Michigan Lawyers in History—Emilia Schaub: 100 Years of Leadership

by Ann Miller

Who is a Michigan lawyer worthy of note? A general practitioner, like thousands of us today? A person with a commitment to justice for the underdog and a strong dose of community service? Emilia Christine Schaub, whose career established a trail that has been followed by many distinguished lawyers, comes to mind.

Miss Schaub’s work deserves accolades because she excelled at what she did, because she did many things first, and because she demonstrated how to do this with integrity and honor. She was Michigan’s first woman to be elected and serve as prosecutor, and is known as the first woman in the nation to successfully defend an accused murderer. Miss Schaub was honored in 1994 as the subject of the State Bar’s Michigan Legal Milestone. Former Bar President Edmund M. Brady, Jr., then chair of the State Bar’s Communication Committee, praised ‘‘her pioneering achievements on behalf of women and Native Americans, her extraordinary dedication to the law, and her contributions to the citizens of northwest Michigan and, indeed, all the citizens of our state.’’ She was named to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and was appointed a State Bar ‘‘Champion of Justice’’ in 1991.

Emilia Schaub was born in a log cabin in Leelanau County in 1891. Although no woman from Leelanau County had ever been admitted to the State Bar of Michigan before her, she said, ‘‘I had always had it in my mind to go to law school. My aunt never did anything without the help of a lawyer. It made me realize that it was a pretty important job to have. I wanted to do something helpful for people.’’ So, she saved her earnings from her jobs in the family’s country store and a telephone office, then set out by train to begin a legal career that spanned nearly 80 years.

Her first stop was Grand Rapids, where she attended business college, then Howell, where she worked for an attorney and saved for law school. In 1924, she became an honors graduate of the Detroit College of Law after working her way through school. In 1930, she earned a Masters of Law from the University of Detroit.

Miss Schaub opened a practice in downtown Detroit’s Lafayette Building, where she handled a variety of cases, and found herself a champion of the underdog. In 1926, one year after being admitted to the Bar, she was cited as the first woman in the nation to successfully defend a murder case. In 1932, her habeas corpus petition secured the release of a 23-year-old immigrant detained for 13 months. In 1933, she was appointed one of the public administrators for Wayne County.

In addition to her practice, Miss Schaub valued work with community and professional organizations. She joined the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan in 1930, and later served as that organization’s secretary.

Despite a successful practice, she left Detroit to return to her family home. She said, ‘‘Anyone who has ever lived in Leelanau County and then been absent from it for a number of years will appreciate my decision to give up a lucrative law practice in the city of Detroit and return to Leelanau County.’’

In Leelanau County in 1936, Emilia Schaub was elected prosecutor and began the first of six terms as prosecutor in her home county. She was the first woman to be elected and serve as prosecutor in Michigan, a road others had tried unsuccessfully. (In 1898, Merrie M. Abbott was elected prosecutor of Ogemaw County. Although she assumed the duties of office, Abbott was ousted by Supreme Court order on October 17, 1899.)

During her tenure as prosecutor, Emelia championed the rights of the local Ottawa and Chippewa bands. She wrote to federal officials, then took her case to President and Eleanor Roosevelt to help secure the bands’ right to continued possession of tribal lands. Frustrated at the federal level, she turned to Leelanau County, where she succeeded in having lands held in trust ‘‘for Indian community purposes.’’ Her efforts led the tribe to make her an honorary member in 1942. The land base she secured made it possible for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to secure federal acknowledgement in 1980.

Emilia Schaub retired as prosecutor in 1954 and turned to general practice in her home community. She continued as a general practitioner for nearly 40 years, making occasional court appearances even after her 100th birthday.

As she reduced her legal work, her civic efforts expanded. She helped organize the Leelanau Historical Foundation, serving as that organization’s president, museum director, and on their board of directors until 1986, when she was 97 years old. She was also a charter member of the Traverse City Zonta Club and the first secretary of the Leelanau Chamber of Commerce.

One of her greatest roles throughout her professional life was that of mentor. At the dedication of the State Bar’s Legal Milestone in 1994, now Chief Justice Elizabeth Weaver recalled that Emilia Schaub’s friendship dated to Weaver’s first appearance in the Leelanau County courts. Emilia Schaub vouched for the young attorney’s integrity and ability then, and their friendship continued. ‘‘I have shared Emilia’s friendship and help to me because it is just one example of the thousands of us she has quietly befriended over the past 100 years.’’

Emelia’s support for women lawyers was consistent with her philosophy. She once wrote:

Women’s duties once-upon-a-time were to rear and educate children, work in the gardens, attend to household duties—and there her domain ended. If she is capable of rearing and educating children, a woman should be privileged to assist in the preparation of laws for school and society that affect those same children in growing-up days.

Emilia’s mentoring was not limited to women. At the Legal Milestone dedication, Gerald Henshaw, then chairman of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, said Miss Schaub had been a role model for him since he was 18. ‘‘When I was a young sprout in the banking business and I thought I knew it all...I learned what integrity, honesty, and humanness were all about. Emilia made an impression I’ve never forgotten.’’

Her secret? At her 100th birthday, she told a reporter:

‘‘I always tried to do everything the best way I knew how. If I did that, I was proud.’’

Emilia Schaub died at age 104, after serving her community, her state, and her profession admirably for almost 80 years.

Ann Miller is the Associate Dean of Planning and Programs and a professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, where she oversees the school's externship program. She serves as a member of the Bar Journal Advisory Board.