Hon. Henry F. Severens (right) with fellow 6th Circuit Justices Day and Lurton

Solomon L. Withey - First District Court Judge

U.S. Courthouse, Grand Rapids, Michigan - 1879

U.S. Courthouse, Grand Rapids, Michigan - 1911

U.S. Courthouse, Marquette, Michigan - 1889

U.S. Courthouse, Marquette, Michigan - 1937

U.S. Courthouse, Kalamazoo, Michigan - 1939

U.S. Courthouse, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan - 1910


It Happened Here

"Meeting the Honorable Wallace Kent", by James Am Mitchell.  One of my University of MichiganLaw School classmates was Wallace Kent, Jr, known to us as Wally. Were all aware of, and impressed by, the factthat his father was a United States District Judge for the Western District ofMichigan. We also learned that Wally'smother managed to keep His Honor humble on the home front by affectionatelyreferring to him as "the pudgy judgy." Being endowed with a lively sense of humor, JudgeKent evidently found this both endearing as well as humorous.

Shortly after graduating from lawschool, I found myself looking forward to participation in a patentinfringement lawsuit pending before my law school friend's father, theHonorable Wallace P. Kent. My seniorpartner, Peter P. Price, was a law school classmate of Judge Kent. Thus it was with rapt attention that myassociate Randy Litton and I listened to Mr. Price's lecture on courtroomdecorum. Among other things, it was madeclear to us that flashy clothes, e.g. colored shirts, fancy shoes and the likewere definitely "verboten."

Thus, the opening day of trialfound Mr. Price, Mr. Litton and I seated in dark suits, demur ties, whiteshirts and dark shoes as the Bailiff called us to attention and announced hisHonor's entrance. Notwithstanding thesolemnity of the moment, Mr. Litton and I couldn't help but share a fleeting smileas we noticed that underneath his austere robes, his Honor was wearing a yellowshirt and two-tone white and black saddle shoes. It was thus clear that Judge Kent's sense ofdress was as lively as his sense of humor, at least once the robe was removed. 

"Our First District Judge and the Civil War", by David J. Gass.  President Lincoln nominated the Western District's first district judge on March 12, 1863.  Solomon Withey was a 42-year-old Grand Rapids lawyer.  His appointment occurred at the mid-point of the Civil War and at the low point of the union's prospects for victory.  While he served for 23 years as the only judge for the Western District, his first two years coincided with the last two years of the Civil War.  This article focuses on those first years of Judge Withey's tenure and its close association with the monumental events occurring during the "War of Rebellion."  The second session of the Court occurred on July 1 and 2, 1863, in the new federal courtroom - a three-story building located the northwest corner of Pearl and Monroe (then Canal), where the Amway Grand Plaza now stands.  Ironically, that opening of the new courtroom coincided with the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fiercely raging some 500 miles to the southeast.  Most of Judge Withey's cases were related in some way to the Civil War, and some of his comments on the Civil War made in court were recorded by the local newspapers.  This included his remarks on President Lincoln's assisination.  Judge Withey's portrait today hangs high on the back wall of Judge Bell's courtroom.  Next year marks the 150th anniversary of his appointment.
Read the complete article in Stereoscope, Volume 5, Issue 4 (Winter 2007)
"The Taxing Journey of the Daniel Ball," by Michael Puerner. The Daniel Ball was the queen of steamboat traffic on the Grand River. Its owners had declined to pay a federal licensing fee on the grounds that they conducted business only in the state of Michigan, indeed only on the Grand River, and hence were not subject to laws enacted under the interstate and foreign commerce clause of the United States Constitution.  Judge Soloman Withey, the first judge of our Western District Court, and an appointee of President Abraham Lincoln, agreed and dismissed the Government's case against the Daniel Ball.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed, on the grounds that the Grand River flows into Lake Michigan, which facilitates transportation and interstate commerce between several great lakes states. The United States Supreme Court agreed with the Sixth Circuit, Mr. Justice Stephen Field, delivering the unanimous opinion of the Court. The Supreme Court's decision in the Daniel Ball case remains one of the most frequently relied upon precedence in commerce clause cases. 
Read the complete article in Stereoscope, Volume 2, Issue 1, Summer 2004.
"A Flakey Patent Case," between the Sanitas Nut Food Company and the Voigt Milling Company of Grand Rapids. The Sanitas Nut Food Company was founded by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother Will K. Kellogg, to promote the commercial sales of the "Granose Flakes" which Dr. Kellogg gave to patients visiting the Kellogg Sanitarium. Dr. Kellogg refused to put the Kellogg name on a commercial product, because he didn't want to taint the reputation of his sanitarium with commercialization. The third United States District Judge for the Western District of Michigan, Judge Wanty, found Dr. Kellogg's patent to be invalid, because it had been derived by him during a visit to the processing plant of one Henry D. Perkey of Denver, Colorado, who had developed a "shredded biscuit." The utcome of the case may have contributed to the split between Dr. Kellogg and his younger brother Will, which resulted in Will's founding of the W. K. Kellogg Company.
Read the complete article in Stereoscope, Volume 1, Issue 3, Fall 2003.

