Fighting for the underdog defines Sedler’s career as an advocate and renowned law professor.
By David Sachs
After teaching constitutional law for more than a half-century, Wayne State University’s nationally renowned law professor Robert Sedler has had a giant impact not only in the classroom but also on society.
A veteran of integration struggles in the South, Sedler, 83, has championed civil rights and civil liberties in Michigan and across America.
On Saturday, May 11, he will be honored with the “Champion of Justice” award at the annual dinner of the Michigan Association for Justice, a statewide organization of trial attorneys.
Before coming to Detroit in 1977, Sedler taught law at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he used his knowledge and wits to fight anti-black segregation in the city.
Lexington, at the time, had a small, longstanding Jewish community whose members were prosperous but who “knew their place” in the midst of the prevailing white gentile establishment, Sedler said. But in the 1960s, outspoken “Jews from the East” (Sedler is a Pittsburgh native) came to town and boldly sought to remedy racial discrimination. In 1966, he served as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“The local Jews were very upset about the visibility of people like me,” Sedler said. “They feared this would bring down the wrath of the so-called ‘goyim.’ But if you look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, you will see that Jews have played a very prominent role.”
Fair Housing Laws
Lexington, like most American cities, had rampant housing discrimination. There was, however, a local civil rights commission, and a Jewish dentist on it asked Sedler to help bring about a fair housing law.
At the time, discriminatory real estate agents professed the view that homeowners could sell or not sell their houses to whomever they wanted — and the government couldn’t compel otherwise. Sedler realized that to achieve a fair housing law, he had to provide political cover to those local politicians who wanted to enact it.
Sedler’s strategy was to have the politicians not contest that homeowners were free to choose who would buy their houses. The only exception would be if a real estate agent were involved in the sale, then no discrimination would be permitted. Under this theory, about 99 percent of all sales would be covered by the fair housing law.
Thus, instead of labeling it a “Fair Housing Act,” Sedler called it “A Bill to Regulate Commercial Real Estate Transactions.” It was enacted — making the Lexington area the first locale in the South to pass fair housing legislation. A year later, the Kentucky legislature adopted the law statewide.
“I’m very proud of that,” Sedler said. “That was my brainchild.”
Sedler also helped successfully desegregate the merged Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky., public schools with suburban-city busing. (In contrast, at about the same time, cross-district busing was rejected for Metro Detroit.)
“Today, the most integrated state in the country is Kentucky,” Sedler said.
During his time in Kentucky, Sedler said he became “notorious” for defending draft resisters and anti-war protestors. He even argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
When he came to the Wayne State Law School in 1977, his social activism didn’t cease. He said he felt right at home in Detroit — this area being similar to his rustbelt origins in Pittsburgh.
Sedler has been married to Rozanne Sedler, a social worker, for 59 years, and they have two grown children and four grandchildren. The couple live in Southfield and belong to Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, a Reform congregation.
“Social action is a very important part of my Jewish identity,” Sedler said. In turn, he served as an at-large member of Reform Judaism’s Joint Commission on Social Action from 2003-2009. He’s still on its Amicus Brief Committee, providing supportive legal briefs in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the early 1980s, Sedler began working with the ACLU in Detroit. In 1985, he was a lawyer for the Michigan ACLU in a joint lawsuit with the Detroit NAACP that successfully overturned a Dearborn ordinance excluding non-residents (in effect, blacks from nearby Detroit) from using the city’s parks.
Sedler has disputed all religious displays on public property as a governmental endorsement of religion. He successfully challenged a nativity scene at the Birmingham City Hall. He later had a similar action against Dearborn, but the city added figures of Santa Claus and reindeer to its display, as permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court. He notes that under current law, the Chanukah menorah in Cadillac Square in Downtown Detroit is permitted because the area is a public forum, not a city hall. Sedler also opposed Christian prayer at high school commencements at two cities in western Michigan.
In 1985, Sedler represented a white Dearborn couple with a black foster child they wanted to adopt. Michigan, at the time, opposed cross-racial child placement, and the state literally tore the boy away from the family he had been with for two years. In court, Sedler prevailed and the child was returned and adopted.
This case was a forerunner of perhaps his most famous local case involving adopting children — which led to the legalization of gay marriage.
The DeBoer v. Snyder case involved a lesbian couple, both nurses, each with adopted children. After a frightening close-call traffic incident, both women realized the need to adopt each other’s children as a safeguard in case one of the mothers unexpectedly died. In Michigan, however, unmarried couples, regardless of gender, were not permitted to adopt children. The nurses’ three lawyers included Dana Nessel, once a law student of Sedler.
Nessel asked her former professor for help in the case, and he suggested arguing that the policy was discriminatory against not only the parents, but also the children involved. In U.S. District Court in Detroit, Judge Bernard Friedman saw it differently, saying what was ultimately being contested was the ban against marriages for same-sex couples. The case eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning laws forbidding marriage by same-sex couples.
“One thing I learned in the four years of litigating the DeBoer case was to really appreciate the legal right to marry,” Sedler said.
Although he has received awards during his long career, so has his wife, Rozanne, who, as a mental health professional, was a member of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Committee for six years.
The couple have also won joint recognitions, from the Oakland County ACLU in 2002 (where Rozanne has served as president) and the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the American Jewish Committee in 2011. She retired in 2008 after 33 years at Jewish Family Service.
In 2018, Nessel was elected Michigan attorney general and has appointed her former professor as a special assistant attorney general, an unpaid position where he will lend advice to the office.
“When I was a young law student at WSU Law School,” Nessel said, “Bob Sedler instilled in me the belief that I could utilize a career in law to fight for rights on behalf of those who needed it most. Years later, Bob volunteered to advise our legal team as we prosecuted one of the most significant civil rights cases of our time, and he walked arm-in-arm with me into the U.S. Supreme Court where our case changed the arc of history for millions of Americans.”
Sedler said his upcoming Champion of Justice award “is very meaningful to me because it is a recognition of all that I have done here in Michigan.” Nessel will make the presentation at the Michigan Association for Justice dinner.
Prominent Detroit attorney Eugene Driker noted, “Bob Sedler represents the very best of the legal profession and service to the public. He epitomizes the premier constitutional scholar.”
At the upcoming event, the lawyer’s group will also present its Judicial Excellence Award to Judge Elizabeth L. Gleicher, who has served on the Michigan Court of Appeals since 2007. She is also a former student of Sedler.
It will, in addition, honor its outgoing president, Debra A. Freid of Saginaw. For information on the banquet event, go to michiganjustice.org/events or call (517) 321-3073.