G. Robert Vincent Voice Library
Interviews with Michigan Supreme Court Justices

Interview with Erwin Simon


Sponsored by Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society
Conducted by Judith Christie
June 20, 2007
Mr. Simon's home Huntington Woods, MI



Ms. Christie:
This is an oral history interview of Mr. Erwin Simon. The date is June 20, 2007. The interview is Judith Christie. We are in Mr. Simon's home in Huntington Woods, Michigan. Good morning, Mr. Simon.

Mr. Simon:
Good morning, Judy. I'm very glad to be here.

Ms. Christie:
Thank you. Well, before we start, I'd like to get this on the record. You've agreed to do these interviews for an oral history project under the auspices of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society. The interview will be transcribed and given to you for editing. You may make any additions, corrections or deletions to the material that you wish.

You will be asked to sign a document giving the interview tapes and transcripts to the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society. Transcripts of the interview will be placed in the archives of the Society, and will be available to the public by an internet site. Is all of that acceptable to you?

Mr. Simon:
It is acceptable and I understand it.

Ms. Christie:
Good, thank you. So we'll get started. Let's talk about your parents. Where were you born and who were your father and mother?

Mr. Simon:
I was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1913. My father was Louis Simon, who had been born in Canada, and my mother was Minnie Kramer, who was born in Bay City. My father came to the United States as a young man I believe around 1909, and went in the business in Lansing as a manager of a foundry which made parts for the automobiles.

I grew up in Lansing, a very pleasant place to grow up; much different from the managed lives of the children I see here. I always walked to school, never was given a ride. It was a very pleasant life.

Ms. Christie:
Did you have brothers and sisters?

Mr. Simon:
I had two sisters, both younger. One of them just died a couple months ago at age 90, and the other is living in Miami Beach enjoying life.

Ms. Christie:
Where did you go to elementary school?

Mr. Simon:
Lansing, Genesee Street School, which was nine blocks from our house. I don't think it is being used as a school anymore.

From there I went to junior high school, West Junior High School, then to Lansing Central High School, which was just three blocks from our house.

Ms. Christie:
That's nice. What were you mainly interested in in high school?

Mr. Simon:
I was on the debate team. I was a class officer. I tried out for the swimming team, but they discontinued the event that I was good at, so I didn't continue.

Ms. Christie:
Were you involved in any other sports?

Mr. Simon:
No organized sports.

Ms. Christie:
The debate team. Sounds like you were interested in talking.

Mr. Simon:
Yes, yes, for a number of years. I can remember one year the subject was whether chain stores should be prohibited.

Ms. Christie:
Which side did you take?

Mr. Simon:
We were required to debate both sides. It's rather amusing now that there was even an idea that you could do something like that.

Ms. Christie:
Very true. So after high school, you went onto college?

Mr. Simon:
I went to the University of Michigan, scholarship, worked for my board. I had a good time. I fell in love every spring, and out by fall.

Ms. Christie:
That sounds wonderful. Absolutely perfect.

Mr. Simon:
Yes.

Ms. Christie:
What made you choose the University of Michigan?

Mr. Simon:
I'd always planned to be an attorney. I'm not sure why, but in the 8th grade occupations course, I wrote on my report that I would be an attorney, and that's what I intended to do, and I did. The only law school at that time that was available was in Ann Arbor, so I had planned to take a combined course, three years literary school and three years law, and I could do that if I had started at Ann Arbor.

Ms. Christie:
So that was part of your whole life plan, made in the 8th grade.

Mr. Simon:
Yes.

Ms. Christie:
That's amazing!

Mr. Simon:
Well, I think I had an aptitude which I was aware of.

Ms. Christie:
Was there any family member in the law?

Mr. Simon:
Oh, no, no. I was the first.

Ms. Christie:
What interested you most when you got to law school?

Mr. Simon:
I was interested in everything. All the way through the university, I took the beginning course in everything. And I was on the law review, but I think my notes that I wrote were rather routine. As I look back at them, I don't think there was anything very -- I don't think I developed anything, just routine comments. But I enjoyed writing. I enjoyed discussions. It was a good place to think, and I didn't get involved in politics, although I guess I was part of the 1930's very liberal approach, which I have since recovered from.

