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Lawrence Glazer

Lawrence M. Glazer

The Bronson Case

The story behind Michigan’s biggest judicial scandal of the half-century

March 16, 2018

Thanksgiving 1986 was still a month away, but Jim Finn already had reason to be thankful.  Finn, a Detroit lawyer, had won a whopping $2.3 million jury verdict from Ford Motor Company (about $5 million in today’s dollars). His client,  Kentucky truck  driver Michael Harrigan, was driving a Ford-built 18-wheeler when the brakes failed while rounding a curve. The resulting crash made Harrigan a quadriplegic.

The standard plaintiff’s attorney fee in personal injury cases was 1/3 of the verdict amount. One third of $2.3 million would be about $766,666. It was called a “contingent fee” because its payment was contingent upon the plaintiff winning at trial, or settling the case by  accepting an agreed amount of money from the defendant (actually, the defendant’s insurer in most cases).  Absent one of these conclusions, the plaintiff’s attorney would receive nothing.

Finn and his client were not quite home safe yet. Ford had appealed the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals. The lawyers for both sides had submitted briefs to the court, and were scheduled to present their oral arguments to a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals on November 13th.

The presiding judge of the panel for Finn’s case was to be S. Jerome Bronson, who had been re-elected to his fourth term on the court earlier that month. Bronson had begin his public career as the elected prosecutor of Oakland County, a bedroom community north of Detroit, in 1964. He was a rarity in Oakland County for that era: A Democrat elected to county-wide office.

During his term as prosecutor, Bronson had hired Finn as the office’s chief trial attorney. He had also hired a smart young Republican lawyer, L. Brooks Patterson, who would go on to become the elected prosecutor, and then county executive.

On Wednesday, October 29th, 1986 Finn got a message to call James N. Canham.  Finn knew Canham; Canham knew everybody. His name was familiar to every metro Detoit lawyer.  Canham had served as both the chief circuit judge of Wayne County, and president of the Michigan Judges Association before leaving the bench to form a new law firm in 1978.

When Finn reached Canham, Canham conveyed only that they needed to discuss a matter of some urgency. They agreed to meet two days hence at the Franklin Racquet Club.  They met, as arranged, on October 31. Canham told Finn that he had been approached by their mutual friend, Court of Appeals Judge Jerome Bronson,  who told him to convey a message to Finn. The message was:

“Your appeal [in the Harrigan case]  is in trouble.”

Canham told Finn, “I suspect he was looking for some money.” Finn absorbed this news, then replied, “Find out what he wants.” 

They agreed to meet again two days later, when Canham would, hopefully, have more information.  Though Canham had said little at their meeting, it was enough for Finn to conclude that things were not kosher.  What to do?  Could he maybe get a new panel of judges without raising a big ruckus?  He had no idea.

So Finn called Court of Appeals Judge Joseph B. Sullivan.  Finn and Sullivan were old friends and proud fellow members of Detroit’s Irish-American bar, known informally as the “Irish Murphia.”  On November 3rd they met in Sullivan’s judicial chambers. There wasn’t much to go on; they didn’t know exactly what Canham had in mind yet. Sullivan recommended that Finn go ahead with a second meeting with Canham, then report back to Sullivan. Finn agreed.

The next day, November 4th, Finn met Canham early in the morning at the Franklin Racquet Club. They found a relatively secluded area in which to talk. Canham took a manilla envelope out of his briefcase, and said, “these are incriminating documents. He wants them back.”  One of the documents captured Finn’s attention. It was a confidential report to the judges on Finn’s case, written by a court-employed research attorney.  After analyzing both parties’ arguments, the research attorney recommended reversal and remand for a new trial.  So this was what was meant by “your case is in trouble.”

Later that day Canham called Finn and reported that he had lunched with Bronson, who had named his price: $15,000 to $20,000. Finn responded that it would take him some time to raise that kind of money. Around 10:00 that morning Finn called Judge Sullivan and reported the details of his meeting with Canham.  Finn stressed that he did not want a big public fight, he just wanted a new Court of Appeals panel to read the briefs, hear his oral arguments and make a decision. Sullivan didn’t know that it could stop there. But he knew he had to report this to his superior.

