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​Michigan's Legal Milestones


Michigan's history has been shaped by legal events which have captivated both the state and the nation. The Legal Milestones memorials represent some of the most significant stories and personalities in Michigan's legal history.

    1. Ossian Sweet Trial—In 1925, Dr. Sweet and his family were arrested and charged with murder after a member of a white mob attacking the Sweet's home was shot and killed. Clarence Darrow defended the family and convinced an all-white jury to find the black defendants not guilty. Dedicated and placed inside the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, on May 2, 1986, Detroit. View a reenactment of the Sweet Trials performed by high school students.
    2. Baseball's Reserve Clause—A 1914 decision in a Grand Rapids courtroom "bound a player to his team for as long as the team chose to keep him." Dedicated and placed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1986. Rededicated and placed outside on June 20, 1996, at Old Kent Park (West Michigan Whitecaps Minor League Baseball stadium), Grand Rapids.
    3. Cooley Law Office—The career of Thomas M. Cooley is recalled in this milestone. Dedicated and placed inside at Thomas M. Cooley's first law office on Maumee Street in Adrian, 1986.
    4. Roosevelt-Newett Libel Trial—A much celebrated 1913 trial involving former President Theodore Roosevelt (he prevailed as plaintiff, but was only awarded 10 cents in damages). Dedicated and placed at the Marquette County Courthouse in Marquette in May 1986.
    5. Justice William Fletcher—The first Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Dedicated and placed outside on the University of Michigan campus, in front of the Power Center for the Performing Arts, Ann Arbor, on September 9, 1987.
    6. Sojourner Truth—Her life as a crusader for justice is recalled in her hometown. Dedicated and placed at the Battle Creek Hall of Justice in 1987. Rededicated inside of the First United Methodist Church, Battle Creek. Placed at the Calhoun County Justice Center, Battle Creek, on May 29, 1997.
    7. Augustus B. Woodward—Brilliant but eccentric, the first Chief Justice of the Michigan territorial court is recalled at the site of his law office. Dedicated and placed inside in the Millender Center Atrium in Detroit on May 3, 1988.
    8. Public Access to Public Water—Legal affirmation of the public's right to the recreational use of rivers and streams began with a trout fishing trip on the Pine River in 1925. Dedicated and placed at the Peterson Bridge Landing's canoe access along the Pine River—west of Cadillac on June 7, 1988.
    9. Ten Hours or No Sawdust—Michigan's largest labor strike of the 19th century, although unsuccessful, paved the way for later workers' rights legislation. Dedicated and placed outside in Morley Plaza, Saginaw, on August 31, 1988.
    10. 1961-62 Constitutional Convention—The Michigan Constitution we live under today was written at the Lansing Civic Arena. Dedicated and placed inside the Lansing Civic Arena (corner of Walnut and Washtenaw streets) on May 1, 1989, Lansing. The arena was demolished in 2000 and Constitution Hall was built in its place; the plaque was rededicated June 15, 2007 and placed inside Constitution Hall.
    11. Eva Belles' Vote—An early but important victory for women's suffrage was won in Flint. Dedicated and placed at the Genesee County Courthouse in Flint on July 11, 1990.
    12. One Person, One Vote—In one of the famous U.S. Supreme Court redistricting cases of the early 1960s, labor leader Gus Scholle assured that rapidly growing Oakland County would have proportional representation. Dedicated and placed outside the Oakland County Courthouse's South Plaza in Pontiac on August 29, 1990.
    13. Improving Justice—The idea for the American Judicature Society was born in Manistee during a boat ride on Lake Michigan shared by founder Herbert Harley and benefactor Charles Ruggles. Dedicated and placed on a boulder in a corner of the Manistee City Marina in Manistee on May 30, 1991.
    14. The King's Grant—One of the most celebrated cases of the 19th century involving a dispute over land granted by French King Louis XV in 1750. Dedicated and placed at Brady Park at the site of Fort Brady and Fort Repentigny in Sault Ste. Marie, July 16, 1991.
    15. The Uninvited Ear—Judge Damon Keith's decision in a 1971 case upheld the right of Americans to be free from unreasonable government intrusion. Dedicated and placed inside the Penobscot Building in Detroit on December 18, 1991.
    16. Laughing Whitefish—The Michigan Supreme Court in 1889 recognized the legal validity of Native American tribal laws and customs. Dedicated and placed at Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee on August 25, 1992.
    17. Protecting the Impaired—An act of the Michigan legislature providing for forced sterilization of the mentally impaired was held unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court in Haynes v Lapeer (1918). Dedicated and placed at the Old Lapeer County Courthouse on April 29, 1993.
    18. Rose of Aberlone—The classic contracts case involving Hiram Walker & Sons, Rose the cow, and the principle of rescission based on mutual mistake. Dedicated and placed outside in Kellogg Park in Plymouth on September 1993.
    19. Emelia Schaub—The first woman in Michigan to be elected as prosecuting attorney, the first woman in the United States to successfully defend a murder trial, and the woman responsible to a great degree for protecting the rights and tribal existence of Native Americans in northwest Michigan. Dedicated and placed outside at the Leelanau County Courthouse in Leland on May 26, 1994.
    20. Mount Clemens Pottery—Michigan's Justice Frank Murphy in 1946 authored an important labor law decision of the United States Supreme Court interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act, arising out of a case involving employee work time. Dedicated on September 1, 1994 at the Riverfront Gazebo by the Municipal Building, Mt. Clemens. Placed at the Macomb County courthouse in Mt. Clemens (along the wall by the statue of General Clemens).
    21. Pond's Defense—Michigan Supreme Court Justice James Campbell authored an important decision about self-defense and defense of others in Pond v. People (1860) and overturned a lower court decision finding Augustus Pond, an Upper Peninsula fisherman, guilty of manslaughter. Dedicated and placed outside City Hall on Mackinac Island on June 10, 1995.
    22. Ending Jim Crow—Keith's Theatre in Grand Rapids discriminated against patrons on the basis of race (such a practice was called a “Jim Crow” law), but that practice was found to violate Michigan's Constitution by the Michigan Supreme Court in a major civil rights decision. Dedicated outside on September 8, 1995, in the Old Kent Bank Plaza, downtown Grand Rapids . Placed in the wall along the street beneath the Old Kent Bank clock tower, Grand Rapids.
    23. Conveying Michigan—Much of the land in southwest Michigan was conveyed out of the White Pigeon Land Office, built in 1831 and still standing. Dedicated on April 30, 1996 and placed at the land office (on south side of US-12) in downtown White Pigeon. The building is now a museum operated by the St. Joseph County Historical Society.
    24. Murphy's Dissent—Michigan's U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy wrote an impassioned dissent in Korematsu, protesting the decision to allow internment of persons of Japanese descent during World War II. Dedicated and placed in front of the Frank Murphy home, Harbor Beach, August 16, 1996.
    25. Striking Racial Covenants—The United States Supreme Court rejected racial restrictive covenants that would have prevented Orsel and Minnie McGhee and their family from living where they chose to in Detroit. Dedicated inside on August 12, 1997, and placed outside the Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI.
    26. Milo Radulovich and the Fall of McCarthyism—In 1953, two Michigan attorneys, the Hon. Kenneth N. Sanborn and Charles C. Lockwood assisted Milo Radulovich, a resident of Dexter, in his fight against the United States Air Force. The Air Force attempted to strip Mr. Radulovich of his treasured commission for associating with his allegedly subversive father and sister. Taking the case pro bono, his attorneys prevailed, and the Air Force reinstated Mr. Radulovich's commission. Dedicated and placed outside at the Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University Building, East Lansing, September 2, 1998.
    27. Committee of One—Judge Henry Hart of Midland, led a "one-man campaign" for the uniform placement of yellow "No Passing Zone" signs on the left side of Michigan roads. The signs, shaped in the form of a pennant, have served to decrease the number of traffic accidents in no passing zones and are credited with saving thousands of lives in Michigan.  Dedicated and placed at the Midland County Courthouse on May 24, 1999.
    28. Mary S. Coleman—This milestone focuses on the career of Michigan's first female Chief Justice, Mary S. Coleman. Dedicated on October 21, 2000, and placed at the Calhoun County Justice Center in Battle Creek.

