The Team Player

Dennis Archer has been a state Supreme Court justice, two-term mayor of Detroit and president of the ABA — and he still considers it a privilege to practice law

Published in 2006 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine

By Josh Karp on September 18, 2006


This January Dennis Archer did something fairly ordinary for a man of his stature. He stood in a crowded Michigan courtroom and delivered a compelling argument.

“Nothing bothered him,” says Mark Dover of Kansas City’s Shook, Hardy & Bacon, national counsel for Miller Brewing Company, and Archer’s co-counsel in a class action lawsuit against the company. “He knew the important points to make and how he wanted to make them. It was like he and the judge were the only two people in the room.”

Precisely what you’d expect from the 64-year-old chairman of a major firm, Dickinson Wright, whose résumé includes Michigan Supreme Court justice, mayor of Detroit and president of the American Bar Association. Yet the high-profile case involved well-known attorneys from several cities — all wanting to get their point across and jockeying to appear before the court — and Archer was brought in late as local counsel. He was simultaneously mediating negotiations over a new $667 million baseball stadium in Washington, D.C. Both cases were at a boiling point.

What did he do? It’s equally important to reflect on what he didn’t do. He didn’t demand a lead role. He didn’t regale others with stories about his big deal in the capital, or relationships with Rosa Parks and the Clintons, or his days as mayor. Instead Archer studied briefs and depositions. He accepted the lead role when asked, assimilated the arguments of co-counsel and delivered in the clutch.

“He was a team player,” Dover says. “He came into a situation involving lawyers from across the country and on short notice picked things up and moved seamlessly between these two projects. It didn’t bother him to switch gears so easily. He is very comfortable with who he is.”

It is that seemingly ordinary quality that makes him extraordinary. A bright, thoughtful man, he views his career in simple terms. “I find it a privilege to practice law,” Archer says. “It’s not a right. It’s a privilege.”

Thus while others might have been distracted by the stadium deal, or might have fought to stand before the court, Archer was simply himself — quietly knowing that, were it not for the sacrifices and influence of others, he might never have had such a privilege.

Archer was raised in Cassopolis, a town of 1,500 in Michigan’s southwestern corner — three hours and a world away from the city he governed from 1994 to 2001.

In Cassopolis, according to Archer, the teachers were always right and the community emphasized values, discipline and respect for others. It was a place where, though his family had no phone, Archer knew his mother would quickly find out if he were in trouble.

No person of color owned a local business, nor was there a black doctor or lawyer. Yet people treated each other with warmth and respect — one big community, where a local barber told Archer that one day he would do something that would make people proud. “I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about,” Archer recalls.

Archer’s father had a thirdgrade education and an arm that had been disabled in a car accident. Getting by on his $1,350-per-year income, he and his wife made up for a lack of material comforts (with no running water, Archer bathed in a metal tub every Saturday night) by instilling the importance of education in their only child.

“They made it clear: I was going to college,” he says. “I had no clue what I wanted to be. I just knew I was going to college.”

In a town seemingly free of racial bias, Archer didn’t experience the civil rights movement until his family got a television during his teens. It wasn’t until high school that he encountered his first black professional — his math teacher — for whom Archer worked extra hard. He wanted administrators to know the man was doing a good job.

Entering college in 1959, Archer briefly studied pharmacy, but says, “It didn’t take long for me and pharmacy to see we didn’t like each other.” Switching majors, he graduated from Western Michigan and became a special-education teacher in Detroit, where the principal suggested he get a master’s in education and become assistant principal.

Enrolling in a graduate program, Archer found himself reading the same books he’d been assigned as an undergrad. “It makes no sense,” he complained to a fellow teacher, who encouraged him to apply to law school. After the woman’s persistence wore him down, he married her (Trudy Archer, former judge of Michigan’s 36th District) and then entered Detroit College of Law.

“It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” Archer says of the marriage. The couple have two sons and one grandson.

While in law school, Archer ran errands in the office of Damon Keith, now a federal judge, sitting on the Sixth Circuit, who recalls a “dependable, smart and very energetic young man,” who, between 1970 and 1985, was an attorney with one firm and a name partner with two other firms, while also teaching at his alma mater and Wayne State University Law School. Then, in 1986, Judge Keith returned to administer the oath of Michigan Supreme Court justice to his former clerk after Gov. James Blanchard appointed Archer to fill a vacancy.

Supreme Court justice is a position many attorneys with a public service or intellectual bent would die for. It’s a job that allows highly skilled lawyers of varying perspectives to come together to find the “true law” at the center of an important dispute.

“It brings you into a very close relationship with six other justices from different walks of life,” Archer says. “There was no discussion of partisan politics. It was always a quest to take cases that would provide guidance on the issues.”

Like in Cassopolis, race and background didn’t matter. Minds were open. The majority opinion writer might even come back and tell his colleagues they’d made a mistake and convince them to change their ruling. In that world of pure legal reasoning, Archer learned lessons and skills that are rare in the political arena.

