The Classic American Urban Story

“Lifetime Detroiter” Saul Green fights every day for his city and its people

Published in 2016 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2016

Photo by: Scott Stewart

From the 25th floor of the Miller Canfield office tower, planted downtown on the Detroit River, you can see what Saul Green sees every morning. It’s the two sides of Detroit: hip revitalizations, such as the waterfront, along with fraught residential districts and the ghosts of industries past. As a member of his firm’s litigation and trial group, Green, former U.S. attorney and deputy mayor—not to mention lifelong resident—has spent a considerable part of his life trying to make Detroit a better place. It’s what keeps him going.

“I really love my city,” Green says. He remembers it in 1950, with 1.85 million people, and reflects on it today, with less than half that number. “I fluctuate between feeling very anxious at times and feeling angry because it just doesn’t seem like it has to be this way.”

 

The stretch of Grand River Avenue where the Michigan Barber School lies was a bastion of black middle-class promise in the ’50s and ’60s. On the street these days, buildings are locked tight and surveillance cameras are mounted overhead. The school, founded in 1947 by Saul’s father, Forrest Green, looks like an extended version of the corner barber shop, with a wood-paneled office and a long, mirrored main room where, Green says, “instead of three or four chairs, you’ve got, like, 50,” in two facing rows. 

Forrest was more than a businessman: He was a guy who got ahead and reached back to pull up others. Saul remembers the basement of his childhood home—just blocks from the school and a mere 10-minute drive from Miller Canfield—where his father and prominent leaders of Detroit’s black community would discuss prospects for progress in their city and beyond.

Saul had no intention of going to law school. As a master barber, he assumed he’d be handed his father’s clippers. But when he did well in an undergraduate class at the University of Michigan taught by a law professor, he was encouraged to apply. Green worked his way through law school at Michigan by giving haircuts—“and made a lot of money, too,” he says with a grin.

After getting his J.D. in 1972, he did research for courts of appeal judges in Lansing. That led to a position as assistant U.S. attorney, and at 26, Green was litigating in federal court. “Boy, I could have never, ever dreamed of this life,” he says. In 1976, he took a position as chief counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and he later served as corporation counsel for Wayne County. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, and when an opportunity arose for Green to become a federal judge, he chose not to pursue it. “The U.S. attorney job was so much more exciting to me,” he says.

When Green stepped down in 2001, he told reporters his chief accomplishments included rebuilding trust between the justice department and the police, and making law enforcement more sensitive to racial profiling. “I felt it important to, when warranted, be critical of law enforcement, but it had to be done in a way where you didn’t lose law enforcement,” he says. “A lot of things needed to be done.”

That’s when, after 29 years in government, Green signed on with Miller Canfield. He became director of its minority business group and head of the corporate-crime group, charged with helping companies come into compliance with recently drafted Sarbanes-Oxley legislation and defending firms deemed in violation.

Less than a year later, he was handed the case he’s proudest of: helping throw out the murder conviction of Eddie Joe Lloyd. In 1984, Lloyd was in a mental institution and medicated when he confessed to the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. He was convicted and served 17 years before the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing and gathered recordings of confessions. The project’s co-founder, Barry Scheck, asked Green for help. Green looked over the police file and contacted the prosecutor—Mike Duggan, now mayor of Detroit—who mostly saw the evidence the same way Green did, and ultimately joined in the motion to set aside the conviction. 

Green says he will never forget when he first met Lloyd. 

“He had high energy and just this tremendous hopefulness,” he says. “But it’s a mixture of feelings because you want to help somebody achieve their freedom—you can’t put a whole lot above that—but … some states set aside some funds to take care of exonerated people.” He stops for a moment. 

Lloyd’s dream was to own a car and drive to Belle Isle, and a civil suit was filed and some money recovered. “But then he died, so he never got his car,” Green says, crying. “You learn so much; he was such a smart guy.”

In another memorable case, Green represented the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit in a suit claiming a 14-year pattern of racial discrimination by the owner of a Livonia apartment complex. A year later, the justice department joined the suit, and the case was won in 2007 for $725,000—the largest settlement ever of its kind in Michigan.  

 

Green was handling the transition to a private firm in fine style, but a political crisis at city hall caused him to reverse course. On Sept. 19, 2008, the day after former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick left office amid charges of perjury, misconduct in office and obstruction of justice, Green was sworn in as deputy mayor of Detroit. The new mayor, Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr., needed to signal an elevation in tone and civility. That’s where Green came in. 

