The Giving Judge: Which comes first, impartial justice or partisan politics?

Henry Saad is a Michigan Court of Appeals judge who keeps on giving.

To his church. To his profession. To the national Republican Party.

In 2012, the 65-year-old Bloomfield Township resident contributed an eye-popping $80,800 — more than half of his $151,441-annual salary — to Republican candidates and causes, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a national organization that promotes transparency in government.

The size of Saad’s contributions has raised eyebrows in Michigan where judges, at least in theory, are supposed to be non-partisan.

"I think Judge Saad has destroyed any pretense that he is non-partisan,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a non-profit watchdog group in Lansing. “He’s clearly a deeply committed partisan. I think you’d be able to predict his vote on any legal case with a partisan angle.”

Saad, who was appointed to the appeals court in 1994 by Republican Gov. John Engler, was unapologetic about the contributions, insisting they haven’t compromised his ability to decide cases in an impartial manner.

“I’m not ashamed of it,” Saad told Bridge magazine on Aug. 5. “Contributing money to a candidate for political office is a constitutionally protected First Amendment right. Although judges cannot publicly endorse a candidate, they can give money to candidates.”

The Sunlight Foundation in May included Saad’s name on a list of the top 31,385 identifiable donors in last year’s presidential and congressional elections. It said the donors, both Republican and Democratic, are members of an elite group whose big contributions increasingly shape the national political agenda. Saad was one of three judges nationally and the only Michigan judge to make the list.

A judge’s colorful history

Henry Saad is no stranger to controversy. In 2005, he lost a nomination to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals after Senate Democrats branded him a right-wing judicial zealot who was pro-employer and anti-worker. Saad denied the charges.

The accusations were surprising given Saad’s blue-collar roots, which he discussed in an interview with Bridge.

Saad was born and raised in Detroit, the son of a homemaker and Chrysler welder and truck driver. He is third generation Lebanese-American. He attended Catholic elementary and middle schools and graduated from Cody High School in 1966. He attended Wayne State University, working summers in auto plants. He also was a substitute teacher in Detroit. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in business with honors in 1971, he enrolled at Wayne State’s law school.

Former classmates recall him as a smart but controversial student with the nickname “Senator Saad.” As a law student, he clerked for the prestigious Detroit law firm of Dickinson, Wright, Moon, Van Dusen & Freeman, which produced four of Michigan’s seven current Supreme Court justices. Saad continued as an associate lawyer at Dickinson Wright after receiving his law degree, magna cum laude, in 1974.

He eventually became a partner, specializing in labor, employment and media law for major clients, including Chrysler Corp., the University of Michigan, and Detroit media outlets.

In 1985, he represented a WJBK-TV2 television producer who was jailed for refusing to surrender videotapes of gang members who may have been involved in the fatal shooting of a state trooper at Detroit’s Hart Plaza.

“I remember the case vividly because I lost at every level,” Saad said.

After exhausting his appeals, Saad’s client reluctantly turned over the videos, which prosecutors didn’t bother to use at the suspects’ trial.

During 19 years at Dickinson Wright, Saad said he taught evidence, ethics and labor law as an adjunct professor at Wayne State and the University of Detroit Mercy law schools. He also worked as an arbitrator for the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, a hearing referee for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and served on the boards of civic organizations.

He also worked on the Michigan campaigns of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — the kind of political work that can lead to judicial appointments from Republican and Democratic governors and presidents.

In 1991, Bush nominated Saad to U.S. District Court in Detroit. But the nomination stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate. In 1994, Engler appointed him to the Michigan Court of Appeals, praising his “integrity, hard work and keen intellect.”

Despite his Republican and corporate ties, the United Auto Workers and Michigan Education Association endorsed Saad when he ran successfully in 1996 for a six-year term. He was reelected in 2002 and 2008 and served as chief judge in 2008-09.

In 2001, Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, nominated Saad and three other Michigan judges to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The nomination turned into a long and ugly confirmation battle when Senate Democrats, including Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, blocked Bush’s nominees because Senate Republicans had done the same thing to President Bill Clinton’s nominees.

Although the American Bar Association rated Saad “well qualified” and he had the endorsement of UAW President Steven Yokich, liberal groups and plaintiff’s lawyers blasted Saad as a knee-jerk conservative who sided with employers in sexual harassment, job discrimination and whistleblower lawsuits.

In 2003, then-Senate Judiciary Chairman, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., questioned why Saad voted to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a female prison employee who said her supervisor blamed her and the clothing she wore for an assault by a prisoner. The Michigan Supreme Court reversed Saad, according to the Associated Press.

