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May 01, 2018 WAYMAKER

Interview with Justice Dennis W. Archer

By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.

On August 11, 2003, during the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the Honorable Dennis W. Archer became the first person of color to serve as ABA president. His one-year term began 125 years after the founding of the ABA, 60 years after the ABA ended its policy of excluding African Americans, and 30 years after Archer attended his first ABA Annual Meeting and launched a plan to improve diversity in the ABA and the profession.

Dennis Archer was raised in a small village of 1,200 residents called Cassopolis, Michigan, about 180 miles from Detroit. Born to a poor family in terms of money, his parents were rich in hope for their son and insisted that he would one day attend college. His father, Ernest James Archer, was a veteran of the U.S. Army with a third-grade education and one arm. He worked as a domestic caretaker. His mother, Francis Marie Carroll Archer, had a high school diploma and was a homemaker. The family home had no running water in their home and no toilet, bath tub, or shower inside the house. Drinking water came from the well. Archer got his first job at age eight, working as a caddy at the Park Shore Golf Course. He graduated from Cassopolis High School in May 1959 in a class of 79 students.

Just as his parents had predicted, Archer went to college, three of them over a six-year period. He earned his bachelor’s degree in education from Western Michigan University in 1965. He then taught learning disabled children in the Detroit Public Schools for five years. He had an annual salary of $5,500. Archer loved teaching but followed his future wife’s advice to go to law school. He began attending evening classes at Detroit College of Law in 1966 and graduated with his Juris Doctor degree in 1970.

Archer got active in politics and with various bar associations. En route to the ABA presidency, he served in the following capacities:

  • Campaign manager for Detroit Mayor Coleman Young’s first reelection in 1977.
  • Wolverine Bar Association president from 1979 to 1980.
  • 58th National Bar Association (NBA) president from 1983 to 1984.
  • 50th president of the State Bar of Michigan from 1984 to 1985.
  • Associate justice of the Michigan Supreme Court from 1986 to 1990.
  • Mayor of Detroit from 1994 to 2001.

I confess that when I bump into you at ABA or NBA meetings, I never know how to greet you. What do you prefer to be called after all these years?

By my friends, that would be just Dennis. Even though I’ve been off the court for some time, lawyers still call me Mr. Justice. But the people that I run into at home and around the country for a number of reasons refer to me as Mayor. My grandmother and mother both used to tell me it doesn’t matter what people call you as long as they don’t call you too late to eat. I’ve never missed a meal.

You married Trudy DunCombe on June 17, 1967. Explain to us the impact that Mrs. Trudy Archer has had on your career.

When we first met, we were in Bunche Elementary School in the City of Detroit. She taught first grade and I taught special education. She seemed to be a very remarkable person. And, as you could tell from the photograph in my book, she’s also a very attractive woman.

She was the one who started suggesting that I go to law school. I said, “Look, I don’t know anything about law school. I’ve never been to a lawyer’s office; I don’t know what they do.” The more I complained, the more she said, “You ought to go to law school.” So, I took the LSAT exam and I went to law school and I worked really hard so that I might have a chance at graduating. And, of course, nobody can promise anyone who goes to law school that you’re going to graduate. There’s no promise that if you go to law school and graduate that you’re going to pass the bar. She was very encouraging, and before I’d graduated from law school, I think the wisest thing that I did in my life: I asked her to be my wife. She said yes; we got married. We’ve got two fine sons and two very fine grandsons.

I was moved to read about the legendary Judge Damon Keith, who you first met while teaching middle school during the day and attending law school at night. He ended up swearing you in when you passed the Michigan Bar. He swore you in as president of the Wolverine Bar Association, as justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, as mayor of the City of Detroit, as president of the American Bar Association. Tell us about your relationship with Judge Keith.

Judge Keith . . . I heard about him by reputation before I had a chance to meet him. He was a remarkable lawyer. He had a general practice and he was the co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. I was in law school and was looking for an opportunity to learn more about the practice of law. I was fortunate enough to be hired by his law firm to be a clerk.

I worked for his firm in the summer of 1967. That summer there was a rebellion in Detroit. I had a chance to see and learn firsthand what lawyers can do to protect the rights of those who are in need. At the end of the rebellion, there were over 7,215 people who were arrested, and they were housed on Belle Isle.

The judges on the criminal courts put a call out for all lawyers—didn’t matter what area of expertise. Most thought it would be crazy to represent those who were charged. A lot of people being held didn’t know what they were being charged with, didn’t know what their rights were, etc. I saw Judge Keith’s law firm and other lawyers do miraculous work. After that experience of watching them work, it made me want to be a lawyer even more.

