Judge Murkowski tells Probate Section about Kent County's first probate judge



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Inspired by last year’s celebration of the first Federal judge in Kent County, Chief Probate Court Judge David Murkowski threw himself into research on the first probate judge in the area, Jefferson Morrison.

And if Judge Murkowski’s presentation before the Grand Rapids Bar’s Probate and Estate Planning Section last week is any indication, he has quickly become an expert on the subject.

Linsey Aten, an estate planning attorney at Varnum who chairs the section, introduced Judge Murkowski. Aten, also the Immediate Past President of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan/
Western Region and a Super Lawyers Rising Star for 2013, added humorously, “I tried to make this brief, but I wanted to get as much podium time before Judge Murkowski as I could.”
David M. Murkowski attended Thomas M. Cooley Law School, graduating with honors in 1983. He was a law clerk to the Michigan House of Representatives Civil Rights Committee. He had a solo practice, and worked for the law firm of Dilley and Dilley, later Dilley, Dilley, Murkowski & Goller.

In 2006, Murkowski was named a judge of the Kent County Probate Court, and since Jan. 1, 2008, has been the court’s Chief Judge.

Judge Murkowski’s broad credentials include lecturing widely for the Michigan Judicial Institute and the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, and contributing to the Michigan Probate Benchbook, and the Michigan Trust Code, among other publications.

Perhaps most remarkable about Judge Murkowski’s narrative of Jefferson Morrison’s life was the sense of how different those times were from today.

First of all, Morrison’s case load was infinitesimal. “In his crushing docket of 1836 he handled two cases, in 1837 one case,  in 1838 three, and in 1839 four,” Judge Murkowski said.

Second, Morrison’s life story reinforces that judicial qualifications back then were much less stringent.

Morrison, born in New York in 1805, apprenticed in the tanning trade in his early youth. He came to Detroit to work  in a leather factory in 1831, and not long after that, was appointed Wayne County Inspector of Leather. He became Justice of the Peace for Kalamazoo County, which included what is now Kent County.

He moved to West Michigan in 1835 as a merchant. Judge Murkowski told about his business travels by water with Rix Robinson, the trader credited with founding Grand Haven, and about Morrison’s operating a general store in what is now downtown Grand Rapids.

Judge Murkowski said, “Through the convention  begun in the city of Detroit on May 11, 1835, the people of the territory of Michigan agreed to form a free and independent state...  and further establish the Constitution of 1835 for the government of Michigan. Article 6, sec. 3 of that 1835 Constitution states: ‘A Court of Probate shall be established in each of the organized counties.’” Morrison was appointed as the first probate judge by Gov. Stevens T. Mason, and served until 1944.

At the section meeting, Judge Murkowski handed out a copy of what was called a “shinplaster” signed by Judge Morrison. These certificate-looking on-demand notes were the equivalent of self-generated money, redeemable at a later date from the person who issued them. Murkowski said that Morrison, who had swings in fortune but seemed always to rebound, never defaulted on any of them.

When the boundaries of the growing village of Grand Rapids were expanded, Judge Morrison platted an addition loosely equivalent to the current St. Mary’s hospital property. Wealthy Street was named after the judge’s second wife, Wealthy Davis. Judge Murkowski added, “Although many people believe Jefferson Street was named after Thomas Jefferson, the truth is it was named after Morrison.”

Judge Murkowski treated section members to many interesting stories on such topics as near-drowning, settlement of Croton on the Muskegon River, and barrels of pork.

After that, he unveiled a portrait made by taking a photograph of Jefferson Morrison found in the library and printing it on canvas, which Judge Murkowski said he intended to hang in the Probate Courtroom.