Legal community mourns death of civil rights advocate


Harold Norris, one of Michigan’s most noted advocates of civil liberties, died Monday, Oct. 14 at the age of 95.

Funeral services for the former longtime professor at the Detroit College of Law were scheduled at 11 a.m. today at the Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield followed by interment at Beth El Memorial Park in Livonia.

Norris began his legal career in private practice, from 1947-1960, concentrating on constitutional law, civil liberties and labor law, including representing teachers, students and others subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Affairs.

He taught Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Women and the Law at DCL for 37 years to some 6,000 students.

In 1961, Norris was elected as a delegate to Michigan’s Constitutional Convention, where he played a major role in writing Michigan’s Constitution.

He was the co-author of Article I, Section 2, prohibiting racial and religious discrimination, and helped write Article V, Section 29, to create the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the only state with a constitutionally created Civil Rights Commission prohibiting racial and religious discrimination.

Norris authored the Freedom of Expression provision in the Declaration of Rights, and the provisions creating a right of appeal in every criminal case, a right to fair and just treatment in legislative and executive investigations and an expanded right of petition.

The new right of appeal was the constitutional basis for the creation of the Michigan Appellate Defender’s Office.

Norris also was responsible for the action of the convention deleting from the constitution a provision denying the defense of First Amendment rights to any person charged with “subversion.”

Norris was the only recipient of two Lifetime Achievement Awards from the State Bar of Michigan; in 1988 the Champion of Justice Award, and in 2011, the John W. Reed Michigan Lawyer Legacy Award as an educator whose influence on lawyers elevated the quality of legal practice in Michigan.

In 1981, Wayne State University awarded Norris the “Doctor of Humane Letters” for his contribution to the professions of teaching and the law and to the cause of liberty for all Americans and a Doctor of Laws Degree from DCL in 1989.

Also, in 1988, Norris received the Distinguished Warrior Award from the Detroit Urban League .

Norris authored a number of books to promote the public determination to defend civil rights and liberties.

He wrote “Mr. Justice Murphy and the Bill of Rights,” convincing city officials that Recorder’s Court be named after former Detroit mayor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy.

Norris also published “Casebook of Complete Criminal Trials,” a three-volume set of cases, materials and problems on the advocacy and administration of criminal justice.

Norris also expressed strong feelings on the Constitution and other colorful topics in his poetry book, “An American Mural: The Liberty Bell & Other Select and New Poetry,” nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and acclaimed by renowned poets, Archibald MacLeish and Theodore M. White, who praised his poetry as “authentically American and authentically human.”

His poem, “The Liberty Bell,” hangs in the Independence National Parks Administration Building in Philadelphia next to the Liberty Bell. “The Liberty Bell” poem also was introduced into the Congressional Record in 1978 by Congressman John Conyers.

Norris received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1939 and a master’s degree in economics in 1941. The following year, Norris entered the military.  Upon graduating from the Army Air Force Statistical School at Harvard in 1943, he spent the remainder of World War II until 1946, serving as a Statistical Control Officer in Britain and France for three years with the 9th Air Force, Air Transport Command. He received his law degree from Columbia University in 1948.

Norris is survived by his daughter, Barbara (“BJ”) Shawn; son, Victor (Ronda Barak) Norris; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Frances; sister, Irene Simon; and brother, Norton Norris. He also is survived by his loving caregivers Gina, Rahtina, Kim, and Margot.

Contributions may be made to the MSU College of Law, Harold Norris Endowment and mailed to the Law College Building, Room 400, 648 N. Shaw Lane, East Lansing, MI 48824 or online at (and then the donor link to the Harold Norris Endowment) or a charity of your choice.