Of Interest

Looking back: 1930s


by George M. Strander   |   Michigan Bar Journal

As part of our celebration of the Michigan Bar Journal’s 100th year, each month we highlight important events and legal news in a decade-by-decade special report. Last month, it was noted in this space that the 1920s was a decade neatly framed by the end of World War I and the start of the Great Depression. This month, the focus is on the 1930s, a 10-year span bookended at the front by the start of the Great Depression and at the end by the gathering dark clouds on the horizon portending the looming World War II.

The 1930s in America and Michigan were dominated by the Great Depression, its economic and social effects, and the myriad responses to these. It was a decade of much suffering across the globe, with some nations turning to authoritarian regimes, eventually creating an international cataclysm that would force our nation out of its post-World War I isolationism and into World War II. The state, and its government and law, were propelled along the national arc formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and, along the way, Michigan’s attorneys were reformulated into a mandatory bar association.

The Depression prompted several major changes in state law during the decade. In response to rampant property tax delinquencies (reportedly the highest in the nation at the time), Michigan voters in 1932 approved an amendment to the state constitution to limit property taxes; one year later, the state legislature enacted the Property Tax Limitation Act. Perhaps to compensate for the resulting loss in state revenue, the legislature in 1933 also instituted a state sales tax. And further, in keeping with New Deal policies, the legislature approved the Michigan Employment Security Act in 1936.

National prohibition under the 18th Amendment, which was largely unpopular, survived a few years into the decade but was finally repealed late in 1933 through the enactment of the 21st Amendment. Michigan, which was disproportionately affected by Prohibition given its active border with Canada and the resulting organized crime that controlled much of the smuggling between the two counties, repealed its own statewide prohibition on the same day the new constitutional amendment went into effect.

The ’30s were also an occasion for an increase in the power of organized labor, both nationally and, most specifically, in Michigan. Historically, labor unions prior to this time either focused on organizing skilled workers or were unsuccessfully attempting to organize unskilled labor. The environment changed in the 1930s as automation in the auto industry increased the proportion of its unskilled workforce, workers faced the uncertainty of the Depression, and a decidedly pro-labor president entered the White House. The most notable result of this change was the Flint Sit-Down Strike.

Called the most significant American labor conflict of the 20th century, the Flint Sit-Down Strike started in late 1936 as the then newly formed United Auto Workers union targeted General Motors to gain recognition as the workers’ representative. For more than a month, UAW workers in Flint and elsewhere went on strike, occupying factories rather than picketing, eventually idling 60 plants in 14 states. In the end, by February 1937, after new Gov. Frank Murphy fostered negotiations between the company and the union, GM recognized UAW’s right to bargain collectively for its membership. Most other auto companies quickly followed suit; Ford resisted union recognition until 1941.

Gov. Murphy went on in 1939 to be appointed by President Roosevelt to the office of U.S. attorney general; he remains the only Michigander ever to hold that position. Murphy, who was also a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, recorder’s court judge, mayor of Detroit, and governor general of the Philippines, was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court a year later, only the second person from Michigan (Henry Billings Brown in 1890 was the first) to serve on our nation’s highest tribunal.

One interesting U.S. Supreme Court case of the decade involving Michigan settled a long-standing border disagreement with Wisconsin. In the 1936 case, Wisconsin v. Michigan, a line of cases stretching back to the 1920s finally resolved the states’ border through Lake Michigan. Due to certain ambiguities in the description of Michigan’s territory in the enabling act for its 1837 statehood, it had been unclear to which state several islands projecting off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula (the largest being Washington Island, with a current population of about 700) belonged. The Court essentially concluded the states’ ongoing litigation by confirming its decision in favor of Wisconsin’s claim.

Two major pieces of legislation during the ’30s concerned crimes and those matters now dealt with by probate courts and family divisions of circuit courts. In 1931, the legislature enacted the Michigan Penal Code, a massive inventory of crimes still in use and constantly updated today. And at the end of the decade in 1939, the Michigan Probate Code passed, collecting in one act laws regarding decedent estates, guardianships and conservatorships, adoptions, juvenile delinquency, and child neglect and abuse.

Perhaps the most important legislative event of the decade for Michigan attorneys was the passage of Public Act 58 of 1935, establishing the State Bar of Michigan as an integrated bar association, making membership a requirement for legally practicing law. The act empowered the Michigan Supreme Court to provide for the State Bar’s organization and governance, which the former did through rules effective later in 1935. At the time, Michigan’s move to an integrated bar was part of a larger nationwide movement; 15 states created mandatory bars in the 1930s. Today, 31 states have mandatory bar associations.

By the end of the decade, bar association membership had essentially quadrupled from where it stood in 1930. As one writer in a 1939 edition of the Michigan Bar Journal concluded, integration was accepted with approval by the public, the press, and the profession; did not lead to the elimination of local bar associations as some had prophesied; and resulted in an annual meeting attendance in 1937 that was largest in the nation save for California. The author went on to stress that it was through State Bar committees that assistance was provided “in all phases of the administration of justice” and towards “the solution of problems of deep concern to the public, the courts, and the legal profession.”

Bar Journal articles of the 1930s reflected a broad scope of interests. The integration of the bar was the topic of many of the decade’s pieces, first in contemplation of a mandatory bar, then in 1935 noting the action taken to create a mandatory bar, and finally later in reflection on what a mandatory bar should do. Business issues were discussed, including anti-trust, the workmen’s compensation law, contracts in restraint of trade, certificates of convenience and necessity (for public service industries), the dissolution of corporations, and the regulation of radio.

The effects of the Depression were also Journal article topics. One piece focused on the impact of the National Housing Act of 1934 (which created the Federal Housing Administration) in Michigan. The problem of defaulted mortgages was also discussed, as was how the Depression affected corporate finance.

Other pieces of interest in the decade concentrated on more specific endeavors. For instance, one article championed the formation of a non-partisan Legislative Drafting Bureau; eventually, this very thing, under the name of the Legislative Service Bureau, was created in 1941. The 1934 dedication of the University of Michigan Law School Quadrangle was celebrated. And there was a report of a failed constitutional amendment which would have moved Michigan away from an elected judiciary.