Michigan Lawyers in History

Michigan Lawyers in History--Justice Charles Levin: A Scholarly Independent

by Elisha Fink

Charles L. Levin retired from the Michigan Supreme Court in 1997 at the end of a judicial career spanning 30 years. His family is well-known in Michigan courtrooms and political arenas: His father, Theodore Levin, was chief judge of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan; two of his brothers are attorneys; and two of his cousins represent Michigan in the United States Congress. He is married to Judge Helene White, and two of his children are attorneys.

Justice Levin received his B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1946. He then received an LL.B. degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1947. After he was admitted to the State Bar of Michigan in 1947, he also joined the New York Bar (1949), the District of Columbia Bar (1954), and the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States (1953). In 1966, Justice Levin ran for an open seat on the Michigan Court of Appeals. He won the election, in part because of his "outstanding" rating from the Detroit Bar Association.

In 1972, Charles Levin ran for a vacancy on the Michigan Supreme Court. Dissatisfied with the politics of running as either a Democratic or a Republican nominee, Levin formed his own party, nominated himself, and won the seat. During his robing ceremony, Judge John Feikens said, Levin "comes to the Bench blessed with a solid education and, in my view, he possesses two of the necessary qualities of a good judge: intelligence and compassion." This began a 24-year career (he was elected two more times as an independent) on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Justice Levin had a reputation as a truly independent judge. At one time during his years on the Court, he was often the deciding vote. Three of his colleagues tended to vote together on one side, and the other three voted together on the other side. This left Levin as the majority-maker.

Although it was easy to predict that Levin’s vote would decide the majority, it was not so easy to guess which side he would agree with. Justice Levin would not be swayed by political concerns or popular causes. He decided his position through a careful analysis of the law, the briefs of both parties, legislative intent, and often his own detailed research.

This thoroughness and attention to detail meant that Justice Levin had a lot to say when it came time to write an opinion. It made no difference whether he was writing the lead opinion, a dissent, or a concurrence; whatever he wrote was likely to be long—some might say too long—and very scholarly. His opinions sometimes read like a treatise or law-review article on a particular subject. Although long, his opinions were not rambling. Quite the opposite: Levin is a gifted writer. During his portrait-presentation ceremony, Judge Feikens put it best as he described Justice Levin as a brilliant scholar: "If some of his opinions were a bit lengthy, I suspect it was because he wanted to be sure he had gotten it just right."

Justice Levin’s opinions were well-organized, with each word carefully chosen and each point and subpoint thoroughly covered. Consider just one example from a case involving the question of whether a prior criminal act is admissible on the issue of guilt. In an opinion his colleagues unanimously joined, he briefly stated the facts, then in two clear paragraphs he explained the rule of law and the reasoning behind the rule.

While evidence of a prior conviction of a defendant may be admissible to impeach his credibility, the general rule is that evidence tending to show the commission of other criminal offenses by the defendant is inadmissible on the issue of his guilt or innocence of the offense charged.

Evidence of other crimes is barred because it has been decided that whatever probative value such evidence has is outweighed by the disadvantage of diverting the trier of fact from an objective appraisal of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. [People v Dermartzex, 390 Mich 410, 413 (1973).]

The scholar would also speak with a human voice, and one that inevitably rang true:

Nothing is certain in this life, but I am more convinced than I am likely to be about most things that come before us, that the defendant...would not have changed his mind about pleading guilty if the judge had told him before accepting his plea that he would not be obliged to testify if he chose to proceed with the trial. [People v Kuchulan, 390 Mich 701, 705 (1973).]

Even though Justice Levin had this clear, orderly style of writing, there was still room in his opinions for his subtle wit to show. He would occasionally use a slightly sarcastic—but not mean-spirited—tone when discussing a legal argument he thought was stretched. For example, in response to the claim that a die manufacturer was not liable for a worker’s injury from a die press, he quipped, "While this court accepts that a die, standing alone, is an inert object only capable of causing injury when teamed with a working press, this in itself does not insulate die manufacturers from liability under all circumstances." Ghrist v Chrysler Corp, 451 Mich 242, 248 (1996).

While it may not be that unusual to put time and energy into writing a long and thorough lead opinion or concurrence, Justice Levin also wrote detailed statements in cases the court decided not to hear. Some of his most interesting writings were about cases where the majority denied leave to appeal and Justice Levin wrote to dissent from that decision, often writing for several pages about the facts and merits of the case and the reasons he thought the case should be heard.

