20 March 2019

NO REST FOR THE WEARY: William Asa Fletcher, Michigan’s First Chief Justice

***This article originally appeared in the Official Publication of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, Winter 2019 edition***

It is the rare individual whose life is marked by both distinction in life and distinction in death. But that is the story of Justice William Fletcher, Michigan’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

William Asa Fletcher was born in 1788 in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He studied law in New York. In 1821, he moved to Detroit in what was then the Territory of Michigan. There, he was admitted to the bar and established a law practice.

Justice Fletcher was not content simply to sustain a law practice, however, and it was not long before he made a name for himself. By 1823, Justice Fletcher had been appointed chief justice of the County Court of Wayne County by the territorial governor, Lewis Cass. He thereafter continued to find himself present, though advertence or otherwise, at pivotal moments in the history of the nascent Michigan. As a territory from 1805 through 1837, the laws of Michigan were not compiled or published with any degree of regularity or uniformity.(1)

Efforts were intermittently undertaken during this period to compile and publish the laws of the territory, and in 1821 with the support of Congress, a compilation was published. The public received this well and

[a]t the same session resolutions were adopted reciting that it was highly important that the public acts of the territory be revised and a plain and simple code of
laws formed acceptable to the people of the territory and calculated to promote their interest and protect their rights.

Justice Fletcher was appointed in 1825 to a five member commission to do just that. Two years later, the commission recommended and thereafter the legislative council published a revised volume of laws, which volume made “a much more complete and systematic collection of laws than had theretofore existed” in the territory.(2)

At around this same time, Justice Fletcher became attorney general of the Territory of Michigan. In that capacity, he prosecuted cases on behalf of the United States.(3)

In 1833, the Michigan county court system was abolished in the Lower Peninsula, except for Wayne County, with the remainder being formed into a single circuit.(4) Justice Fletcher was appointed judge of this multicounty circuit, which forced him to relocate to Ann Arbor, where he ended up living the remainder of his life. While serving as a judge in that capacity, Justice Fletcher rode the circuit across thirteen counties in the Lower Peninsula.

By 1835, Michigan had adopted its first constitution, claiming statehood.(5) In November that year, Michigan’s first governor was elected, Stevens T. Mason. In 1836, Governor Mason appointed Justice Fletcher Chief Justice of the newly constituted Michigan Supreme Court. This appointment was in addition to Justice Fletcher’s existing duties as a circuit judge, which continued, owing to the fact that members of the Supreme Court “were to act singly as presiding judges in the circuit courts of the various counties and jointly as the highest court of review.”(6)

Govenor Mason also that year recommended and the legislature appointed another commission “to prepare and arrange a code of laws for the state.”(7)  As if concluding that a circuit judgeship and leadership of the new Supreme Court was for him not enough, the Governor appointed Justice Fletcher to lead the law revision commission. Justice Fletcher’s charge was
to prepare, digest, and arrange a code of laws for the State of Michigan. But it ended up being more than that:

This act was more than a revision or condensation; it was an attempt really to codify the law of the state, and the result was for the first time a unified treatment of the entire subject, with an entire recasting of language. The work was divided into four parts, treating respectively of the Internal Administration of the State, Private Right, Administration of Civil Justice, and Administration of Criminal Justice.(8)

The Revised Statutes of the State of Michigan were adopted at the adjourned session of 1837 and regular session of 1838. It is perhaps not too much a stretch to credit Justice Fletcher with helping to establish a coherent system of laws in the newly-established State of Michigan.(9)

Justice Fletcher ultimately served as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court from 1836 to 1842. Although serving for six years, few of his opinions, or for that matter, any from the Court, were published from that period.(10)  This was perhaps partly due to the fact that opinion publication was not emphasized “during the thirty-one years Michigan had territorial status.”(11) But it was likely more a consequence of the burden of presiding over multiple courts, which as Justice Fletcher himself once lamented, deprived the Justices of the time “to do that which we think the interest of the public requires, to draw up with care, opinions in the great variety of cases which are presented, many of them involving new and important principles, and which opinions are to become written law.”(12) In any case, before his departure from the Supreme Court in 1842, Justice Fletcher wrote nineteen opinions that survive, though he likely authored others.(13) The rest, it appears, were announced orally from the bench.(14) Justice Fletcher’s opinions that survive address myriad issues, including issues of statutory interpretation,(15) evidentiary questions,(16) procedural questions,17 and constitutional issues.(18)

After his departure from the Court, Justice Fletcher served as a Regent of the University of Michigan from 1842 through 1846. He also served as a justice of the peace in Ann Arbor, until his death. He passed away on September 18, 1852, in Ann Arbor, at the age of sixty-four.

