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Lawrence Glazer

Lawrence M. Glazer

The Bronson Case (cont.)

 

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

March 23, 2018

With each passing day Ianni and Blumer were getting more worried about word of the investigation leaking. As yet, they still had no direct admissible evidence against Bronson; he was well-connected in the legal and political worlds and would be sure to get wind of any leak. If that happened they would never collar him.  Thus there was an urgency to wrap this up. They ordered Canham to call Bronson that night, from the State Police post.

At about 9:45 p.m. Canham called Bronson at his home. In that call, which the detectives recorded, Canham asked how the oral argument went. Bronson told Canham that he had convinced another judge on the panel to vote for affirmance. Canham said that Finn would be overjoyed: “I talked to Finn and he’s got the money. Do you want me to go get it and bring it over?” Bronson replied, “It’s kind of late. Let’s do it tomorrow.” They agreed that Bronson would come to Canham’s office at 11:00 the next morning.

Canham’s office was on Northwestern Highway in West Bloomfield. Early the next morning Blumer went to Canham’s office with State Police Detective Lt. Hampton and three detective sergeants attached to the Attorney General’s office. They “wired” the office for sound recording. They also attached a microphone and radio transmitter to Canham’s suit. Then, they handed Canham an envelope with $20,000 in marked bills.

The three detective sergeants covered up their handcuffs with their suit jackets and started walking around carrying law books, doing their best to look like law clerks. Blumer and Lt. Hampton waited across the road in the detective’s unmarked car, its radio tuned to the frequency of the transmitter in Canham’s office. They could hear everything clearly.  Presently Bronson drove up, parked and entered the building. Detective Lt. Hampton moved his car, parking next to Bronson’s state-issued dark blue luxury sedan. Then, they listened.

They heard Bronson enter Canham’s office and close the door.  Bronson said, “Are you OK?  I don’t want you to be worried or nervous.”

Blumer was thinking, “So calm. He’s done this before.”

Canham questioned whether Finn was going to get more than Bronson’s vote (at least two votes were necessary for a win). Bronson responded, “He’s going to get a favorable opinion. He’s going to get a favorable opinion… He’s going to get better than he would have had I not injected myself into this case.”

Canham said, “I haven’t even looked in the packet. I do understand that he said something about $20,000.” Canham then asked whether this was all that Bronson wanted. Bronson replied, rather elliptically, “an equal amount down the line … when he [Finn] cashes it out… And he has to realize if he had not pulled me hot [sic] on this panel, it would be over … he’d be washed up.”

They heard Canham say “Let me put this under your arm here – here it is”, and Bronson said, “I’m not going to sit here and count it.” 

Bronson said, “I’ll be in touch” as he opened the office door and walked out. He was barely out the door when the “law clerks” identified themselves as officers and announced he was under arrest. They put him up against the hallway wall and handcuffed his arms behind his back. That was when Blumer and the Detective Lieutenant came in. Blumer never forgot the look on Bronson’s face: “He looked like he’d been hit by a meteor.”

The detectives put Bronson in the secure back seat of their car. They had to drive him to Lansing—to Judge Brown’s court—to be arraigned (the process of formally advising a criminal defedant of the charges against him and making sure he understood his legal rights).  Blumer followed them in Bronson’s state car.

When they arrived at Lansing City Hall, Blumer walked into Brown’s courtroom and quietly advised the judge that they had Bronson in the building, under arrest. Judge Brown said “He’s got to have an attorney.”  Looking out at the courtroom, the judge saw Lansing attorney Hugh Clarke, and motioned him to come over to the bench. He described the situation to Clarke and said, “I’m temporarily appointing you as defense attorney for purposes of the arraignment.” He then recessed to give Clarke time to consult with his client (forever after, whenever Clarke saw Blumer, he would raise his hand and make the sign to ward off vampires).

The arraignment was brief. Bronson was charged with solicitation of a bribe by a public official and conspiracy to accept a bribe. He stood mute, and Judge Brown entered a plea of not guilty for him. Judge Brown told him that the criminal process would commence with a preliminary examination, to be held within twelve days. Bronson responded, “Judge, can you give me more time? I need to get an attorney and get him up to speed.” Brown explained that it was part of his right to a speedy trial and as the defendant, Bronson could waive the time limit.

When Bronson made the request for more time, Blumer and Ianni relaxed. They were well aware of the risk of suicide when a person in a position of community trust was charged with corruption, their high reputation suddenly destroyed. Indeed, they had seen it happen more than once. But Bronson’s request seemed to show that he was planning for the future, not thinking of ending his life. To be on the safe side, they asked Clarke how Bronson had seemed in their private consultation. “He seemed fine,” Clarke answered.

Bronson posed no flight risk and was not a danger to the community, so the prosecutors did not insist on a high bail, and Brown granted him his freedom pending trial.  Bronson drove to his home and told his wife what had happened. Around 4:30 that afternoon Chief Supreme Court Justice G. Mennen Williams telephoned. He and Bronson had an amiable conversation. Bronson agreed with Williams that he should step aside from all court business while his criminal charges were pending, but he also told Williams that he intended to fight the charges.

A few minutes later he told his wife that he was going out to the barn on the edge of their two-acre property.  When time passed and he did not return, she went out to see what he was doing. In the barn she found his body and the pistol he had used to fire one shot into his head. S. Jerome Bronson had killed himself, leaving behind his wife and two adult sons. He was 56.

