Michigan Legal Milestones
The Michigan Legal Milestones program recognizes significant legal cases and personalities in Michigan's history and uses bronze plaques, placed at featured sites, to relate the historical significance. A new milestone is dedicated each year. The Legal Milestone plaques are on display across the state.
The 41th Legal Milestone
On May 18, 1846, after a decade of statehood, and under the leadership of Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice William A. Fletcher and Oakland County attorney Sanford M. Green, Michigan took the unprecedented step of abolishing capital punishment. This act took effect on March 1, 1847.
The last execution in Michigan occurred on September 24, 1830, after Stephen Gifford Simmons, a Detroit-area innkeeper, killed his wife Levanna in a drunken rage. He was quickly convicted of murder in a high profile (for the times) trial. A huge crowd turned out and the event became a spectacle that gave rise to debate over the appropriateness of the allowing women and children to attend. While there were also other political and social factors at work in the decision, this public execution may have had an impact on Michigan becoming the first government in the English-speaking world to outlaw capital punishment for murder and lesser crimes.
More than 100 years later this commitment was reaffirmed during the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1962, when an amendment was passed that codified the ban by inserting it into the Michigan Constitution. Under the leadership of young attorney Eugene (Gil) Wanger, a bi-partisan majority of delegates to the state’s constitutional convention voted to add a new constitutional ban stating that “No law shall be enacted providing for the penalty of death.” Michigan is the only state in the Union whose constitution bans the death penalty.
The 40th Legal Milestone
In 1858, the citizens of Kalamazoo extended free public education beyond the elementary level when they used tax money to construct Kalamazoo Union High School and to fund both elementary and secondary studies.
In 1873, several prominent Kalamazoo citizens filed a lawsuit raising a legal and constitutional challenge to the high school, arguing that tax dollars could only be used to fund primary schools. After an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, Justice Thomas M. Cooley penned a unanimous opinion on July 21, 1874, concluding that neither the legislature nor the state constitution restricted the scope of public education. By 1890, there were 278 high schools in Michigan. The Kalamazoo Case changed the landscape of public education in Michigan and served as a landmark for educational reform across the United States.
Submit a nomination for a future Michigan Legal Milestone online or download and complete the Word document.