Ms. Christie:
How did the Depression affect your family?

Mr. Simon:
No money!

Ms. Christie:
You had no money?

Mr. Simon:
No money. I had money enough to pay room rent, but I always worked for my board. It wasn't an easy time but I enjoyed it. When people went out for a milkshake in the evening I couldn’t go but I didn't care much for milkshakes.

Ms. Christie:
You probably weren't the only one affected by the Depression anyway.

Mr. Simon:
No, no. I don't think people realize today the dislocations created in the '30s. And it affected me very much. When I graduated from law school in '37, I went to New York, I went to Chicago, I went to -- all around Detroit, looking for a clerkship in a law firm. Nothing. Every place told me to go home.

Ms. Christie:
Really?

Mr. Simon:
Yes. I mean they were very nice, they talked to me, and and then eventually said go home. So my clerkship which is really the impetus for this interview came by necessity, and not from desire. In fact, I remember telling someone when I first heard about applying for Supreme Court clerkship, I don't want -- I want to practice law. I don't want to do more research. But I was wrong.

Ms. Christie:
To go back to your job search, I recall that you mentioned in the excerpt you'd given me of your writings that you also felt that there was perhaps an element of anti-Semitism in that.

Mr. Simon:
No, I don't think, no. I was naive. I applied only to the large “white stocking” firms which then probably had no Jews. There just weren't any positions. 1937 was the depth of the Depression. There had been a slight recovery around '35, and then really the bottom dropped out in '37. And it wasn't until '39 and '40 when the war industries began that the economic activity started to pick up again.

Ms. Christie:
You said you weren't particularly interested in politics?

Mr. Simon:
Oh, I was a class officer and that sort of thing, but I was interested in politics. I voted as soon as I could. And I must have voted -- oh, I know what I did. The Literary Digest had a poll in 1936 I think it was, and it showed the Republicans winning big, but they, in publishing their statistics, they showed how the people -- whose vote they took -- had voted in '32. And all you had to do was look at those figures and see that they were only contacting people who had voted Republican. So the vote was skewed, but they did tell the numbers. So I took the '32 statistics, each state, how they voted, I re-weighted the Literary Digest poll figures, and came out almost exactly as the '36 election went. So I started taking bets, which, of course, was illegal, I believe, betting on an election. Not big bets, but I'd give all kinds of odds that the Republicans wouldn't take more than five states. Actually, they only took two in the '36 election. So I did very nicely. That was my interest in politics.

Ms. Christie:
But you indicated that you were liberal at that time?

Mr. Simon:
Yes, yes, I was very much a person of the day.

Ms. Christie:
So then you got wind of the clerkship. How did that happen?

Mr. Simon:
As I said, I went to New York, I went to Chicago, I went around Detroit. No opportunities. I knew Joe Jackier, who was then Henry Butzel's clerk, and he said come talk to the Judge and see about a clerkship. So I did, and I -- he hired me for the coming year. He would have a different clerk each year. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

Ms. Christie:
Let me ask you about the clerkship itself. Now that was paid for by the Judge himself?

(Whereupon, a brief pause in proceedings)

Ms. Christie:
Mr. Simon, we were talking about how the clerkships or the Supreme Court Justices were done at the time you became one.

Mr. Simon:
I have to go back to Judge Butzel's appointment in 1929. He was a prominent attorney here in Detroit, and involved in community affairs and all of that. And when Justice Fellows died, Governor Green appointed Henry Butzel to the vacancy. This was the summer of 1929. Butzel happened to be summering on Cape Cod with his family. So I think he accepted the appointment, but he knew that Justice Brandeis of the United States Supreme Court was summering just a short distance down the coast.

So he called Brandeis and told him he had been appointed, and could he come and talk to him. Brandeis very nicely agreed, and Justice -- I always called him Justice -- asked Brandeis did he have any advice for him. Brandeis says yes, two things. Do you own corporate stocks? Butzel says yes. Brandeis says sell it all because you'll have constant conflicts. Butzel said I can't, the salary of the Michigan Supreme Court Judge I think at that time was $7,000 a year. Butzel said I can't. He said well, do you own bank stocks, and he said yes. He said well, that's the biggest source of litigation and conflict.