Leahy also faulted Saad for dissenting when two other judges upheld a whistleblower lawsuit involving a Detroit Public Schools employee who accused his boss of retaliation after he reported fraudulent spending.

Saad said he dissented in the school case because a lower court failed to conduct a key hearing. He didn't comment about the prison case, but said he had voted to uphold Michigan harassment laws in another lawsuit.

“I have been a fair and balanced judge who keeps an open mind on all matters, including civil rights and workers’ rights,” the AP said he told Leahy.

Saad complicated his situation in 2003 by accidentally copying Stabenow on an email that accused her of abusing the nomination process. “Perhaps some day she will pay the price for her misconduct,” Saad wrote.

Stabenow said the email underscored Saad’s unsuitably for the federal bench.

In 2005, with the nomination in limbo, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced that the FBI had discovered a problem while conducting a routine background check of Saad.

“All you need to do is have a member go upstairs and look at his confidential report from the FBI, and I think we would all agree that there is a problem there,” Reid declared on the Senate floor.

Republicans accused Reid of smearing Saad, who couldn’t defend himself because the FBI file was confidential.

“There was nothing to it,” Saad told Bridge about Reid’s allegation. Saad said he later was told that the file merely contained a copy of his email to Stabenow.

In the end, a group of moderate Republican and Democratic senators negotiated a deal that let all of Bush’s judicial nominees move forward except Saad and another judge.With no hope of being confirmed, Saad withdrew his nomination in 2006. Saad said he isn’t bitter.

“You can’t take it personally,” he told Bridge. “If people say things about you that you know aren’t true and you’re confident in who you are and that you’re a good person, you keep doing your job and move on.”

Returning to the limelight through his checkbook

Saad kept a low profile on the Michigan Court of Appeals until his name turned up in May on the Sunrise Foundation’s list of top federal campaign donors in 2012.

Saad ranked 91st among 619 Michigan contributors on the list, just ahead of Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert, who contributed $80,300, and Detroit pizza baron Mike Ilitch, who gave $80,000. Both gave to Republicans.

Saad gave $30,800 to the Republican National Committee, $10,000 each to Republican organizations in Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Vermont, and $5,000 each to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan congressman who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Stabenow. Donors often contribute money to state political parties, which pass it along to federal candidates.

In addition, Saad’s wife ranked 42nd among Michigan donors. She contributed $110,800 to Republican candidates and groups.

Mara Letica Saad, the judge’s second wife, is executive vice president and general counsel of the Letica Corp., a family-owned manufacturer of plastic and paper packaging in Rochester Hills. She was born in Germany, the daughter of a Yugoslavian immigrant who founded the company.

President George H.W. Bush nominated her for Ambassador to Croatia in 1991, but she wasn’t confirmed. Crain’s Detroit Business in 2007 named her one of Michigan’s most influential women. She and Saad married in 2003. Each has two adult children.

Michigan judges expressed surprise at the size of Saad’s contributions and said it raises questions about his impartiality.

Although the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct permits judges to donate to political campaigns, they said judges typically limit their contributions to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.

“Tossing around that kind of money is over the top and it’s going to create problems with how the public perceives us,” one of Saad’s conservative colleagues said.

They predicted that lawyers fearful about Saad’s political leanings might start asking him to disqualify himself from hearing their appeals.

“I think that’s the remedy,” said Maura Corrigan, director of the state Department of Human Services and former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Corrigan, who ran for the court as a Republican Party nominee, praised Saad as someone who decides cases based on the rule of law rather than a desire to achieve a particular result.

“I consider him to be a good judge... among the top performers in our profession,” Corrigan said.

A legal ethicist said the controversy might cause Michigan to rethink its judicial rules on political contributions.

“Judges aren’t supposed to be political animals and yet the right to contribute large sums to political parties or candidates seems to be in conflict with the duty to be impartial and not create the appearance of impropriety,” said Larry Dubin, a University of Detroit Mercy law professor and former chair of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission.

“Maybe it’s time for Michigan to consider putting a cap on the amount that a judge may contribute to political candidates as other states have done to prevent what otherwise might appear to be an appearance of impropriety,” Dubin said.

