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.”