So in the summer of 1929, Butzel sold all his bank stocks which was, number one, very fortunate; number two, Brandeis said do they provide research clerks for you. Butzel said no. Brandeis says can you afford to employ one yourself. Butzel says yes. Brandeis says by all means, do it, they are an invaluable assistance. Butzel immediately employed a clerk, and each year thereafter hired a clerk on his own.

I think I am the oldest surviving clerk. All my predecessors are gone. Judge Butzel employed me in 1937. Up to that time, he had employed and paid the clerk out of his own funds, but he kept pushing for a formal appointment of a research clerk for each Judge.

Finally, the year I was employed was the year that every Judge got a clerk. The salary, $125 a month. That was all right in those days. You couldn't have a car, but I knew all of the clerks -- I eventually got acquainted with all of the clerks up to my time, and some of them after [See partial list].

It was a wonderful relationship because of Judge Butzel's nature and character.

Ms. Christie:
Tell me about your interview with him. How did he come over? How did he appear to you? Do you recall that?

Mr. Simon:
Well, he was a very -- physically, a very impressive man. His manner was strong. He was not wishy-washy in any respect. He was very direct. I really don't remember much about the interview.

Ms. Christie:
Did you have to show your writing skills to him?

Mr. Simon:
No, as I say, I knew Joe Jackier who was then his clerk who had probably told him something about me, because I had no delay in being accepted for the position, which was very good because I needed the employment. But this was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I think I would have been very unhappy in New York. I knew what it was like as a neophyte attorney. I really was rather naive in many respects; not in terms of legal issues or questions and that sort of thing, but in business relationships. I had a lot to learn.

Judge Butzel was very knowledgeable in business matters. He was a director of what later became Detroit Bank. He was also a director of other things. He was president of community organizations and so on. It was a wonderful relationship. He had the capability of listening, and here I was -- I use the word “a little snot nose.” And he would give me a chance to talk.

The procedure was that the judges were assigned cases in rotation. Judge Butzel would get all the briefs and records for all the cases, but, also, he would give me the briefs and records of the cases that were assigned to him. I would read them and do an analysis. He would tell me the reaction he got from the oral argument on the case in court, how he thought it should probably go. But I was not directed to come up with a position. Sometimes I would take a position, after reading the briefs and records and doing some independent research, which was different from the one he had stated initially. Instead of just telling me to do what I was told, he would listen, and I would talk.

I remember one case we discussed daily for a month. And finally he said, “This is the way it's going to be,” and I said, “Yes, sir.”

Ms. Christie:
He gave you ample opportunity for discussion.

Mr. Simon:
Yes. Of course, I was developing a personal relationship with him, too.

Ms. Christie:
How was his chambers arranged? How exactly did that look?

Mr. Simon:
Every Judge had chambers in Lansing in the old Capital building. That's where the court was. But he had his own office in the National Bank Building in Detroit. It was a one-room office. His secretary stayed in Lansing.

Ms. Christie:
Oh, his secretary was in Lansing?

Mr. Simon:
And he had his office here. And I was also located here, except that I would drive him and Judge Bushnell up to Lansing in Butzel's car for the beginning of each session. That's another thing.

Judge Butzel and Judge Bushnell were very different people. Bushnell was a Democrat, Butzel was a Republican. They got along very nicely with a great deal of respect and friendship. Much different than a lot of the attitudes that have been developed today. I got to know them both very well, and it was a relationship that -- Butzel and Bushnell, I respected very much.

Ms. Christie:
Did they talk about cases on the way up or back?

Mr. Simon:
I don't recall. I think they were both involved in public affairs generally, and had a lot of interests in common.

Ms. Christie:
Sounds like a nice relationship.

Mr. Simon:
Yes, it was very friendly, even though their attitudes and thinking and principles were much different.

Ms. Christie:
And that would be a relatively long trip, since there weren't expressways.

Mr. Simon:
Lansing to Detroit could be anywhere from two to three hours or more.

Ms. Christie:
Ample time to talk.

Mr. Simon:
Yes, yes.

Ms. Christie:
How often would you go up to Lansing?

Mr. Simon:
I think there were four terms a year, and the hearings would last two, three weeks. And Judge Butzel would come back and operate out of his Detroit office.

(Whereupon, a brief pause in proceedings)

Ms. Christie:
We were talking about the organization of the court and how things worked.

Mr. Simon:
The court, as I knew it, each Justice had a lot of autonomy. They were very independent, and very different in personality. Judge Weist was still the gentleman from way back. Judge Fead was very much a public figure. Judge Butzel was a public figure. Each Judge was different. Now you must remember, I was there only a year, and I was not involved much with the other Justices.

Ms. Christie:
Did you have a feeling that the court was collegial, that they got along?

Mr. Simon:
They got along, and I think there was a great deal of respect in the sense that although I know there were fundamental disagreements. Nevertheless, I never heard any personal animosities or difficulties.

When the clerkships became a government office, there were some Judges that would have nothing to do with a clerk. They didn't want a clerk, they didn't want anything to do with it. So the poor people who had that position were just out there doing nothing.

On the other hand, there were some who very much used them, such as Justice Butzel, and he was really the initiator of the whole idea of having a research clerk.

Ms. Christie:
Did you ever mess up? Did you ever make an error that the Justice had to deal with?

Mr. Simon:
Well, whatever came out eventually was what the Judge wanted. And so I don't recall any situation that you would call an error. In fact, it was the other way around.

I a few times found serious errors in what had been submitted by counsel in their briefs. But, again, that didn't end in any injury.

Ms. Christie:
But it sounds like he was an engaged boss.

Mr. Simon:
Oh, very much so. It was his decision. He was not a scholar. He was more of a high level business man. His practice had been very much business oriented. His brother, Fred, who was in the same office handled the miscellaneous public affairs, individual public affairs.

Ms. Christie:
So they had worked actually in the same office in the National Bank Building?

Mr. Simon:
Oh, yes, yes. And it so happened that one of his clerks also became a partner, Max Fruhauf.

Ms. Christie:
That's interesting. Could you characterize the court at that time? Would it have been a more liberal court or a more conservative court?

Mr. Simon:
It was not a liberal court at all. In fact, I don't think it was a very good court, looking back.

Ms. Christie:
What makes you say that?

Mr. Simon:
The Michigan Supreme Court has not been known in more recent years for the quality of its production of opinions and things. I do not characterize any of the Judges as being scholars or great lawyers, including Butzel. Great lawyer, yes, but a great scholar --

Ms. Christie:
Not a Brandeis, for example.

Mr. Simon:
No, no.

Ms. Christie:
Was Justice Butzel the first Jewish Justice to your knowledge?

Mr. Simon:
Yes, as far as I recall. And apropos of that, he was required to run for election not too many years after his appointment. I think at the end of -- he served out Justice Fellow's term, and then he was required to run for election. And I was told, I do not know, that there was some effort to get someone to run against him, but he had no trouble. In fact, I think the person who was solicited as an opponent actually withdrew before the election.

Ms. Christie:
Do you know how Justice Butzel felt about running for office?

Mr. Simon:
He had not anticipated staying. He had an excellent practice. He had a family. He didn't need the public recognition. But he enjoyed it very much.

Ms. Christie:
That's why he stayed?

Mr. Simon:
Yes. He did not stay for any economic reason or for prestige, that sort of thing, although he did appreciate the importance of being a Supreme Court Justice.

Ms. Christie:
Elections must have been sort of -- of course, they're not like they are now, but they must have been an imposition.

Mr. Simon:
No, it was different. The Judges didn't campaign for re-election, as far as I was aware.

Ms. Christie:
So how --

Mr. Simon:
You must remember, I was his clerk for one year, although I did have a subsequent relationship.

Ms. Christie:
Do you remember any interesting cases that you worked on while you were with the Justice, anything that stands out in your mind?

Mr. Simon:
No.

Ms. Christie:
Let's get onto your social relationship, because that certainly blossomed. What happened there?

Mr. Simon:
I learned later that the Judge, after he'd gotten acquainted with his clerk, would have him come home for dinner. And the dinner was a fairly formal affair, and the whole family would be there. I learned later that when they heard that the Judge was bringing another clerk home for dinner, there was objection. I wasn't aware of that.

And I also heard later that after dinner you were expected to go and sit with the Judge in his den while he smoked a cigar and talked with him. Instead, I turned to his daughter, and asked her if she'd like to go to a movie. She said yes. To cut it short, we were married two years later.

Ms. Christie:
Was the Justice surprised that you did not join him in his den? He didn't summon you?

Mr. Simon:
No.

Ms. Christie:
She must have taken your eye right away then?

Mr. Simon:
She was getting her Masters at the University of Michigan in social work, and had a position in St. Louis in a children's agency. So she was there for two years. When she came home, we were married.

Ms. Christie:
So you courted during the two years?

Mr. Simon:
Oh, yes.

Ms. Christie:
How did your relationship with the Justice change now that you were not his clerk anymore, but you were his son-in-law?

Mr. Simon:
There was really no change in substance. I always had great respect for him. And it made no difference whether it was as a clerk or a son-in-law or whatever. He was a very impressive man, and my relationship with him was based on respect first and affection second. I had a lot of affection, for he was a man who had wonderful humor.

You've got to remember, I came from an atmosphere of respect for parents, and it just fit in, because he -- later, I joined him when he had Saturday lunch with his brother Fred on Rowena Street. It was a very natural relationship.

Ms. Christie:
You and Eleanor moved around quite a bit?

Mr. Simon:
We were married in 1940. In June of 1941, I went into the Army. She came out to California where I was stationed, and although I was only a recruit and couldn't get off the night, I had to be in the barracks at night, she came out and somehow or other, I don't know how, I was able to rent a nice little terrace in La Jolla. I'm surprised that they rented to me, being in the Army. And Elly came out and was there. Then I was released in September of 1944 because I was 28 years old when I went into the Army, and they stopped drafting 28 years or older, and they released me and we came home.

(Whereupon, a brief pause in proceedings)

Ms. Christie:
We were talking about your Army career. You got let go when you were 28.

Mr. Simon:
I came home. We bought a house in Huntington Woods. We moved in December 1. The following Sunday we had all our friends out to see our new home. The radio was on, and that was December 7, 1941. I was back in the Army in a couple weeks. I spent four years. I came home in January of 1946.

After my clerkship, I was employed by the Judge's former office as a clerk, and was involved in litigation, all sorts of practice. At the time I went into the Army, I was participating in an anti-trust case in the Federal Court. When I got out and back into practice in 1946, the case was still pending, and I picked up and was involved there. And, incidentally, we lost the case, which we probably should have anyway.

I had no legal involvement in the Army. I was involved in security intelligence for a while, military police. Nothing involving a legal career.

Ms. Christie:
Did your wife remain close to her family the whole time you were gone?

Mr. Simon:
She remained in Detroit because we had two children while I was in the Army, and she was busy with the family.

Ms. Christie:
I'll bet, very busy. Did she continue anything in the way of her career at that time, or did she stay home to raise the kids?

Mr. Simon:
No, she did not continue with her social work then, but a few years later she did.

Ms. Christie:
It sounded like Justice Butzel and his wife raised, at least in the case of your wife, a very independent-minded young woman?

Mr. Simon:
Very.

Ms. Christie:
What kind of influence do you think he had on his daughters?

Mr. Simon:
When he was married, he was well along in years. I know that his younger children, he was closely involved with them. But as you just pointed out, his daughters were very independent. And his son, who became a professor at Union College, even more independent.

Ms. Christie:
I thought it was interesting in reading about Justice Butzel that none of his brothers ever married other than him; is that correct?

Mr. Simon:
That's correct. His brother, Lawrence, lived in Manhattan and was involved in business, and then retired, spent his winters playing bridge and his summers fishing in Maine.

His brother, Fred, was a partner. Fred was very much involved in community affairs, and was practically the dean of the social work community. I don't think the professionals particularly cared for his involvement, because he was very unprofessional in terms of the way he handled things. But he had a lot of empathy and a lot of concern.

His brother, Maurice, died the year before I became the Judge’s clerk. I did not become acquainted with him except that he had been in the Army in the Spanish American War for a brief time. And when he died, he had a military funeral, and I have the flag that was on his casket. It's a very large, 48 star flag, which I fly on National holidays.