Sullivan called Chief Judge Robert Danhof and asked for an immediate meeting. Danhof invited him to come to Lansing and have lunch together.

Robert Danhof was much more than The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. In every meaningful sense, he was its father.  At age 36 Danhof had been elected to the 1961 Michigan Constitutional Convention,  then elected as chairman of the Convention’s Judiciary Committee.  Recognizing that Michigan’s rapidly growing judicial caseload was beginning to overwhelm the state’s Supreme Court – its only appellate court – Danhof pushed for, and got,  the creation of a new intermediate appellate body: The Michigan Court of Appeals.

The delegates agreed, adopting the Judiciary Committee’s proposal.  In 1963 Michigan voters approved the new Constitution by a narrow margin and, with amendments,  it has been in force ever since. 

In 1962 Danhof was the Republican nominee for Michigan Attorney General, challenging the recently appointed incumbent, Frank Kelley. Kelley won by over 100,000 votes.  In 1964 Michigan Governor George Romney made Danhof  his legal advisor and Danhof worked with legislative leaders to fashion the new Court of Appeals. Then, just before leaving to become President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1969, Romney  appointed Danhof to the new court. In 1976 his colleagues elected him to his dream job: Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Under Danhof’s leadership the court implemented many practices which were novel at the time, but have since become common among appellate courts. One of the most successful arose from the court’s heavy caseload.  The court began employing attorney-writers to read the briefs and draft summaries and a recommended opinion for each new case. For obvious reasons these reports were strictly for limited internal circulation.  It was such a report that Canham showed to Finn.

After hearing Sullivan’s account, Danhof’s first call was to G. Mennan Williams, the Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Williams quickly grasped that this was a criminal matter. He told Danhof, “We’ve got to call the Attorney General and the  State Police.” Danhof made the calls.  Late that afternoon, Stan Steinborn, the chief deputy Attorney General, called the head of the Criminal Division, Assistant Attorney General Robert Ianni. He told Ianni that it was arranged for him to meet the next morning with Chief Judge Danhof on a very important matter. Steinborn did not disclose the nature of the matter.

Robert Ianni, born in Italy,  had earned his law degree from Detroit Colllege of Law, passed the Bar Exam and joined the Attorney General’s staff in 1974. Impressed with his  legal skills, work ethic and integrity, Attorney General Frank Kelley had appointed him head of the Criminal Division in 1984.

The next morning Ianni met with Danhof and Major Louis Smith of the Michigan State Police.

They had much to discuss, and not much time. The oral argument in Harrigan v. Ford Motor Company was only days away. The first thing they needed to do was  to establish irrefutable evidence of Canham’s involvement in a bribery scheme. Then they could arrest him and try to obtain his cooperation in establishing admissible evidence of Judge Bronson’s involvement. But the whole investigation would be blown up if word of it were to leak out; Canham and Bronson could simply deny the whole thing. All they had on Canham was Finn’s word. On Bronson, they had no admissible evidence at all. Finn’s statement regarding Bronson was hearsay (in fact it was “double hearsay,” as Finn was describing what Canham had allegedly told him that Bronson had allegedly proposed).

They would need a circuit judge to issue search warrants and arrest warrants, and to arraign anyone they arrested. The judge would have to arrange to receive their requests or motions in utter secrecy, handed directly to him or her without intermediaries – not even a secretary or law clerk.  Chief Justice Williams agreed. He called Ingham County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown in Lansing, and appointed him.

Later that day Ianni spoke with Frank Kelley. The Attorney General cautioned Ianni that it was possible that Canham was scamming Finn, collecting Finn’s money and simply betting that the Appeals panel would affirm Finn’s verdict on the merits. If they affirmed, he could then claim that Bronson had been bought, and keep the money.