Damon Keith was an outstanding lawyer; he and I clicked. After I left his firm to go back to teaching school, U.S. Senator Phil Hart nominated Damon Keith to become a judge on the Eastern District of Michigan. Judge Keith was appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He has been an outstanding friend, a mentor, and someone I always go to for advice. He’s been a guiding light. He’s very close to my family and my family is very close to him.

Who were your other mentors?

Well, it’s hard to just point out one or two beyond Judge Keith. I’ve been very blessed to have people see in me what I couldn’t see in myself. Along the way, I’ve had a lot of people who have encouraged me, who have shared information with me, who have offered constructive criticism in terms of how I could better improve myself.

While I was born in Detroit, Michigan, I grew up in Cassopolis, Michigan, population 1,200 people. When folks there would see me coming home from school, they all seemed to know when the report cards were coming home, even if they didn’t have children. They’d stop and say, “Let me see that report card.” If you had a good one, good marks, they might give you a piece of candy and say, “Keep up the good work.” And if they didn’t see something they liked, you might get a pa-yow upside your head.

Mentors who were lawyers in Detroit: George Crockett Jr., a brilliant lawyer and a brilliant judge in Detroit—I was fortunate enough to run his campaign to become a U.S. congressman. Then there were other lawyers that I’ve worked with who gave me good, sound advice—people like Samuel C. Gardner, Larry Charfoos, David Christensen, and John Krsul. So, there’ve been a lot of people, but you have to be receptive and want to learn, to improve.

While you didn’t know it, you were serving as a mentor to me. When I came along after law school and joined the National Bar and the American Bar Associations, you were in many ways in your prime. Everyone knew who you were, and everyone knew you were the future. This is in the mid-’90s that you were going to make big history with the ABA. So, thank you for being such a role model from afar.

I was interested to learn that serving as a judge was never a goal you set for yourself. Yet, in 1986 you were appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court by Governor James Blanchard. Why was it so important for you to get elected on your own right to the Michigan Supreme Court?

Whether one is appointed or is elected—in this case, I was appointed—to our state’s highest court, you have to run statewide. Fortunately, for me, before my appointment to the Michigan Supreme Court by Governor James Blanchard, I served as president of the State Bar of Michigan. As the first person of color in the State Bar of Michigan, I received a lot of invitations to speak. I think at the time we had almost a hundred specialty bars.

When I say specialty bars, I mean county bars, the Wolverine Bar, and women bar associations. I tried to make as many of those bar meetings as I could when I was invited. I was all over the state and a lot of people knew me, which created an opportunity for me to become appointed by Governor Blanchard. There were so many wonderful lawyers from different bar associations that liked what I tried to do in our state bar that I was invited to come back as a member of the Michigan Supreme Court and as a candidate seeking election to office.

Also, while I was campaigning, I would visit schools because I wanted young people to understand how important it was to respect the rule of law, how a misstep doing something silly could interfere with something that they might want to do in the future. I did not really know what I wanted to do after I graduated from high school and started at Wayne State University.

What did you like most about serving as a justice and what did you dislike?

I, quite frankly, can’t think of anything that I disliked about being on the bench. Once lawyers become judges, many become active solely within the judiciary. The career and nature of being a judge cause many to be active only within the judiciary.

When I got on the bench, I didn’t stop being active with lawyers. I stayed very active with lawyers because I wanted to know what they thought. I wanted to know what was important to them. No matter the area of the law or practice, I could learn from them and share that with my colleagues on the bench, and we could then have a better legal system and a better judiciary across the board.

Is there an opinion or a dissent that stands out for you?

No, and let me tell you why. People often ask me what case I considered most important while I was a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court. When you grow up poor and you have to work for everything, then you appreciate the work that everyone does. I spend as much time talking with and listening to people who clean our law offices as I would with CEOs and people who own businesses.

My point is simply this: Every case that came before the Michigan Supreme Court was important to the people who were litigants and, thus, it became important to me to do my very best to make sure that justice was served. So, I can’t give you one case over another.

Did you give any thought to spending the rest of your career on the bench?

I was happy being on the bench, but within a year or so, people started suggesting that I leave the bench and run for mayor. They thought that I would bring new energy and ideas, which were needed to create new jobs and opportunities for our citizens and our city and create a better future for the City of Detroit.