Civil Rights for African American Thwarted, 1847

Marshall, Michigan


Adam Crosswhite and his family, escaped Kentucky slaves, were tracked to the abolitionist town of Marshall, Michigan, in 1847 by bounty hunters. Both black and white Marshall residents detained the bounty hunters and smuggled the slaves into Canada. Back in Kentucky, the slave master stirred up intense excitement about “abolitionist mobs” in Michigan. In 1848, the slave owner filed and won a lawsuit against Marshall residents, who had to pay the slave owner court costs and the “value” of his missing slaves, or about $2,000. This case influenced the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which gave slave masters the right to retrieve their “missing property” from anywhere in the country. The Fugitive Slave Act helped ignite the Civil War that led to the Fourteenth Amendment.

Giltner v Gorham (aka the Crosswhite Affair) in 1847.


The Kalamazoo School Case, 1873

Kalamazoo, Michigan
The "Kalamazoo Case" became the rule of law throughout the nation, paving the way for the widespread acceptance of tax-supported high schools. The City of Kalamazoo opened a high school operated through tax support in 1859. In 1873, three owners of considerable downtown property filed a circuit court suit to prevent the township treasurer from collecting that portion of the school property tax intended for the support of the high school. In February 1874, the judge ruled in favor of the school board. The case was immediately appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court where it was upheld.


Michigan Legal Milestones program​

The State Bar of Michigan sponsors the ongoing Michigan Legal Milestones program. For the most up-to-date information, view their web site.