Brenneman brings order to the court
Love of history leads to position as court historian for the Western District of Michigan.
President Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan during the Civil War. Up until then the state had only one district court, which was located on the east side and could be hard to access for some people.
That historical tidbit is one of many Hugh Brenneman shares with those interested in learning about the history of the Western District of Michigan.
Brenneman is a retired magistrate judge of the Western District and its historian, a voluntary role to which he was appointed following the passing in 2013 of the district’s very first court historian, Wendell Miles.
He said Miles had an illustrious career, which included an appointment to U.S. attorney for the Western District by President Dwight Eisenhower and an appointment to U.S. District judge for the Western District of Michigan by President Richard Nixon.
Brenneman said Miles created the position of court historian unintentionally.
“He always had an interest in history, and he was starting to research and write the history of this district.”
He said as he and others learned about Miles’ research, they began to think maybe they should begin collecting the histories of Miles and the other Western District judges before they were gone, too.
“We decided to get his oral history and we decided to do it for all the judges,” Brenneman said. “It evolved into the Historical Society of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.”
The Western District Historical Society was founded in 2002 and is a nonprofit dedicated to collecting the history of the Western District and disseminating that history to the public via various avenues. Brenneman said similar historical societies exist for other courts, including one for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, for the Michigan Supreme Court and for the U.S. Supreme Court.
When it launched, the Western District Historical Society enlisted the help of Grand Rapids’ city historian, Gordon Olson, to conduct the oral interviews of the judges.
“Olson is an excellent oral historian,” Brenneman said.
The society also began collecting oral histories from some of the attorneys who have practiced in the Western District, as well as related memorabilia “such as books and documents that might otherwise be destroyed or have no home after a while,” he said.
Brenneman said it’s important not just to collect the histories, but also to make them available for the public.
“If we are ignorant of history, we don’t learn its lessons and then we make the same mistakes,” he said. “It’s important that people understand what’s already taken place.”
He said the Western District Historical Society has set up a webpage, federalcourthistoricalwdmi.org, where people can access some of the videos that have been made using the oral histories that have been collected.
Historical photos and other memorabilia also are available through a digital archive.
The organization publishes a seasonal journal, The Stereoscope, that includes in-depth feature stories documenting the court’s people and influential cases.
Brenneman said the historical society is also in the process of writing a book about the Western District that he hopes to see published in 2017.
“We noticed the Eastern District had put out a very nice book on their district,” Brenneman said. “We thought it was time for us to do that, too.”
Brenneman said he was “flattered” to be asked to take on the role of court historian after Miles’ death. He said he is excited to continue unearthing the Western District’s most interesting stories and finding ways to get them out into the public realm.
One reason for his commitment, he said, is his belief in the importance of the court system.
“There are not many institutions today that people respect,” Brenneman said. “But I’ve found that distrust hasn’t carried over to judges yet. I think people still have faith in the judiciary. It’s important for the fabric of our society that people have the faith in the judiciary.”
Brenneman’s interest in history isn’t limited to the Western District. He said he has always had an interest in American history, particularly American political history.
He majored in history at Alma College before going to law school at the University of Michigan. While in law school he joined the military and ended up serving with the Judge Advocate General Corps, or JAG Corps, for several years.
He went on to serve as a federal prosecutor in Grand Rapids, then gave private practice a try for a few years, finally being appointed as a magistrate judge with the Western District — a position he held for 35 years. He retired from the position last summer.
He said the biggest impact on the court system he’s observed during his time as a magistrate judge is the influence of technology on every aspect of legal practice.
“Technology has overtaken the courts,” he said. “Presentations in the courtroom rely heavily on electronically presented evidence. We’ve redesigned the court to be comfortable with electronics and things online.”
Brenneman doesn’t doubt that someday the Western District Historical Society will probably document the history of that technological transition and its impacts.