Epilogue

Hugh Clarke, whom Thomas Brown dragooned into representing Bronson at his arraignment, is, as of this writing, a Judge of the 54A Judicial District in the City of Lansing.

Robert Ianni served as head of the Criminal Division of the Michigan Attorney General’s Office under four Attorneys General (two Democrats and two Republicans). He later served as bureau chief, retiring in 2015.  He now volunteers for AARP and  youth soccer.

Mark Blumer retired from state service after trying many famous criminal cases throughout the state. He then went to work as chief assistant prosecutor of Jackson County, later retired from that position, and today serves as Magistrate of the 55th District Court in Mason.

James N. Canham was permanently disbarred after a hearing before a panel of the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board (File No. DP 223/86). He petitioned the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn the disbarment, but the court declined to hear his case. Canham moved to Harbor Springs, where he played golf and enjoyed being identified as “The Judge” until he passed away in 2010 at 84.

Bronson’s death did not end the investigation; in fact, it expanded. The Michigan Supreme Court conducted its own investigation and both state and federal agents investigated the Court of Appeals with Chief Judge Danhof’s full cooperation. A Wayne County citizens grand jury examined witnesses. In the end, no new charges were filed against anyone. As is typical when a criminal investigation is closed, no statements were issued.

However, Ianni and Blumer did reveal one development: The investigators learned that after Judge Brown released him, Bronson had stopped at his office before going home. Had he removed potentially incriminating documents from his office? There was no way to be sure, but they went through all of his case files anyway. They located one proposed opinion drafted by an attorney who represented a party in the case. When they found the Court of Appeals opinion for that case, it was virtually identical to the attorney’s draft. But for reasons the investigators did not disclose, they could not prove that this was the product of a bribe.

Jim Finn finally got what he had wanted all along: a new Court of Appeals panel. But after what he had been through, he decided not to do the oral argument a second time. Another attorney did it for him, and the Court of Appeals panel affirmed his win in the Harrigan case.

Otherwise, though, Finn continued in the stressful business of plaintiff personal injury litigation. He sweated off the stress by running and swimming. On Saturday, September 5, 1987 he returned from a run and went for a swim in his backyard pool. While swimming he suffered a heart attack. Emergency personnel rushed him to a hospital, but he could not be revived. He left behind his wife and four children. He was 61.

SIDEBAR:

A Note on Sources

With respect to the investigation and arrests of Canham and Bronson, the main sources were my interviews of Ianni and Blumer, plus follow up questions which they patiently answered by email.

For the interactions of Finn with Canham and Canham with Bronson, the main source was the detailed ten-page factual history in the April 3rd, 1987 Report of the Attorney Discipline Board in Grievance Administrator  v. Canham, which was taken from the sworn testimony of Finn, Canham and other witnesses at a time when their memories of the events described were relatively fresh.

It must be kept in mind, though, that Canham’s testimony was bound to be self-serving, as the Attormey Discipline Board was well aware. For this reason I have used only those portions of Canham’s testimony that were corroborated by other witnesses. 

I am indebted to Mark Armitage, executive director and general counsel of the Attorney Discipline Board, for digging through decades-old files, finding and sending me copies of many invaluable documents, including the Board’s April 3, 1987 Report.

Finally, the above were supplemented with factual reporting in the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.

SIDEBAR:

The strange career of James N. Canham

James N. Canham had been appointed to the Wayne County Circuit Court by Michigan Governor John B. Swainson in 1961 and had gone on to serve as chief judge of that court, as well as president of the Michigan Judges Association. It was under his leadership as chief judge that Wayne County had created the “one day/one trial” jury system which was later adopted by courts throughout the nation.

As chief judge of the general trial court whose  jurisdition included Detroit, Canham’s name was often in the news, and he likely could have continued being re-elected ad infinitem simply on name recogntion. But in 1978 he unexpectedly left the bench, setting up a new law firm with Detroit attorney Davis Tyler in the Renaissance Center.

Ianni and Blumer both agree that he had a good reputation, respected as a man who knew everybody and was always willing to use his contacts to help other lawyers solve problems. A “fixer,” but in a good way.

But beneath the surface there lay a different story.  Later, after his downfall, Detroit News reporters interviewed a dozen of Canham’s former colleagues, some of whom  painted the picture of a  relentless self-promoter who had campaigned hard for the chief judge job and had considered using his position as a jumping-off step to run for Governor. He had even pushed to fire an excellent court administrator so he could hire a PR expert, at public expense.

In the Tyler law firm, Canham’s primary role was to be that of a “rainmaker,” i.e., that he would bring clients to the firm, which paid for a posh office to impress potential clients with his importance.

But it appears that Canham failed to carry his weight. The Detroit News found that five years after the law firm’s creation, it “ended bitterly when Tyler moved Canham’s belongings out of the office and changed the locks.”

Canham then partnered with Another Detroit attorney, but that partnership ended when, after nine months, that attorney left for a major law firm. At the time of his arrest Canham was reduced to sharing office space with a suburban lawyer.

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 22, 2018 · Filed under Glazer

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Richard // Mar 23, 2018 at 8:34 am

    Excellent writing of an intriguing piece of history. Thank you for sharing.

  • 2 William // Mar 23, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Well done. Thanks for an excellent read!


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