In any event, a Wayne County judge said Saad should prepare himself: “When you publish this story, he’s going to get a lot of phone calls from political candidates with their hands out.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Jerry Grubb
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 9:23am
Where's the story of doner's to to mostly Democrat's campaigns and causes?
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 1:08pm
Obviously, the store isn't open to them right now, so there won't be as much to see. In the meantime, stop deflecting and own your childish partianship.
Patrick Anderson
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 10:05am
This is an unfair shaming of a judge that, according to your own story, has done nothing illegal or unethical. The unattributed comments from unnamed "critics" and unnamed "judges" are an abuse of journalism. You didn't mention in your column even one instance where his legal, ethical, and constitutionally protected actions resulted in an abuse of the Court. And your claim of "controversy" because unnamed "Senate Democrats" "liberal groups" and "plaintiffs lawyers" opposed his nomination is very thin gruel. The same thing could be said about nearly all recent nominees made by Republican presidents to the Federal Appeals Court. One wonders who should be ashamed: the person that wrote this article full of innuendo, or the person that made the legal and ethical contributions?
Cheryll Ruley
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 11:06am
I know nothing about this judge but what I'm reading here. I agree completely with Patrick Anderson and I ask the same question as Jerry Grubb. This is a very disappointing piece for The Bridge. What was the point?
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 1:11pm
Unfair? Constitution? Law? Who cares? If someone's doing something you don't like, you have a Constitutionally protected right to complain about it. If we see something corrupt, we have a right to run people out of town on a rail for it. You are not entitled to your self-esteem. Stop whining like a Democrat.
Neil Sikora
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 2:54pm
This is a great article to generate dialogue on an important issue. Many people will cry out with what can be called the Bolger-Schmidt defense, i.e., there’s no law against doing that. While that may be technically true, many things are still ethically wrong. For many people, some things are morally wrong even if they are legal. It’s no wonder that so many citizens feel their vote doesn’t count, they can’t get a fair hearing, etc. Keep bringing these types of issues to light. Oh, and I’m sure rotten apples aren’t limited to any single party.
Wed, 08/21/2013 - 10:19am
Neil, Do you think it is ethical or moral for a person to hide their true political views by claiming a veil of impartiality? Do you think a person that is open an public about their polticial views so all can judge their actions knowing their views is moral and ethical?
Charles Richards
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 3:11pm
I agree with the other commenters that this is shoddy work. It provides no evidence that judge Saad has done anything improper; it merely asserts that his contributions will cause some people to respond to appearances badly. I doubt that Messrs Ashenfelter and Robinson would have objected when G. Mennen Wiliams and John Swainson overturned a lot o well established precedents when they shifted the court's judicial philosophy in a liberal direction. Engler's appontees merely restored judicial practice to what it had been. Much to the outrage of the liberal community, who, like Messrs Ashenfeter and Robinson, consider a conservative philosophy of law to be illegitimate, confusing conservatism with partisanship. "It said the donors, both Republican and Democrat, are members of an elite group whose big contributions increasingly shape the national political agenda." Of course Mr. Robinson resents journalists and activists having competition when it comes to influencing the political process. But leaving that aside, just how do "an elite group whose big contributions increasingly shape the national political agenda." Their money supports campaign ads, party infrastructure and get out the vote efforts. Is any of that illegitimate? Are voters so weak minded they can't critically evaluate campaign ads? Can't voters examine issues and rationally balance their pluses and minuses? Or do they have to be carefully spoon fed approved, "politically correct" information? Perhaps Mr. Robinson is alleging that "big corporate money" is exercising undue influence with elected officials? Floyd Abrams, the famous First Amendment lawyer, has pointed out that states that do not restrict corporate donations are no more corrupt than states that o not.
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 10:17pm
Since Mr. Ashenfelter has written much here about this particular judge and no others it would seem that his point of interest is the Judge and not the system. That is disappointing. To single out a specific individual offering nothing that that individual did wrong and prominently presenting the views of those who disagree with the politics of this particular judge could lead one to believe that there is some sort of political agenda underlying this article. I realize that Bridge would not allow anything like that, they made a point of how they are committed to fairness. They even stated that when they apologized for their ‘ambushing’ of a prominent State politician. Oh, wasn’t that politician also a Republican.
Charles Brown
Wed, 08/21/2013 - 4:35pm
Knowing that Judge Helene White was a contemporary of Judge Saad's at the Court of Appeals, and knowing that her entire life has been one of activity in the Michigan Democratic Party, I looked up her record of campaign donations at They tallied about $25,000 in donations over several years, all to Democrats of course. Now I'm a Republican, but I rather liked Judge White. She'd never be one of my choices for an appointment, but she was a fair and ethical and competent judge, to the best of my knowledge. I see nothing surprising or unethical about her documented public record of campaign donations. I feel certain that similar results could be turned up for a dozen or more Michigan judges with Democratic party ties. Now, David Ashenfelter and Brian Dickerson and the Detroit Free Press can editorialize all that they want to. Let's just not pretend that they are anything but some of the hardest-edged partisans themselves.
Mike Stephens
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 9:43am
The article starts with a mention of giving to his church, but I found no other mention of how much he gave to his church, only his political contributions. Let's see the story reported from all sides. How much did he give to charities and other non-political organizations?