Coleman A. Young was the mayor of the City of Detroit who I was fortunate enough to follow. I ran his first reelection campaign in 1977. By the time I decided to run and offer myself as a candidate for mayor, he would have been mayor for almost 20 years. He had to make a lot of hard choices. A number of businesses left the City of Detroit. We had several republican presidents who made it very clear when they were running for office that they felt that cities ought to be taken care of by their states, not by the federal government. Anytime we had any kind of a recession, the City would have a financial deficit. The mayor had to lay off city employees and could not replace buses and things of that nature.

Toward the end of Mayor Young’s tenure, businesses and people left the City of Detroit. We also experienced kids killing each other over jackets and gym shoes, designer glasses, etc. It really bothered me because I thought I might be able to do something if I could find solutions to the problems that we were facing in Detroit. So, I decided to step down from the Michigan Supreme Court to see if I could find solutions to the problems that we faced in the City of Detroit.

I was fortunate to have several professors from the University of Michigan to work with me as we reached out and found experts from around the country who solved similar city problems and brought them together with leaders inside the City of Detroit. We found solutions to the problems and wrote a document called “Thoughts for a Brighter Future for Detroit.” I sent that document to a thousand people in the City of Detroit, including Mayor Young. When no one stepped up to offer himself or herself as a candidate, I decided I would run for the office.

I took that document and went to citizens’ homes, to churches, and to college campuses and met with people in town hall meetings and said, “I want to know what you think. What do you want for your city? What is it that would cause you to be enthusiastic about your city? What is it you want for your children?” By the time we were into the campaign, it was not my document; it was the people’s document because it was something they believed in, doing something they wanted to accomplish.

You became mayor of Detroit on January 1, 1994, on your 52nd birthday. You have been quoted as saying that being mayor is the crowning achievement of your career. Can you explain that further?

It’s one thing to be a lawyer in a law firm surrounded by very outstanding, brilliant men and women lawyers who care greatly about the practice of law and about working with clients and each other. It’s quite another to be a member, one of seven people, serving on your state’s highest court, the Michigan Supreme Court.

Once you become a mayor of a city, you need to reach out and find the very best people to help you run that city. You need people who want to work and share the vision that you have, but not as “yes” people. These are highly talented and dedicated leaders in their own right—people that you want around you and that if they disagree with something, they’ll tell you about it and tell you why. You have to work together collegially. And you need to have a working relationship with the business community and foundations. You need to have commitments from businesses of what they will do, and the same is true of foundations.

There was an independent source who documented what occurred during my time in office. A senior vice president of Comerica Bank in the City of Detroit documented all of the new businesses created, investments that were made by corporations, and investments by the foundation community. Brenda Schneider documented that we were able to attract $20.2 billion of investments.

Four years before I was elected mayor, the City of Detroit, according to a 1990 census, had the highest percentage of people living below poverty, 32.2 percent. When you factor in children, 46.6 percent of our children lived below poverty. While Detroit was known for its creativity and its genius and manufacturing, developing, and designing cars, 35 percent of the age-eligible adults who lived in the City of Detroit could not afford to own a car. We needed jobs.

In December of 1994, the City of Detroit was awarded a federal empowerment zone designation. Later, Michigan Governor John Engler created renaissance zones projects for Michigan cities. Those two programs allowed Detroit to attract a large number of businesses and good-paying jobs. Our executive order helped businesses of color and women-owned businesses to be hired and utilized in the growth of our city.

We created a working relationship within the region. We worked with our suburban community, the region, and the state of Michigan.

You were the first black person to serve on your state’s bar as president, the first black person to serve as ABA president. I would imagine that each of these experiences is unique. Explain how serving as president of a majority bar association differs from serving as president of organizations composed primarily of black attorneys like the National Bar or the Wolverine Bar.

The National Bar Association and the Wolverine Bar Association were created because black lawyers were not allowed to join the ABA and state bars, especially in the South, but also in the North. In the American Bar Association, you couldn’t be a member, let alone serve on a committee or be a committee chair.

The National Bar Association was founded in 1924 in Iowa, and incorporated in 1925, because black lawyers wanted to have the ability to benefit from continuing legal education and learning from other outstanding black lawyers. The National Bar Association has been an outstanding opportunity for black lawyers and white lawyers to work together for a common cause that allows us to take a position, even in opposition to a president of the United States because of a policy or something that the president may want to do that would be harmful to African Americans. Lawyers of color serving in an affiliate of the National Bar Association can immediately work on a local or state issue that is harmful to our community.

While I was president of the bar associations, I wanted lawyers of color and, in particular, African American lawyers to be respected and to be given an equal opportunity to compete. I wanted women lawyers to be respected and given an equal opportunity to compete.