One reason he often mentioned was the need to clarify the law for lower courts. In one case where the majority denied leave to appeal, Justice Levin stated in dissent that "this is an issue that will continue to be litigated and hence is of jurisprudential significance." Peterman v Davenport, 453 Mich 948, 949 (1996) (J. Levin, dissenting). In another case, he argued that leave to appeal should be granted because a plurality opinion in a previous case was not precedentially binding and therefore provided no guidelines for attorneys and judges. Thompson v Kroeger, 453 Mich 909 (1996) (J. Levin, dissenting). Some of Justice Levin’s admirers believe that these writings in the backs of the Michigan Reports are his best work.

Whether his opinion was a lead opinion or in the back of the volume, there were several consistent themes in Justice Levin’s writing. First, he was deeply concerned with the rights of individuals. While other justices may have been willing to at least consider the crowding of courts when making decisions, Justice Levin thought this was wrong.

It has been asserted that allowing a defendant to plead guilty and thereafter to appeal...could result in further overcrowding of the appellate courts. The state, however, has no legitimate interest in discouraging a defendant from appealing an adverse ruling in order to reduce the appellate caseload. The issues involved in an appeal may not be presumed to be frivolous. People v Reid, 420 Mich 326, 334 (1984) (J. Levin, dissenting).

Second, he believed that the judicial system is a good system that works properly and fairly in most cases, but he wasn’t afraid to say that the old ways should be changed. If it seemed to him that a current procedure or law worked an unfair result or was ill-advised, he would write to say so—even if he was admitting his own error or reversing himself. For example, when writing about whether the court should continue to answer certified questions, he compared certified questions to impermissible advisory opinions:

I acknowledge that this Court has responded to a number of certified questions and that I have participated therein without recognizing the problems averred to today.

It is nevertheless apparent that the certification question rule and policy is in need of further consideration by this Court. In re Certified Question, 432 Mich 438, 470-471(1989) (J. Levin, concurring).

Third, even though occasionally calling for a change in law, he believed in following the law without concern for outcomes. Of course, this meant that sometimes he voted to uphold a lower-court decision even if he disagreed with the decision. Discussing the standard of review in his dissent to an abuse-of-discretion case, he said, "When this Court adopted [that] standard, it obligated itself to accept some results with which it and other reviewing judges and courts might disagree had the justices or other appellate judges been sitting at the probate court level." People v Fultz, 453 Mich 937 (1996) (J. Levin, dissenting).

Fourth, even though Justice Levin did not concern himself with outcomes when writing his opinions, he did urge the court not to lose sight of the effect each case had on the future. "This Court has the duty to think beyond the case at hand, and to the rule of law that it is expounding not only for [similar] cases but for all civil litigation." Stefanac v Cranbrook Ed Comm, 435 Mich 155, 223 (1990) (J. Levin, dissenting).

In short, to characterize Justice Levin’s cast of mind, he was thorough, he was objective, he was intellectually honest, and he was balanced. He cared about people and about process, about fairness and stability, and especially about making the law clear and right. His good friend Judge Avern Cohn summarized Justice Levin’s career at the portrait presentation: "Justice Levin has displayed scholarship, pragmatism, insight, honesty, courage, and humanity."

All the effort that Justice Levin put into his opinions meant that he was often behind in his work. He operated on his own timetable and refused to hurry if it meant that his opinion would be less than he thought it should be. He was open to the ideas of others and welcomed editing suggestions. He was happy to let someone give him a more precise word or help tighten an idea, but in the end he wanted the opinion his way.

As a person, he is described as approachable and easy to talk to, somewhat reserved, kind, considerate, and gentlemanly. At his portrait presentation one colleague, Justice John Fitzgerald, said, "Justice Levin could be counted on to hear all sides of a complicated question, to object or disagree in an agreeable manner, to express his opinions in a forthright manner." Justice James Ryan, another colleague, described Justice Levin’s manner in judicial conferences: "He brought an openness to the view of others, a willingness to listen, a patience in hearing argument with which he might have little or no agreement."

Justice Levin has been described as "flying solo." He has been called both a "maverick" and the quintessential justice. Given his choice, he would probably still be on the bench today. Michigan is lucky to have had him for as long as it did.

Elisha Fink, a 1999 graduate of Thomas Cooley Law School, now teaches advanced writing at Cooley. She also does contractual legal work from her home so she can be with her four children.

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