The next day Finn, the plaintiff’s attorney, was summoned to meet with the Michigan State Police investigators, Ianni and Assistant Attorney General Mark Blumer, the Crimnal Division’s second-in-command and chief trial attorney. Blumer, a graduate of  University of Detroit Law School, had joined the Attorney General’s staff in 1975. Personable, articulate and humorous, Blumer could connect with any jury, but he also brought investigative and interrogative skills to the table.

They wanted Finn to call Canham and discuss the details of the proposal that Canham was bringing to Finn. They would record the call (this was permitted by law at the time, as long as one party to the call—in this case, Finn—gave permission).  Very reluctantly, Finn agreed. He  called Canham, who helpfully explained the arguments that Finn should emphasize. He also said that Finn would have to create a draft for Bronson to adapt as the court’s opinion.

On November 6th, they  played the tape for Danhof. The  Chief Judge was sickened by what he heard, but determined to root out any and all corruption in his court. 

Ianni and Blumer pointed out that there was still no strong admissible evidence against Bronson. So far the case against him was all hearsay, which was not admissible in court. They needed the oral argument to go forward; The hope was that during their post-oral argument meeting Bronson would try to persuade his colleagues on the three-judge panel. Then, his colleagues could later testify to this. And they were hoping to “flip” Canham–make him a cooperating witness—but that was impossible to know in advance.

The whole situation was unusual, and it was particularly unusual for a court to be actively participating in a criminal investigation of itself. Danhof was concerned about the judicial ethics of the situation, especially conducting a sham oral argument. He called Mennan Williams, seeking an objective opinion. Williams reassured Danhof that he saw nothing unethical about the court’s actions.

The next day, Friday, they told Finn that they wanted him to go ahead with the oral argument. Finn resisted. He had assumed that his part in the investigation had ended with his recorded phone call to Canham. He didn’t want any sham hearing, and he didn’t want any part in further misleading Canham, whom he considered a friend. All he wanted was a new panel.

Patiently, Ianni and Blumer explained why Finn had to participate; it appeared to be the only way to get admissible evidence against Bronson.  Absent such evidence, Canham alone would be publicly charged, and a dark cloud would  hover over not just Bronson but the Court of Appeals itself. Surely Finn could see how intolerable this would be. Reluctantly, Finn agreed to go ahead with the oral argument.

It had been a busy and stressful week, and the next week promised more of the same, but November 8th was the start of the three-day Veterans Day weekend and Ianni and Blumer needed to get away. Being friends as well as colleagues, they decided to go bird-hunting.  Ianni still recalls “lying on the ground in the warm fall sun near a corn field sqwawking on our goose calls to attract the birds and mapping out our next moves in the Bronson case.” They bagged a few geese, which were duly dressed, cooked and consumed—chewed very carefully to avoid any remaining buckshot.

Refreshed, they returned to the office Tuesday, only to encounter bad news.

Finn had left several voice mails on their office phones during the holiday. He had changed his mind about doing the sham oral argument. He no longer wished to cooperate at all. Instead, he was going to tell the Court of Appeals that his case was compromised. He felt that cooperating with the investigation would muddy his name; no judge would ever trust him again and the other Irish-American attorneys would shun him as “Finn the fink”.  Ianni and Blumer called Finn back, doing their best to talk him into going through with the sham oral argument, now only two days away. He didn’t budge.

With the time pressure’s relentless advance, and their investigation now thrown into paralysis, they had to get Finn back on board.  Without his cooperation they might never be able to prove Bronson’s involvement; he could just deny any knowledge of a bribery scheme and say the whole thing was a scam by Canham.

They went to Danhof, whose first impulse was to call Finn and read him the Riot Act. Ianni recalls that “[Danhof] took this investigation personally. He wanted it to work and was determined to root out any corruption” in his court.  But as they talked through the situation in Danhof’s chambers, they eventually concluded that their best  hope to change Finn’s mind was Judge Joe B. Sullivan. Not only was Sullivan someone whom Finn trusted,  he could also serve as a proxy for the Irish-American bar that Finn was so afraid of offending.