"Major League Baseball in Grand Rapids." In the spring of 1914, the top legal talent in the nation gathered in Grand Rapidsto litigate over the "reserve clause" of Reindeer Bill Kiliker's 1913 contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had violated the clause by joining the Chicago Whales. He then repudiated the Whales contract by returning to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Chicago Whales and the federal baseball league sued seeking to enjoin Reindeer Bill from playing baseball for any team other than the Chicago Whales. The Phillies relied on the reserve clause which Reindeer Bill had violated, as a basis for justifying his return to the Phillies and repudiation of his agreement with the Whales.

Judge Sessions, the fourth United States District Judge for the Western District of Michigan found the reserve clause to be unenforceable, but nevertheless ruled against the Chicago Whales for having interfered with Reindeer Bill's "moral, if not legal, duty to furnish his services to the Phillies for the season of 1914. . .." 
Read the complete article from Stereoscope, Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2003.
"The Grand Rapids Attorney Who Cross Examined General Billy Mitchell." Then there was Grand Rapids patent attorney Frank Liverance, who in the early 1930s had the opportunity to cross-examine the famous General Billy Mitchell in a patent case which pitted Grand Rapids inventor Willis Perkins against Raymond Sperry, the "Howard Hughes" like son of the founder of Sperry Instrument Company. The case involved a system for launching and recovering airplanes from dirigibles, two of which had been commissioned by the United States Navy employing the patented system. Both Sperry and Perkins claimed to have invented the system, but Sperry was posthumously awarded the patent. Unfortunately for the success of the invention, the frequent crashes of dirigibles, including the two Navy dirigibles which employed the patented system, resulted in a relatively short commercial life span for anything related to dirigibles.  
Read the complete article in Stereoscope, Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2007.
 Click here to see a video of a "dirigible as aircraft carrier" in action.
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150th Anniversary Celebration, March 12, 2013

Celebrating the appointment of Solomon L. Withey as first District Judge for the Western District of Michigan by President Abraham Lincoln on March 12, 1863.
Please visit our 150th Anniversary Page for photos and more.


Welcome to the Historical Society for the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Founded in 2002 with the support of the Western Michigan Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, the Historical Society is a free-standing 501(c)(3) organization incorporated under the laws of the State of Michigan, answering to an independent Board of Trustees.

The Historical Society was created to research, collect, and preserve the history of the lawyers, judges, and cases that have comprised the federal court community in Western Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, and to share this information with the public in an effort to promote a better understanding of the region, the court, and the rule of law.

Oral History Project
To capture tomorrow's history today, the Society is professionally video-recording the recollections of today's judges about their time on the Court. These interviews will be up-dated periodically. In a parallel program, the Society is also interviewing Court staff, as well as attorneys who have been active in federal court.

The Stereoscope---Journal of the Historical Society---is published seasonally by the Society, recounting the proceedings of the Society, and often features in-depth articles about the Court's colorful past. Persons interested in submitting articles are invited to contact David L. Gass, (616) 831-1717. The Society has also produced a thirty-minute video on the history of the federal court in Western Michigan, entitled Equal and Exact Justice for All. This video is also available on DVD.

The Society maintains a computerized archival Register for its oral history project and for its collections of judges' papers, photographs, documentary materials, and other memorablia involving the Court and its people. Audio and visual recordings obtained by the Society are normally transferred to a digital format for preservation purposes. The Society also keeps an Index of collections at other institutions where information may be obtained about the federal court in Western Michigan. Inquires concerning the Archives may be directed to Many Andrews, at (616) 456-2068.