We’ve had others who have served in various capacities—Kenneth Frazier, who is the CEO of Merck, stood up and decided that he could not serve on this corporate committee that President Trump had put together because he disagreed with what President Trump was advocating. We’ve had other lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall, Vernon Jordan, and CEOs such as Ken Chennault, CEO of American Express for 16 years, who have helped open doors and make a difference.

For the longest period of time, we had very few, if any, African Americans and women on corporate boards. When we had our last recession, between 2007 and 2014, there were a lot of articles written about how women should be appointed to corporate boards. There was an analysis of corporations that had women who served on corporate boards and corporations whose boards had no women. Corporate boards that had women directors—those companies did better economically than the corporations that had no women. When you have people from different backgrounds and experience, then you have the best opportunity to have a better dialogue about how to avoid a problem and how to make things better for the corporation.

You are close to both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama yet you did not serve in the cabinet of either president. It is reported that you were asked. Any regrets in not serving? And if your friend, Hillary Clinton, had won in 2016, would you have served in her administration?

When Bill Clinton decided to run for office, I supported him. This occurred a year before I announced my candidacy to run for mayor. When President Clinton won his second term, during the convention in Chicago, I was asked and was privileged to second the nomination for his reelection. Later, after he won reelection, I received a telephone call from one of his cabinet officers who talked to me about three different cabinet positions. I declined because I wanted to serve out my first term as mayor and wanted to continue to work on initiatives our administration had started. I felt very close to the citizens of the City of Detroit and the improvement of their quality of life was my highest priority.

I was an early supporter of U.S. Senator Barack Obama when he ran for president. I worked hard along with others to get him elected. While President Obama was in office, I was asked twice to consider two different positions. I declined because I wanted to make sure that I would be on the outside of his administration, so I could directly work to help him be reelected to a second term.

I was active in Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016. I campaigned for her in Michigan, and I even went to Florida on one occasion to be on a bus tour to campaign to speak in churches on her behalf. I went to Ohio to do the same thing. I joined so many others who desperately wanted Hillary Clinton to become our next president. She had the best platform; she laid out an outstanding agenda for women, for people of color, and for those who live below the poverty level. I now look forward to 2018 for the election that will take place in my home state of Michigan. I also really look forward to 2020 for the next presidential election.

ABA membership has been declining steadily for a decade. What can be done to stabilize and/or grow membership and, in your opinion, what’s the value proposition of an organization like the ABA? And I’ll even ask you what’s the value proposition of NBA, which also has some membership challenges?

Let’s start with the American Bar Association. Your statement is not quite accurate. We have had our membership hover on being just about 400,000 for the last number of years. I was president in 2003–04. We had about 400,000 members then. And here we are in 2018, when we still have 400,000. What we see is a dramatic difference in the number or percentage of lawyers that belong to the American Bar Association. There’s a big drop-off. We’ve got about 1.3 million lawyers; about a third of the lawyers belong to the American Bar Association.

When I was a young lawyer, my first American Bar Association meeting was in 1972 in San Francisco at their Annual Meeting. Law firms would send their young lawyers to become active in the ABA’s Young Lawyers Section to meet other young lawyers from all around the United States. Young lawyers developed personal relationships and learned how to engage in client maintenance and business development. They also engaged in public service projects to help benefit the public. At the time of crisis or natural disasters, young lawyers would generally be the ones who would do the work.

I became a lawyer in 1970. I went to my first National Bar Association meeting in 1971. Lawyers were very much engaged and thoughtful about the civil rights movement and issues that were having a negative impact in our respective communities. The focus was to open more doors for African American lawyers. The work of the National Bar Association focused on improving equal opportunity and legal rights for the communities in which we practice law. Today, we must demonstrate why it is important to be supportive of the work and accomplishments of the National Bar Association. We must continue to demonstrate to African American lawyers why it is so important for them to be a member and to be of assistance to correct issues that negatively impact the communities in which we live.

You were kind enough to give me an hour today. I don’t want to take advantage of your generosity, so one quick wrap-up question: Who would play you in the Dennis Archer biopic on HBO?

[Laughter] Well, if you would play me, my brother, I’d be ecstatic. However, I don’t see an HBO project in the forecast.

Let me close by saying: If you ever see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know that the turtle did not get there by itself. I did not get where I am by myself. I had two loving parents, a great aunt, and great uncles. A lot of people saw in me something apparently that I couldn’t see in myself. They were always encouraging me. Like the turtle on that fence post, brother, I didn’t get here by myself.

Thank you so much, Justice Archer.

By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.

Willie J. Epps Jr. is a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Missouri and sits in Jefferson City. He recently was appointed to the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges.