of legal practice, specializing in litigation and antitrust work. He will be speaking about the book and signing copies at the annual meeting of the Federal Bar Association on Nov. 16 at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit.

Thorpe: Why a book on this court?

Chardavoyne: Since 1993, the court's historical society has been putting out a newsletter, the Court Legacy. After I joined the society's board, I began writing some of those articles, usually dealing with small pieces of the court's history. While researching and writing those articles, I became more and more interested in the full history of the court. The board talked about commissioning a full history for many years, and in 2007 those discussions turned into action. By that time, I knew that I wanted to write the book, and thankfully the board selected me.

Thorpe: The court has occasionally appeared on the national stage with cases dealing with issues as varied as civil rights, espionage, fugitive slave laws, and freedom of speech. Which cases stand out for you?

Chardavoyne: There are several. With my interest in the history of capital punishment in Michigan, I have a particular interest in the two cases in which Judge Arthur Tuttle pronounced death sentences, U.S. v. Chebatoris and U.S. v. Stephan. Civil rights cases with a national reputation include the Detroit school desegregation case, Milliken v. Bradley, the two University of Michigan reverse discrimination cases, and the "Keith case" involving illegal wiretaps. Most of the court's early cases involved debt collection, important to the parties but not historically significant. The exceptions were the cases brought by southern slave owners seeking damages against Michiganders who had helped their slaves escape to Canada.

Thorpe: If there was an "Iron Man" award for judges, it might go to Judge Arthur Tuttle. Tell us about him.

Chardavoyne: Arthur J. Tuttle was indeed an unforgettable character who served on the court from 1912 until his death in 1944. During the first dozen years, he was the court's only judge, but even when the court grew to five judges, he was the undisputed leader. He led the court successfully through both World Wars, Prohibition, and the Depression. Born just after the Civil War and growing up in rural Ingham County, he was in many ways a man of his time and place, extremely conservative and patriotic, an enthusiastic hunter and fisherman, and a life-long farmer. He was also intensely energetic and curious about everything, always trying to make the law and the court better, and the father of two daughters whom he encouraged to become lawyers when there were very few women lawyers anywhere.

Thorpe: Who were some of the other vivid personalities in the court's history?

Chardavoyne: The court's first judge, Ross Wilkins, who established the court's reputation for justice. Judge Theodore Levin, for whom the Detroit courthouse is named, who coupled a strong sense of justice with the ability, as chief judge, to lead by persuasion, as did the recently deceased Judge John Feikens. Also not to be forgotten is Judge Frank Picard who, among other things, spent time as a circus gymnast and songwriter, and who was the court's only judge to be shot at while holding court.

Thorpe: The court saw exponential growth in the middle of the last century, seeing its docket swell from 300 cases per year to 3,000 during Prohibition alone. What kind of growing pains did the court experience?

Chardavoyne: Prohibition found the federal judiciary unprepared, and nowhere more so than in the Eastern District which became one of the major centers for liquor smuggling. Judge Tuttle worked seven days each week yet could not keep pace. By 1927, the court had three judges but was still overwhelmed. The end of Prohibition brought some relief, but the district's growing population and the constant increase in federal laws meant that case levels would never return to prior levels and would, instead grow, peaking at more than 9,200 cases filed in 1984. Today, the court has 15 district judges, several senior district judges with a reduced docket, and eight magistrate judges who handle arraignments, motions, and some trials. All of those judges preside in one of the court's five courthouses (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Port Huron, Flint, and Bay City).

Thorpe: Judge Avern Cohn played a role in getting this book written. How so?

Chardavoyne: U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn was the driving force behind this book. He championed the project with his characteristic enthusiasm and determination over many years. He has also championed my writing, helping me to find a publisher, Wayne State University Press, for my first book, "A Hanging in Detroit," and getting me involved with the historical society. Without his constant, relentless advocacy over many years, I doubt that the book would exist today or, if it did, that I would have written it.

Thorpe: What's next for David Chardavoyne, the author?

Chardavoyne: I am working now on a project for the historical society of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Published: Tue, Nov 6, 2012