Ms. Christie:
A couple of times you mentioned Justice Butzel's sense of humor. What kind of sense of humor did he have?

Mr. Simon:
Not a formal sense of humor. It was -- he didn't tell jokes, but he had a very nice smile, laugh. It was an easy, pleasant personality.

Ms. Christie:
He just saw the good side of life?

Mr. Simon:
Very much so, very much so, although he appreciated problems and was aware of.

Ms. Christie:
Did he have influence on your later career, as you went on in law?

Mr. Simon:
He did not, shall we say, interfere or become involved in my career. I guess I was very independent, also. And he did not interfere or become involved.

Ms. Christie:
Did he ever give you any advice? Did you ever ask for any advice from him?

Mr. Simon:
Not as such. We sort of lived together. I don't mean in terms of residence, but I was very close to him.

For instance, Saturday morning, we would go to the Eastern Market, and we would start at one end of the four block place, and his driver would come along with a bushel basket. We would price vegetables and things all the way down. On the way back, we would buy. It was that sort of a relationship.

Ms. Christie:
Sounds delightful.

Mr. Simon:
I had lunch with him every Saturday with his brother Fred on what was then Rowena Street and now Mack. It was a very close, friendly -- except for my respect for his personality and character, it was more of a friendship relationship.

Ms. Christie:
Did you ever think of seeking a Judgeship for yourself?

Mr. Simon:
No. No, I -- my one year as research clerk satisfied my -- no, I always was interested in practicing law more in the business aspects, banking, finance, and that sort of thing.

Ms. Christie:
Did you get a chance to get involved in some of the outside activities that the Judge also pursued in the community?

Mr. Simon:
That's interesting, although his brother, Fred, and he were very much community involved. Not while he was on the bench, he didn't, but Fred very much. Interestingly enough, they never pressured me to get involved looking back. But when Fred died in 1948, a mutual friends said, “Look, you've got to take a position on a board.” So I did. I got started, and I wound up as president of United Community Services, and vice president of the Jewish Welfare Federation, and president of the Michigan League for Human Services which was a state organization.

And in '72, I sort of became emeritus, and said I had enough.

Ms. Christie:
That's certainly impressive to get involved to that extent.

Mr. Simon:
Once I decided that I would, I did.

Ms. Christie:
Those are good memories.

Mr. Simon:
To recapitulate, the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was I did not get a position in New York, that I came back and became Judge Henry Butzel's clerk and married his daughter. Those things, yes.

Ms. Christie:
Well, to even sum up a little more, what do you think, if you had to summarize Justice Butzel's legacy, what would you think that would be?

Mr. Simon:
Unfortunately, I think people have forgotten -- there aren't that many around who knew him.

Ms. Christie:
Even though he was on the court for a very long time.

Mr. Simon:
Yes. Time passes, new people, different people, different involvement. I not aware of any legacy as such.

Ms. Christie:
What do you think he would think of the Michigan Supreme Court today?

Mr. Simon:
Oh, he would be very unhappy.

Ms. Christie:
He would?

Mr. Simon:
Oh, yes, the lack of collegiality, animosities, at least I'm aware of in reading in the newspapers. There was nothing like that.

Ms. Christie:
No in-fighting is what you remember?

Mr. Simon:
At least not public.

Ms. Christie:
Well, I think you've given a wonderful summation of your relationship, both personal and professional, with Justice Butzel. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Mr. Simon:
Yes.

Ms. Christie:
Good.

Mr. Simon:
Memories that are good, I should retain better.

Ms. Christie:
I think you've done a wonderful job.

Mr. Simon:
Well, for age 94, perhaps, perhaps.

Ms. Christie:
Really.

Mr. Simon:
Thank you.

Ms. Christie:
It's been a pleasure to talk to you, and I hope that you will feel that this is a good transcript when you see it.

Mr. Simon:
I'm sure I will. I wasn't sure of the direction that you were involved. I think this has wound up more about me than him.

Ms. Christie:
No, I don’t think so.

Mr. Simon:
All right.

Ms. Christie:
It hasn't really. There has to be a background for the interview and that’s why I asked you about yourself. Thank you for your time and your contribution.

(Whereupon, interview concluded)

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