Carl Levin’s Legacy of Fighting for a Fair Judiciary

Last week, Michigan and the nation lost a great statesman with the passing of longtime Senator Carl Levin. Senator Levin had an illustrious and impactful career. Testimonials have rightly highlighted his work on Armed Services Committee and his opposition to the war in Iraq; his fight for auto workers, strong unions and the middle class; and his championing consumer rights. But, for all those who care deeply about our court system, we also lost true champion of justice.

Senator Levin’s approach to the law is perhaps best captured in his eulogy for civil rights leader and former appellate judge Damon Keith, his one-time boss on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Senator Levin wrote that Judge Keith’s opinions “will stand the test of time, because he saw the law as an instrument of justice,” a quality that Senator Levin clearly looked for in future judges. Indeed, few senators fought harder for judges that protect the rights of all Americans.

Senator Levin was never a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he clearly saw himself as a guardian of the judiciary. As Senator Levin reminded his colleagues, “it is our responsibility to ensure that truly qualified individuals serve on the Federal bench. I do not need to remind my colleagues that these are lifetime appointments with removal only by impeachment, and the power of these individuals over the document most sacred to our form off government and way of life — the Constitution — and the statutes and executive actions that flow therefrom — is enormous.”

Senator Levin was involved in the recommendation and confirmation of over 50 federal judges in Michigan and the Sixth Circuit that have directly impacted countless lives. Illustrative is Sixth Circuit Judge Eric Clay, a former clerk of Damon Keith and the co-founder of one of the country’s leading Black-owned law firms, who was confirmed with Senator Levin’s support in 1997. Senator Levin described Clay as being “someone who will bring to the Bench broad experience and intelligence of mind.” And, in his over twenty years on the bench, Judge Clay has indeed fought to protect constitutional rights of all. Judge Clay authored an opinion striking down a gerrymander that threatened democracy in the state. He recognized that children in Detroit’s worst performing schools were being denied the right to a “basic minimum education” and “access to literacy.” He defended affirmative action. And he has vigorously fought for criminal justice system that protects the rights of all.

It was not, however, just in Michigan that Senator Levin fought for fair minded judges. In 1985, Senator Levin put up a master class performance for his Senate colleagues while leading the fight against President Reagan’s Ninth Circuit nominee Alex Kozinski, who he argued “lack[ed] judicial temperament.” Senator Levin demonstrated a tremendous command of the record while emphasizing the treatment of Kozinski’s former staffers at the Merit Systems Protection Board’s Office of Special Counsel, who described him as “harsh, cruel, demeaning, sadistic, disingenuous and without compassion.” It also came to light that Kozinski, charged with defending government whistleblowers, tried to fire a mine safety whistleblower.

Perhaps most damning, Senator Levin pointed out false statements in Kozinski’s earlier testimony, including Kozinski’s claim that he vigorously prosecuted sexual harassment cases. Levin produced an affidavit from an employee who had worked on a sexual harassment investigation only to have Kozinski step in, “killing [the] sexual harassment case without personally having his name connected to the deed.” According to the employee, this “was not just a decision involving one case but was rather seen in the Office as a statement of his view on sexual harassment cases in general — i.e., that he would not prosecute them in response to employees’ complaints.”

While Republicans ultimately confirmed Kozinski, Senator Levin’s warnings were of course correct. In addition to issuing many rulings degrading constitutional rights and legal protections on the Ninth Circuit, Kozinski was pushed to an early retirement after over 15 former clerks and staffers accused him of abusive practices including sexual harassment and assault.

Recently, Michigan’s two senators — Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters — recommended, and Joe Biden nominated, two outstanding nominees to fill Michigan’s District Court vacancies: Shalina Kumar and Jane Beckering. Kumar and Beckering are state court judges and former attorneys who represented consumers trying to hold corporations accountable and patients seeking justice after having their health devastated by medical malpractice. If confirmed, Kumar will also be the first ever judge of South Asian descent to serve on the federal bench in Michigan. These are exactly the types of judges needed on the bench, and Senator Stabenow and Peters’ work is a testament to Senator Levin’s legacy of fighting for a court system that protects the rights of all.

Michigan lost one of its giants in the passing of Carl Levin. But, as he so eloquently recognized, federal judges serve for life. Even though he is gone, many of the jurists he put on the bench continue to impact the rights and well-being of Michiganders and will do so for years and generations to come. And today’s Michigan Senators, carrying on his legacy, have been crucial and valued allies in continuing the fight for equal justice for all.

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Fighting for fair courts. President of Alliance for Justice, Alliance for Justice Action Campaign, and Bolder Advocacy. Recycling enthusiast with a green thumb.

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Nan Aron

Nan Aron

Fighting for fair courts. President of Alliance for Justice, Alliance for Justice Action Campaign, and Bolder Advocacy. Recycling enthusiast with a green thumb.

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