Life Lessons Learned Along the Way: Here Comes the Judge
We continue our series of personal, impactful stories that have shaped how we practice law.
During my clerkship for the late Hon. Myron H. Wahls, I once started to comment that a case seemed to involve a routine issue of criminal law. Judge Wahls stopped my musings mid-sentence. “Never,” he admonished me, “forget that each case is the most important one that the parties will ever have.”
I have never forgotten that advice. The lawyers and other professionals whom I have the privilege of representing may know the legal system, but it is their experience on the other side of the “v.” that they remember for the rest of their careers.
It is hard to believe that it has been over twenty years since the passing of Judge Wahls. As a jurist on the Michigan Court of Appeals, as a jazz pianist extraordinaire, and as a pillar of Detroit’s African-American community, Judge Wahls left a legacy of artistic and judicial accomplishment, as well as being a warrior for racial justice.
Judge Wahls was a lifelong Michigan Wolverines fan, having received his bachelor’s degree from U of M. After receiving his law degree from Northwestern University, he became a writer for the Michigan Chronicle and risked his life to register Black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s.
In private practice, he became a name partner of Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown, Wahls, Baltimore & Stephens, PC, a legendary firm whose partners comprised a who’s who of Detroit. Hon. Damon Keith was the rainmaker of the firm, a civil rights icon who later became a federal judge and famously ruled that President Nixon violated the Constitution by wiretapping student radicals without a Court order. Nathan Conyers was the brother of US Representative John Conyers and the owner of an automobile dealership listed for 30 consecutive years as one of Black Enterprise’s 100 largest African-American-owned businesses. Joseph Baltimore became the Chief Judge of Detroit’s 36th District Court.
Judge Wahls was appointed to the Michigan Employment Security Commission and Wayne County Circuit Court before serving on the Michigan Court of Appeals from 1982 until his death in 1998.
As a pianist, Judge Wahls had a standing gig at The Caucus Club, a steakhouse in Detroit’s business district. One summer, Judge Wahls introduced vibraphonist Lionel Hampton at a concert. Hampton invited Judge Wahls onto the stage for an encore. Hampton enjoyed the performance so much that he invited Judge Wahls to tour Europe with him that summer. In his later years, Judge Wahls released the CD “You Be the Judge” with Marion Hayden on bass and George Davidson on drums. He donated the proceeds to cancer research.
Judge Wahls was taken from us too soon after a bout with bone cancer. I will never forget his little black book full of jokes, his volunteering as Santa at Christmas, and the gusto with which he greeted fans of rival Michigan State. But, more importantly, he instilled in me an appreciation of the role that lawyers play in the legal system, and the necessity for lawyers to give back through mentorships and volunteer work.
Shortly before his death, Judge Wahls delivered the commencement address at Northern Michigan University. His eloquent words ring true to this day:
My brothers and sisters, as we walk in the midst of trouble with loneliness, frustration, anxiety and despair roaring through the streets of our community, we are going to dust off our love and gird up, bear up, bear with, go on, go ahead, and go through.
And when the iniquities of racism ravage and disfigure the moral landscape of this country, and justice seems to have gone and left no forwarding address, we’re going to dust off our courage and hold on, hold up, and hold out; carry on, carry through and cling to.
And when the timid falter and the faithless fly, when the skies lower, the winds howl, the storm descends and the tempest beats, we will dust off our faith and stay on, keep on, stick to and follow through, stand firm and stand fast; persist, continue, remain and abide.
We’re going to reach out and touch someone, for we are nothing until the least of us is something.
Long after his passing, I continue to be drawn back to Judge Wahls’ exhortations to remember the impact that litigation has on parties, and that “we are nothing until the least of us is something.” May you find meaning in his words as well.