Of Interest

Looking Back: 1920s


by George M. Strander   |   Michigan Bar Journal

Editor's note: As part of our celebration of the Michigan Bar Journal's 100th year, we are bringing you a special report each month, highlighting the important events and legal news of decade-by-decade.

In the 1920s, America, and Michigan specifically, were dominated by several major trends, including continued industrialization and urbanization, further progressive reform, and a turn inward following the ravages of “the war to end all wars.” The state, its government, its laws, and its bar, bar association, and bar journal were all, to a greater or lesser extent, transformed during this time. This was all within the context of a simpler time: Though most homes had telephones and many households had cars, homes were typically heated by coal or wood and neither indoor plumbing, refrigerators, nor radios were standard.

The automobile industry accelerated its remaking of the Michigan economy and led to massive population increases in the Detroit metropolitan area and Flint. Detroit had become the fourth largest city in the country and over the decade, Dearborn’s population rose an astonishing 2,000%. Much of Michigan’s population surge was the result of immigrants, especially those from the southern United States and foreigners from southern and eastern Europe.

Early in the decade, the 18th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution took effect; the former banned the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol, while the latter guaranteed women the right to vote. However, in Michigan these did not represent complete sea changes. Since 1867, taxpaying women in Michigan had had some voting rights and a 1918 amendment to the state constitution gave all women the right to vote in all state elections. Like the suffragist movement, advocacy of temperance already had a long history in the U.S. and Michigan — our state actually enacted its own prohibition measure in 1916.

These changes — the growing use of automobiles, the burgeoning labor movement, increasing racial and religious diversity, greater rights for women, and illicit business opportunities created by Prohibition — all led to specific consequences. A “good roads movement” advocated paved roads, and the reincarnated nativist Ku Klux Klan gained adherents in the white community, pushing back against non-whites, unions, and Roman Catholic and Jewish communities. Importantly, in the famous Ossian Sweet trial, a Detroit resident, a Black medical doctor, was acquitted of murdering a member of an attacking white mob. Presiding Judge Frank Murphy noted that the right to reasonably defend one’s home is given to all people regardless of race.

During the 1920s, Michigan saw the first woman elected to the state senate (Eva Hamilton in 1920); the first woman elected to the state house (Cora Anderson in 1924); and the first woman in the nation’s history to successfully defend a murder case (Emilia Schaub in 1926). Meanwhile, criminal syndicates like Detroit’s Purple Gang (originally made up of disaffected Russian immigrant teens) took over much of the illegal liquor trade; this activity in our state was especially relevant given that about 75% of all alcohol illegally imported into the country was smuggled into Detroit from Canada.

During the decade, Michigan’s executive branch was streamlined from a large and somewhat unruly collection of commissions and agencies to an efficiently small set of state departments. Important legislation from the decade included the massive Code of Criminal Procedure (1927), creation of the Department of Agriculture (1921), codification of Supreme Court Reports (1927), institution of the State Tax Commission (1927), and regulation of pharmacies and drug stores (1927).

One seminal Michigan Supreme Court opinion of the decade came in the 1926 Collins v. Gerhardt case concerning the public’s right to navigable waters in the face of property owners’ riparian rights. In Collins, the Court concluded that the Pine River riverbed was not owned by the adjacent landowner but held in trust by the state, thereby allowing, for instance, a fisherman to wade in the stream without trespass.

Michigan incidents gave rise to two important U.S. Supreme Court cases of the 1920s — Newberry v. U.S. (1921) and Carroll v. U.S. (1925). In Newberry, the Court struck down part of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) limiting election spending in political party primaries. Prior to winning his party’s nomination and going on to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Michigan, Thomas Newberry had expended funds in excess of then legal limits. The Newberry Court struck down the FCPA spending limits as an improper extension of Congress’s Article I powers. Interestingly, campaign finance cases since have come to focus on the extension of free speech powers rather than a limit on Congress’s remit.

The underlying facts in Carroll were that George Carroll and John Kiro were convicted of transporting liquor in violation of Prohibition laws after law enforcement, without a warrant but with knowledge of Carroll and Kiro’s activities and of their vehicle, stopped their car east of Grand Rapids and found bottles of liquor inside. The Carroll Court overturned the conviction, carving out the “automobile exception” to the proscription against warrantless search — warrantless search of a vehicle is allowed if officers have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence or contraband.

As for the Michigan bar and the Michigan State Bar Association, the decade presented changes that are clearly reflected in the pages of the Bar Journal during that era. In one issue, an article titled “Our Changing Law Practice” encouraged attorneys to run their practices and offices by adopting efficient business methods. Just as workmen’s compensation and blue-sky laws had modernized different areas of liability and as a response to increased competition from banks, trust companies, title companies, collection agencies, and arbitration, attorneys were told to eliminate waste, keep good time records and filing systems, use time on suitably important work, and not forget they have a life outside the office.

Two articles of the period reflect interesting changes in the law and courts. In one, the dean of the University of Michigan Law School announced that entrance requirements for the institution would soon be raised to require that a candidate not only have some coursework in an approved college or university, but actually have graduated with a bachelor’s degree. (This article came on the heels of an earlier piece reporting American law schools were returning to normal following the disruption of World War I.) In another article, the beginning of the Friend of the Court system in Michigan is heralded, explaining that the office exists to enforce alimony decrees to ensure dependent minor children receive the funds they are decreed.

Finally, the Michigan State Bar Association exhibited some soul searching in the 1920s. Outwardly, the association showed signs of health, almost doubling its voluntary membership over the course of the decade (to about 1,350) and expanding both the number and complexity of its committees. However, as former association President William Potter argued in the Journal in “Organization of the Michigan State Bar,” the group, in reality, lacked the power and mandate to effect substantive change, and only in the form of a mandatory bar association could it realize its goals. Earlier in the decade, the Bar Journal details how the association called for preparation of a bill incorporating the state bar to be forwarded to the Michigan Legislature for consideration.

Later in the decade, a different association president noted in the Bar Journal that the body was not as strong as it should be and lacked adequate involvement by membership. The solution: annual meetings would be revised to give more attention to planning concrete improvements in court procedure and matters of practice and stop reading academic papers.