Justice Fletcher’s life was marked by one of public service, one from which it seems he received little rest. His death, however, was marked by distinction in much the same way as his life.

Following his death, Justice Fletcher was buried in a cemetery adjacent to his farm, in Ann Arbor. In 1857, when the cemetery ran out of space, a new one was opened, Forest Hill Cemetery.  Justice Fletcher’s grave had not been adequately marked originally and, when the old cemetery’s occupants were disinterred and reburied, Justice Fletcher was not moved with them.

In 1897, the City of Ann Arbor was installing water pipes underground when workers discovered an iron casket. At the time of Justice Fletcher’s death, caskets featured glass windows over the face of the corpse.

Titus Hutzel was the Ann Arbor superintendent of water works, and his mother, Sophie Hutzel, recalled Justice Fletcher being buried in an iron casket, at a well-attended funeral in Ann Arbor, similar to the casket that had been unearthed. A consensus was reached that the discovered corpse was Justice Fletcher. The City workers reinterred the casket where it had been
buried, but this time marked the grave as belonging to Justice Fletcher.

In 1916, the Michigan Historical Society and the State Bar of Michigan undertook to provide a more appropriate gravesite for Michigan’s first Chief Justice. Justice Fletcher’s casket was again disinterred and, this time, moved to Forest Hill Cemetery, where it remained marked by a boulder for 17 years. In 1935, a headstone was donated and a formal ceremony placing the stone was conducted, in recognition of Justice Fletcher’s life and accomplishments. Finally, then, Michigan’s first Chief Justice was properly laid to rest.

Until 1966.

On June 6, 1966, during an excavation for an expansion of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, workers unearthed an iron casket with the inscription, “William A. Fletcher, died Sept. 19, 1852, aged 64 years.”(19) This left no doubt that inside the casket was Justice Fletcher. His remains were promptly moved to Forest Hill Cemetery, and were buried alongside the first iron casket mistakenly thought to be him. To this day, the identity of the individual interred with Justice Fletcher at Forest Hill remains unknown.

In any case, a little over a century after his death, Michigan’s first Chief Justice was finally laid to rest. One can only hope that, after a life of contribution to the foundations of Michigan statehood, that rest can finally be both permanent and peaceful, if not unaccompanied.

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1 Jenks, History of Michigan Constitutional Provision Prohibiting a General Revision of the Laws, 19 Mich L Rev 615, 616 (1921) (noting that by 1815 – two years after Detroit had been reclaimed from the British after the War of 1812 – “it was too plain to admit denial that the existence of one hundred twenty statutes unprinted, and of necessity generally unknown, was a gross injustice to the people” of the Territory of Michigan).
2 Id. at 620.
3 E.g., United States v. Sheldon, 5 Bl Sup Ct Trans 337 (Mich, 1829)
4 Gen Revision of the Laws, 19 Mich L Rev at 622.
5 Michigan would not be admitted as a state in the Union until January 1837.
6 Norton, Unreported Michigan Supreme Court Opinions, 1836–1843, 42 Mich L Rev 87, 88 (1943).
7 1838 RS, Advertisement p. 1.
8 Gen Revision of the Laws, 19 Mich L Rev at 621.
9 It is worth noting that some have since questioned the overall completeness and coherence of the revised statutes.
10 Unreported Opinions, 42 Mich L Rev at 87.
11 Id. at 88.
12 Documents of the House of Representatives of the State of Michigan, 1842, No. 21, p. 88.
13 Unreported Opinions, 42 Mich L Rev at 98–99.
14 Id. at 109.
15 McCall v. Hough, Blume Unreported Op 136 (1842).
16 Rose v. Sibley, Blume Unreported Op 30 (1839); Roosevelt v. Gantt, Blume Unreported Op 65 (1841).
17 Simons v. Peck, Blume Unreported Op 146 (1842).
18 See Henretty v. City of Detroit, Blume Unreported Op 36 (1839) (Whipple, J., dissenting).
19 Workmen At ‘U’ Unearth Casket And A Mystery Along With It, Ann Arbor News (June 6, 1966); What Will We Find This Time?, Fall 2018 DentalUM at 6–7, available at DentAlum-Fall2018/html5.