Robert “Bob” Sedler has had an enormous impact on the legal profession and the law itself, nationally and internationally.
You might not think Sens. Mitch McConnell and Gary Peters had anything in common. They are on opposite sides of nearly every important issue. The dour Senate minority leader is nearly old enough to be the hard-working Michigan Democrat’s father.
But they do share something no other two U.S. senators do: Both are former law students of Robert “Bob” Sedler, now Wayne State University’s Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law, who earlier taught at the University of Kentucky.
They are far from the only famous lawyers to have been trained by Sedler, who has had an enormous impact on the legal profession and the law itself, nationally and internationally.
However, while it is entirely possible that more of his former students will become famous in the future, there won’t be any more Sedler alumni after this year. This month, Bob Sedler is finally retiring.
“It’s time — I’m ready to retire,” he said with a large grin during an interview in his Southfield home, decorated largely with furniture and art collected during a lifetime of world travel. That all started in 1963, when he and his wife, Rozanne, who had just earned a master’s in social work, went to Ethiopia as part of a Ford Foundation project to teach and help set up a law school in that country.
“You know, I hadn’t really noticed because I’ve been so busy, but we are old!” he said with a laugh, “and I realize I want to be retired! I don’t want to do anything!”
That seems hard to believe. Though on paper, Sedler turns 86 on Sept. 11, he doesn’t look, or act, his age. When Dana Nessel, another Sedler alum, was elected Michigan attorney general in 2018, she immediately made him an (unpaid) special assistant AG.
When she heard her mentor was finally retiring, she said, “Bob Sedler’s impact is immense and far-reaching. He has instilled an understanding of the law in generations of students, many of whom now serve in this very department. The guidance and mentorship he provided to many young legal minds is beyond comparison.”
She’s far from alone in thinking that.
During his career, Sedler has argued and won two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, helped make same-sex marriage a nationally recognized constitutional right and successfully fought more civil rights cases than can be easily counted.
He’s consulted with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, met President Barack Obama at the White House, had a major impact on legal issues in Michigan and has spoken all over the world.
“Rozanne and I have had an incredible life,” he said. His wife, and partner in everything, is a clinical and geriatric social worker who also recently retired from Jewish Family Service.
Not bad for a man who was born during the Great Depression in Pittsburgh to parents who came to this country as children by families who were escaping oppression in Czarist Russia. (The name was originally Seder, but, as often the case, was anglicized by immigration officials, probably at Ellis Island.)
To say there was little money when Sedler was growing up in a tiny, crowded house was an understatement. His father never went beyond elementary school. But Bob was determined to become a lawyer; he competed successfully for scholarships and worked part-time and summers as a shoe salesman for nine years.
But his hero as a student was not Benjamin Cardozo or Felix Frankfurter, but a lawyer who inspired thousands of idealistic young people of Sedler’s generation: Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president against Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.
Sedler was head of Students for Stevenson at the University of Pittsburgh in 1956 in his first year in law school. A picture appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of Bob, in his first year of law school, standing on a soap box at a Stevenson rally. The former Rozanne Friedlander, then a student at Penn State, saw his picture.
Stevenson was crushed in a historic landslide, but Rozanne and Bob did end up meeting — and marrying in 1960. Their son Erik now is the managing director and founder of Kivvit, a public relations and consulting firm that is the successor to a firm Sedler co-founded with Obama adviser David Axelrod. Their daughter Beth is a social worker in Los Angeles; each has two children.
After a brief stint in the Army (“I was worried about the drill where we had to throw live grenades”), he taught briefly at Rutgers and then St. Louis University when the opportunity came up to go to Ethiopia. “All life is happenstance. I looked at Rozanne — we were 28 and 25; we had no children yet, and why not?”
Two months later, they were lying in bed in Addis Ababa in the middle of the night when the phone rang. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated they were told. No additional details were known.
That was an era before television or trans-Atlantic phone calls were possible in Ethiopia. Not until the international edition Newsweek arrived did they really know what had happened.
They ended up staying in Ethiopia three years.
While there, Bob wrote a legal textbook for Ethiopian law students, which “as far as I know may still be in use.”
When they returned, he taught at the University of Kentucky law school till 1977, where his students included McConnell, an Alabama native who went on to run Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984. “I don’t know if he would remember me, but he might — if not from law school, probably from the school busing controversy in Louisville.”
Indeed, Sedler battled successfully to desegregate the Louisville schools by getting the courts to approve cross-district busing with suburban school districts — something that the U.S. Supreme Court in Bradley v Milliken rejected for the Detroit area in 1974.
He also battled in the courts on behalf of draft resistors and others who got in trouble for protesting the Vietnam War.
In perhaps his most brilliant legal move, he figured out how to end discrimination in housing law in a socially conservative state where, despite the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, politicians were unwilling to vote for anything called a “fair housing act.”
Instead, he negotiated to get Kentucky to pass what was billed a “bill to regulate commercial real estate transactions.” It meant that homeowners were free to sell their homes to whomever they chose if they didn’t use a real estate agent. But since more than 95 percent of them did, it had the effect of getting discrimination out of the housing market.
Despite his success, Sedler said, “I knew I was never going to stay in Kentucky. Detroit was a city that felt very much like home to me, like Pittsburgh, and I was very happy when the opportunity came up at Wayne State.”
The Sedlers arrived in 1977, moved to Southfield and became and remain active members of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. Though not conventionally devout, both Sedlers are committed and active members of social action and the Reform community.
Though he was incredibly devoted to his students, Sedler, as he had in Kentucky, also plunged into social justice causes in Michigan, frequently working pro bono (as a volunteer) with the American Civil Liberties Union.
He battled successfully against Dearborn’s attempt to prohibit “non-residents” (meaning African Americans from nearby Detroit) from using city parks. Sedler has opposed all religious displays on public property and fought successfully to stop Michigan from preventing a white couple from adopting a black child.
Sedler hasn’t been afraid to raise eyebrows; he alienated some supporters by supporting Jack Kevorkian’s right to provide assisted suicide in the 1990s, and others by supporting the late Matty Moroun’s attempt to prevent another Detroit River bridge.
But he made perhaps his greatest impact when a former student came to him to ask his advice on how to prepare a federal case involving two lesbian nurses, Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, who wanted to jointly adopt three children but who were not allowed to do so by the state of Michigan. When it was over, Sedler’s advice not only helped them establish same-sex adoption but same sex marriage as a constitutional right throughout the nation.
The young lawyer who came to him for advice is now Michigan’s attorney general, who said of her mentor that “his unyielding belief that our constitutional rights encompass more than just lines on pieces of paper” were her inspiration.
Along the way, Sedler has received almost too many awards to count, from Phi Beta Kappa to the Order of the Coif; to State Bar and ACLU awards and the Michigan Association for Justice’s Champion of Justice Award “for his dedication to the cause of justice and making a real difference in people’s lives.”
He has also written a book that has gone through multiple editions, Constitutional Law in the United States.
Now, he has finally taught his last class. But when it comes to the public arena, will he really remain fully retired?
In this case … there may, indeed, be reasonable doubt.