Long-time Ingham County judge serves as mediator


By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
It’s not every court case that leads to a telephone call from TV personality Barbara Walters. But that’s what happened when Judge Michael Harrison tried the case of People v. Messenger, the 1990 trial of a man accused of first-degree murder. 

“I gave it little thought other than it was another trial, until one of the clerks came into the office and said Barbara Walters was on the phone,” Harrison says. “It turned out the city hall lobby looking down from the mezzanine was filled with reporters and media. The case was broadcast not only nationally, but internationally as well. I was fortunate to have had two very professional attorneys who did not grandstand to the media or public, and an excellent former broadcaster who volunteered and handled media relations and helped make things run smoothly.”

A senior attorney with Foster Swift in Lansing since 2001, Harrison served as a judge of the 30th Judicial Circuit of Michigan for nearly 25 years; was chief judge for 12 years; and served by assignment on the Michigan Court of Appeals. 

The grandson of a Kent County Circuit Court judge, Harrison enjoyed crafting opinions as a judge, and working to improve the justice system. He was appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court to the Felony Sentencing Guidelines Committee and to the Michigan Task Force on Juror Use and Management. “Fortunately, this was not a problem in Ingham County,” he says.
He served as president of the Michigan Judges Association; was chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges as well as of the Case Flow Management Coordinating Committee.
Working in private practice provides a significant amount of latitude precluded by judicial rules of conduct, he says. 

“I am now able to serve on a broader range of boards and assist with fund-raising for organizations. I have served as the chair of the Lansing Sesquicentennial during economic depressed times and helped find funding for free events, a $270,000 sculpture as a gift to the city.”

A strong believer in the benefits of alternative dispute resolution, Harrison has earned his Certified Mediator designation from the International Mediation Institute and is on the Commercial Roster of Neutrals for the American Arbitration Association; and is a sought-after neutral panelist in arbitrations as well as an effective negotiator in mediation proceedings. 

“I consider mediation to be one of the most significant additions to the legal profession as a routine aspect of resolving disputes,” he says. “I enjoy being the ‘peacemaker’ and working with parties to assist in resolving matters. There are significant benefits to its active inclusiveness and opportunity for the expression of opinions during the process. It also triggers an opportunity to resolve a matter less expensively and earlier.”

The Lansing native has authored several publications, taught as an adjunct at Cooley Law School, and is heavily involved in community activities. “My wife and I realize how fortunate we are and share the belief that we have a responsibility to contribute to making a stronger community and assist those in need,” he says. 

President of Lansing Sesquicentennial Foundation, he also is involved in Boy Scouts of America, Rotary Club of Lansing, Greater Lansing Urban League and Lansing Symphony. He and his wife have made an Endowment for Arts Education at Wharton Center, and provided for the Deborah L. and Michael G. Harrison Endowment for mammography at Sparrow Hospital.

Named among Best Lawyers, Who’s Who, and the 2011 Lawyer of the Year, Harrison considers his most meaningful recognition was the Glen Taggart Award for community contribution to international understanding awarded by MSU Board of Trustees, for his work with international students. This undertaking started when revolution broke out in Libya, and Harrison brought together lawyers willing to help MSU students from the war-torn country acquire political asylum.  

Through MSU, Harrison subsequently got acquainted with two Kenyan cousins, both with scholarships, one studying to be a physician and the other for a Ph.D. in agricultural economics.  

“They are refreshing to be with, whether at a symphony, baseball game, playing croquet, or over for Labor Day dinner cooking out and comparing cultures, they have provided a valuable dimension to our lives,” he says. “I have asked them often in jest which of them will be president of Kenya first! Our MSU international students have come long distances and are fulfilling dreams. I believe they should be treated as guests in our home.”

Harrison has long been bitten by the travel bug: Machu Picchu in Peru is a favorite spot. He has traveled as a family and just with his children, who for their 13th birthdays could choose a travel destination. His daughter chose Switzerland; his younger son chose the World Cup in Paris and felt since his older brother taught him about soccer, he should come also. Greece was a favorite family trip; as was Scotland for golf and for seeking Deborah’s family heritage. As empty nesters, the couple has enjoyed Turkey, China, Italy, Spain and other trips. 

Harrison also enjoys the arts, and reading – and particularly recommends Contempt of Court, authored by a friend. A lover of art, pride of place is a Seascape oil painting more than 125 years old.  
“While studying international law at the Peace Palace in the Netherlands, I walked past an art gallery every day and became infatuated with a painting of a horse rider pulling a fishing vessel onto shore which was traditional,” he says. “My mother sent the money to purchase it. I shipped it home where it is hanging in the library.”