“He is a man of character, and he will bring that to the city,” attorney Donald Campbell told the press at the time. 

“He is somebody who has a strong sense of ethics and takes important stands, and he fights for what he believes in,” Mayor Cockrel agreed.

There were also several ongoing federal investigations of city affairs, and, with his background as a U.S. attorney, Green was useful in negotiating with the feds. He was made the mayor’s liaison to Detroit’s police, fire and law departments, and homeland security office. He stayed for another two years, into Mayor Dave Bing’s term, before returning to Miller Canfield. 

Green’s portfolio there includes helping companies and organizations conduct internal investigations regarding criminal activity, and he also works with police departments trying to comply with settlements of claims of police misconduct. “It is the work that motivates and stimulates me most,” he says. “It goes to the issue of: How do you create public safety for everybody?” 

It goes beyond Detroit. He’s helped the Cincinnati Police Department transform itself in the wake of a series of police shootings and, right now, is assisting the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in complying with a 2015 settlement stemming from the systemic targeting of racial minorities in its Antelope Valley stations. 

“Far too often,” Green says, “it is people of color, African-Americans, who are the victims of police misconduct, and it doesn’t seem to get better. More than that, there has yet to be an honest, robust discussion about [race]. Instead, there are people going to their corners and staying there; we don’t talk about this issue well.”

Outside the office, Green works with organizations working to curb gun violence, and seeks to enhance collaboration between law enforcement and communities. He remains an impassioned insider, and there are few places within the city where he isn’t on a first-name basis with someone.

“Saul is known in many, many circles; he’s a lifetime Detroiter,” says Annie Ellington, who worked with Green first at city hall and later with the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. “If you were shadowing Saul for a day, you would meet people from all walks of life and, in the process, people would all be, ‘Hi, Mr. Green!’ It could be a high-powered attorney or a person who just recently graduated from barber school. Saul stops, no matter what the environment is. He takes time to listen, ask how you are doing. … I can’t stress enough how respectful Saul is.”

Case in point: Green knows and has represented Aretha Franklin, but he’d rather not divulge anything more on the topic.

 

A voice of calm and reason, Green sits in a glass-walled meeting room, talking about the many times he has moderated disputes. He’s tough, but fair. “I tell people, ‘Everybody’s got a line, and Saul has a line, too. Please don’t put your toe on my line.’” 

Ray Winans, now 37, was once called “Dirty Red,” a gang member convicted of manslaughter at age 15. Today, Winans is a community leader and founder of Keeping Them Alive, a nonprofit committed to curbing gun violence. He met Green through Ceasefire Detroit, a community-based anti-violence organization that Green helped found. Winans was immediately struck by Green’s presence. 

“I survived the streets of Detroit and the penitentiary for 18 years, and I tell my wife all the time: If I can just live or even just see the words that Saul is speaking to my life, as I learn to appreciate the words and step into them, then I know I’m destined for greatness,” Winans explains. “He sees things in me that I have yet to see in myself.”

He adds, “I’ve never met someone so powerful but so humble. I’m used to guys who take power or have a false sense of power—and I have seen how they used that power to destroy folks. But I’ve seen Saul in situations—with the kind of power he possesses, look, I would have destroyed people. … Honestly, I want to be like him.”

 

It’s early on a weekday evening, and Green has driven his car up Grand River to Michigan Barber School. It’s been a period of transition for the lawyer: Late last year he sold his nearby childhood home, where he had been living with his wife, Diane. They decided to move to a condo. Green’s brother, Darryl, who had managed the school, died last October. Green says he is now trying to figure out how to sell the school, which has 30 students set to begin classes.

Pockets of Detroit have become trendy, and Green says his feelings shift from optimism to anxiety and, sometimes, even anger when he thinks about his city today. 

“Personally, I live a really great life,” he says with a shrug. “I live downtown in the midst of all this excitement.” But the question is: Will revival reach to 48205—a part of town once known as the most violent zip code in America?

“It’s better now,” he says, but “we’re the classic American urban story; we’re New Orleans without Katrina.”

He gets back into his car and drives off. In one direction are the towers of downtown and the glittering waterfront. In the other: single-family homes and dilapidated buildings. There’s plenty for Green to do in either direction. 

Photo by: Scott Stewart

Photo by: Scott Stewart

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