Complexity, compassion, & passion drive Morganroth to new challenges
Complex challenges continue to motivate Mayer (Mike) Morganroth, ’54, when many his age have retired.
His legal career began auspiciously in January 1955. As a newly minted lawyer who had just graduated from Detroit College of Law and passed the bar exam, Morganroth was one of the few attorneys in southeastern Michigan who handled appellate cases.
Having worked as an intern doing appellate cases at a local law firm, he launched his own firm to continue with that focus. At that time, appeals were only handled at the U.S. Supreme Court level. Based on his growing expertise, Morganroth was called on to be second chair when defendants in appellate cases went to trial. He would tell lead attorneys at the counsel table what to say in their client’s defense. Being well-prepared and strategic about his cases, especially in court, earned him the trial part of the business as well.
Complicated matters are the hallmark of Morganroth’s career, which spans more than five decades and is still going strong. He holds a B.A. in both psychology and history from Michigan State University, which he earned along with his J.D. in less than four years combined thanks to an accelerated program for students with top grades. He is the founding partner of Morganroth and Morganroth, PLLC, a Birmingham-based firm that he now manages with his son, Jeffrey B. Morganroth, and daughter, Cherie Morganroth. The firm’s nine attorneys handle appellate law and eight other specialty areas, including criminal law, commercial law, and white collar crime.
From Motown composers to Teamsters officials, from assisted suicide enabler Jack Kervorkian to the late automotive pioneer John DeLorean, and from the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to former Detroit Mayoral Aide Christine Beatty, Morganroth has represented clients whose cases depend on steadfast research, strategic legal maneuvers, and sound legal advice. His added advantage is his ability to get to know his clients as individuals and treat them with respect.
Rolland McMaster was one of Morganroth’s most notorious clients. Intimidating in stature (6'6'') and demeanor (he personified a “union goon”), he was the Teamsters’ chief organizer in the 1950s and top aide to former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa before they parted ways. Federal agents repeatedly dug up McMaster’s Michigan farms (he raised thoroughbred horses) on tips that Hoffa was buried there. Morganroth successfully defended McMaster against numerous charges. When McMaster died at age 93 in 2007, Morganroth delivered his eulogy.
In representing DeLorean—a former GM auto executive and entrepreneur— Morganroth and his team handled 43 cases and won them all. The flashy owner of DeLorean Motor Co. faced several extraditions and was charged with tax fraud, cocaine trafficking, and money laundering. Morganroth says, “We were successful all the way down the line. We also got back all the assets (close to $67 million) that the trustee took from him.”
Morganroth proudly represented the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young for 20 years, handling cases ranging from charges of bribery to improper use of campaign funds. He recalls conversations at the Manoogian Mansion, when federal agents were listening on wiretaps. Morganroth says, “We would turn up the TV until Coleman started swearing, then we would turn it down low.” As a result, all the feds could clearly hear was the mayor’s staccato of explicit swear words.
Mayor Young was upset by constant government surveillance and asked Morganroth to file a Bivens Action, which allows for damages due to constitutional violations committed by federal agents. The next day, Morganroth had lunch with former Judge Sam Gardner and said that he was planning on filing the case. Word was passed on, and the next day, both Judge Gardner and Morganroth got a letter from the federal government saying Coleman Young was not under investigation. “That’s all he wanted anyway,” Morganroth says. “He died with just his pension. His remaining campaign funds were used to build the African American Museum in Detroit.”
Morganroth and fellow alumnus Geoffrey Fieger, ’79, defended Kervorkian in the Miller Wantz trial, which ended in acquittal. Morganroth came into the trial after the jury went out. Kervorkian later chose to defend himself and ended up serving a prison term.
As friends and colleagues, Morganroth represented Fieger in his successful defense against federal charges of illegal campaign contributions in the 2008 presidential election. Many colleagues have called on him over the years for advice on trials and proceedings, and he’s happy to share his strategy when there’s no conflict of interest.
When asked how he can represent defendants who all but have “guilty” stamped on their foreheads, Morganroth replies, “Everyone is entitled to be defended. I can represent anybody—with some limitations based on principle— if I feel that I can believe in the client and sense that the jury will see that I like my client.”
One of his rules in these “tough-todefend” cases is that the client cannot lie on the stand. “There is always some way to defend the client … if the client tells his or her lawyer the truth. Generally speaking, most of my clients have been honest with me,” he says. “It never helps the client to fool the lawyer.”
Readers can gain further insight into this legendary lawyer by watching HBO’s Kervorkian biopic, You Don’t Know Jack, in which Morganroth is played by actor Mike Ingram. He also will be portrayed in a movie about DeLorean and serves as executive producer and consultant for the film.
In his personal life, Morganroth has been happily married for 51 years to Sheila. They have three children and five grandchildren. He enjoys golf, travel (Las Vegas is a favorite), and is an avid Detroit Lions fan—pretty amazing for a lawyer who doesn’t like to lose.