They called Sullivan and he agreed to meet with Finn and Ianni the next day.  On Wednesday, with the scheduled oral argument in Harrigan v Ford Motor Company now one day away, Ianni drove to Detroit to meet with Finn and Sullivan. As adamant as Finn was, Sullivan matched him. “You started this. The Court of Appeals is relying on you. Without you, they have no case against Bronson.”  They would never find out if Bronson or anyone else was corrupt. It would shadow the whole court system. “You have a duty to see this through,” Sullivan told Finn.

Grudgingly, Finn again yielded. He would go ahead with the oral argument.

The next day, Thursday November 13th, Ianni sidled into the public room near the Court of Appeals courtroom where oral arguments were conducted. The room was for members of the public to listen to the oral arguments when the courtroom was full. Ianni wasn’t going to miss this particular oral argument, but at the same time he needed to avoid the courtroom itself.  Enough people knew who he was; if he was recognized word might get around.  Some might wonder what he was doing there, at a court session where none of the cases involved him.  That might be all that was needed to spook Bronson. So, Ianni stayed in the otherwise thinly populated public room and listened as Finn, setting aside his feelings, presented an excellent oral argument.

After all of the day’s oral arguments had concluded, it was customary for the three Court of Appeals Judges on the panel to meet immediately, while the attorneys’ arguments were fresh in their minds.  During this meeting they would compare viewpoints and decide which direction to go in most of the cases heard that morning. They would, of course, be aware of their research attorney’s recommendation, which they were free to embrace or ignore in making their decision. Whatever influence Bronson would try to exert—if any—would happen at this meeting.

With the oral argument concluded, it was time to arrest Canham. They needed to turn him as fast as possible; to apply just the right amount of pressure and then give him an out—but only if he would agree to cooperate. Cooperation in this case  required not only that he tell the truth, but that he play an active role in getting Bronson to incriminate himself. To achieve this, Attorney General Kelley had authorized the offer of complete immunity from criminal liability if Canham cooperated and spoke only the truth.

Ianni and Blumer then met secretly with Circuit Judge Thomas Brown and presented the evidence they had obtained thus far and requested an arrest warrant for Canham.

Judge Brown issued the warrant.

Canham had been in Florida during the week, but was scheduled to fly back to Detroit the same day as the oral argument. The State Police sent a team to the airport to arrest him as he deplaned.  Somehow they missed him.  So they sent two teams; one to outside his home and the other outside his office. The team outside Canham’s office recognized Bronson’s car leaving just as they arrived. Since they were in plain clothes, in an unmarked car and not from Oakland County law enforcement, there was no worry that Bronson would recognize them.

The detectives strode into Canham’s office, announced that he was under arrest, and put him in the back seat of their car. Then they drove to the Northville State Police post, where Ianni and Blumer were waiting.  In the interview room Canham denied everything and said he didn’t know what they were talking about. He tried to intimidate his interrogators, citing his years of legal experience and his position as chief judge of Wayne County circuit. He said they didn’t even have enough evidence to arrest him, much less to convict.

So they played the tape of his phone conversation with Finn.

Canham’s head dropped. Then he changed his story (for a guy with years of criminal court experience, he hadn’t learned much about how to respond in a police interrogation). Now he said that all along he had been doing his own investigation of Bronson, only playing the role of co-conspirator in order to bring Bronson down.

Blumer played bad cop, telling Canham that their case was easy; it would be a one-day trial and Canham would be on his way to prison.

Ianni played “good cop,” stating what a good reputation Canham had, then asking him, “why ruin it in this way?  You’re only a middleman and gain nothing by participating in the bribery,” (all of which was true).

Canham told them, “You’ve got nothing. You’ll never convict me.”

Finally, Ianni pulled out their trump card: complete immunity in return for Canham’s immediate cooperation. If he delayed even a day, the offer was off the table. Canham grabbed it like a drowning man reaching for a life ring. Then he said, “We’re on the same team here. Let’s get Bronson.” Then he asked if they could keep his name out of the papers.

To be continued next week.

Lawrence M. Glazer is the author of Wounded Warrior, a recently published biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard.

March 15, 2018 · Filed under Glazer


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