I received a superb legal education.
Richard F. Suhrheinrich, ’63
Judge Richard F. Suhrheinrich is a rare breed. His real-world experience as a trial lawyer, rainmaker, and partner of a leading law practice provided a perfect foundation for the demands of judiciously reviewing and ruling on weighty legal matters in the highest courts in the country.
President Ronald Reagan appointed Suhrheinrich to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1984. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where he now serves as a senior judge, working in Lansing. The court has jurisdiction over four states and holds sessions in Cincinnati.
A 1960 graduate of Wayne State University, Suhrheinrich earned a J.D. from Detroit College of Law (DCL), now MSU College of Law, in 1963. He was fourth in his class of 85 law students and took on an early leadership role as class president. He also earned a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1990 and received an honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from MSU College of Law in 2001.
He started his career at the law firm of Moll, Desenberg, Purdy, Glover, & Bayer, and worked there for about five years. In 1969, Richard (Dick) Kitch, a mentor and colleague at the Moll law firm, invited Suhrheinrich to join him in setting up a new practice.
The law firm, Kitch and Suhrheinrich, opened with a focus on medical legal matters. Suhrheinrich handled a full caseload and over time began to manage the firm, building it up to include 60 lawyers and an equal number of support staff. As the firm’s size and case volume grew, Suhrheinrich found himself working too much and sought to change the direction of his career.
Becoming a federal judge expanded his horizons. One of his landmark rulings came in the case of ACLU vs. Mercer County over a listing of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse. He wrote the opinion for three judges, noting that the Ten Commandments, displayed in parity with other historical documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of independence, did not violate “separation of church and state.”
Suhrheinrich’s education prepared him for a wide range of legal challenges. He credits the Socratic method of law education—conceptualizing the law and its application—with his ability to think clearly about complex legal matters. He is a proponent of using this approach to teach the next generation of lawyers.
“I received a superb legal education,” Suhrheinrich says. “I never felt that an adversary in the courtroom or litigants appearing before me had any better legal education or thought conceptually different about the law than I did.”
Recalling his years at DCL, Suhrheinrich notes, “The Law College did not have many full-time faculty members, but it had great scholars both in the acting bar and on the permanent staff.” This intellectual heritage, combined with strong friendships among DCL colleagues, who share their expertise freely, holds great value for Suhrheinrich.
To convey his gratitude for the scholarships that allowed him to obtain a quality education at DCL, Suhrheinrich has generously set up a $150,000 gift to MSU College of Law through a contribution of life insurance. He also has a charitable gift annuity set up for the Michigan State University Museum.
Suhrheinrich was active on the DCL Board of Trustees from 1985 to 2001 and served as the Board’s president from 1999 to 2001. He was an associate professor for a total of 12 years (from 1975 to 1985 and 2001 to 2003), and a leader in the Law College’s move to East Lansing.
As head of the “space” committee, Suhrheinrich was charged with finding the right locale for the Law College. “I was the point man in working out the arrangements with (former MSU President) Peter McPherson,” says Suhrheinrich. He notes that fellow classmate Dick Heiss [then president of the DCL Board of Trustees] was “very supportive and a moving force in partnering with MSU.
“The decision to move to East Lansing was a good one,” Suhrheinrich says. “It enriched the curriculum, enhanced the stature of current graduates, and offered different academic opportunities.” Those advantages still hold true today.
Suhrheinrich has a strong sense about what a law degree should confer. “One should be taught to think conceptually about the law. It’s a professional school—not a graduate school,” he notes. “A law school must teach how to handle legal matters and how to think about the law.”
He observes that technology is changing the practice of law by taking away some basic work—such as wills and simple divorces, which can be done online—but also creating new opportunities. “Law is changing dramatically. Whether it’s for the better isn’t yet known,” he says. Suhrheinrich cites some examples of litigation trends. “Few civil suits are tried in federal court. The verdicts are so high that no one can afford to try a case, so they settle it. Does this create justice?”
Still, Suhrheinrich is optimistic about the legal profession. “There are some awfully good lawyers out there,” he says. He believes that students should go into the profession based on a passion “to obtain justice.”
A version of this profile originally appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Amicus, published by the MSU College of Law.