“I walked away with respect for the art of listening,” Archer says. “You learn to always listen, not rush to judgment. It was most important to get it right.”

After five years Archer re-entered private practice and, “tired of kids killing each other over gym shoes,” launched a run for mayor, a job that couldn’t be further from his judicial experience.

Archer’s predecessor, Coleman Young, was a perfect representation of someone who thrives in the political realm. Charismatic, bombastic and adept at wielding power, he’d embodied the image of Detroit since 1974. Adamantly pro-city, Young defiantly alienated the growing white suburbs to which residents and businesses had flocked at the end of his tenure.

“Detroit had a lot going on,” says M. L. Elrick, who covered City Hall for the Detroit Free Press during Archer’s tenure. “The [problems of] the auto-based economy, the waning of the American car, energy problems and the aftermath of the 1967 riot. There was a lot of racism — people were only willing to believe the worst of Detroit. Businesses, jobs and people were moving out to the suburbs.”

In 1990, Detroit led the nation in percentage of population below the poverty level. Downtown was dead. Large buildings sat unoccupied. A lot of businesses had relocated to the suburbs, and the city was in desperate need of jobs and economic development.

“It was not a city you wanted to go to,” Archer says.

Though they’d been allies, Young did not support Archer’s candidacy, and some criticized him as “not black enough.” But Archer prevailed and took office in 1994 — refusing to look back at his warm judicial seat while entering a job where no day goes as planned.

One early public meeting demonstrated Archer’s style. After listening to angry residents shower him with complaints while showing little regard for Archer’s position, an aide said, “You don’t need to put up with that.” Archer responded, “They aren’t disrespecting me. They are passionate and want the mayor to take care of it.”

Today he adds, “When you become mayor you’ve said to the people, ‘I want to serve’ and the people have expectations. I didn’t want to lower their expectations.”

Comfortable with his own style and vision, he weathered criticism and a recall effort as he sought to cure Detroit’s most urgent problem — the economy. He worked well with others and listened to concerns. Soon General Motors moved into the Renaissance Center downtown. Compuware soon followed. The Tigers got Comerica Park. The Lions left suburban Pontiac for Ford Field nearby. And, in a city that many locals avoided, he pumped up tourism with casinos and presentations that landed baseball’s 2005 All-Star Game and the 2006 Super Bowl.

Archer’s was the rare administration that was marked by honesty and candor, and whose critics considered the mayor “too thoughtful.” When a Detroit Free Press series detailed fatal shootings by the Detroit police and their practice of illegally arresting and detaining material witnesses, Archer called in the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the police’s own internal investigation (a federally appointed monitor continues to oversee the reforms). When instituting a Clean Sweep Detroit program, he asked residents to do their part in cleaning up the city.

“Rarely do you see politicians tell their constituents, ‘Part of the problem is you,’” Elrick says.

By the time he stepped down, after balancing the budget and being named one of the 25 “most dynamic” mayors in America by Newsweek, Archer had an approval rating near 80 percent in a city whose poverty level was now 16th rather than first in the nation, according to census figures cited by Archer. Though there was work left to do, his thinking was just as clear and self-knowing as it’d been when he left the judiciary. After eight years, Archer says, “I wanted to get my life back.”

In 2003, Archer was elected president of the American Bar Association — the first black president in the ABA’s history — and spoke frequently in foreign countries. He learned how the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, fearing the impact of the legal process, quickly killed every judge and lawyer they could find. At the Kremlin, he sensed a kind of racial progress in the fact that he was the only person of color there but no one stared. At home, he became legal guardian to Rosa Parks during her last years.

“That experience was one of the privileges of being a lawyer,” Archer says. “She was such a wonderful, graceful person, you’d never have known what she’d achieved. She didn’t live in the past, but took kids to the South, to remind them of the history. To show them the sacrifices [others had made].”

These were the kinds of sacrifices and privileges Archer had in his mind when he first spoke before the ABA as its president. Archer talked not only of his plans but of the people who — like Parks — had paved the way for him: Ralph Bunche, Leon Higginbotham, Thurgood Marshall and Damon Keith. The people who’d made sacrifices.

Today, with an office on the top floor of the Comerica Tower, Dennis Archer is a board member of several major companies and chairman and CEO of the Diversity Network — an organization that connects employers with ethnically diverse, qualified job applicants.

In that office — decorated with the iconic Norman Rockwell painting of the little girl being walked to school in Little Rock — Archer is neither consumed with what he’s achieved nor bored by life outside the spotlight. He is comfortable with himself, is proud to have served the public and feels privileged to be part of a legal system that allows him to do something that makes people proud, just as that Cassopolis barber predicted. Mostly he’s happy to be doing something fairly ordinary for a man of his stature: practicing law.

“To me the practice is coming home,” Archer says. “It’s my calling.”

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