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History and Traditions

Edson R. Sunderland

Edson R. Sunderland taught at the University of Michigan Law School, 1901-1956.

Date of Birth: 1874
Date of Death: 1959



    Edson Read Sunderland was born in 1874 in Northfield, Massachusetts, but spent most of his childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father, the Reverend Jabez Sunderland, was pastor of the First Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor from 1878 to 1898 and an internationally known religious leader. His mother, Dr. Eliza R. Sunderland, was a distinguished educator, author, and advocate of women's rights. Edson Sunderland attended the University of Berlin and the University of California and earned three degrees from the University of Michigan -- a bachelor of arts in 1897, a master of arts in philosophy in 1898, and a bachelor of law in 1901. Immediately upon receiving his LL.B. degree from Michigan, he accepted an invitation to join the faculty, embarking upon a career of teaching, research and writing for which he would become nationally recognized.

    Sunderland served as a secretary of the state bar association and editor of the state bar journal from 1922 to 1924, becoming an active advocate for reform in legal procedure. In 1927, the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan designated Sunderland the first holder of a professorship in legal research. In the same year, he was appointed by the Michigan legislature, along with four other Michigan attorneys, to a state commission whose mandate was to confer with the Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court and suggest revised rules of practice and procedure, including a simplified method of appellate procedure. Sunderland devoted a large portion of his time in the next two years to the work of preparing the new rules, distributing a preliminary report published by the Legal Research Institute of the university in 1928 and a final report in 1929. In 1930, the rules were published by the Institute in their final form as adopted by the Supreme Court and offered to the bar of Michigan at printer's cost in accordance with the wishes of William W. Cook, donor of the legal research endowment funds.

    A prolific writer, Sunderland authored more than twenty book-length publications and more than 130 articles on legal problems. His series of casebooks, published beginning in 1912 covering trial practice, code pleading, common law pleading and finally in 1924, trial and appellate practice, were pioneering for the teaching of procedure. He spoke and wrote regularly about the weak points of the procedural system, constantly pointing out the need for reform. In an article entitled, "The Inefficiency of the American Jury," published in 1915, he urged that judges not only be permitted, but be required, to aid juries in reaching just conclusions on matters of fact, observing that no single reform would do more to promote the efficiency of courts and the quality of justice. In 1917, he called attention to the then well-established English practice of giving declaratory judgments before trial, referring to it as a modern evolution in remedial rights -- "an advance over previous doctrines comparable to the great reform which equity made over the harsh rules of the common law." This article, one of the first in the country to urge the adoption of the practice, was followed by at least eight others in which he explained the practice and called for its adoption.

    In 1932, Sunderland wrote in the foreword to a study on discovery published by one of his graduate students that, "It is probable that no procedural process offers greater opportunities for increasing the efficiency of the administration of justice than that of discovery before trial." His continued interest in discovery is evidenced in the publication of at least seven articles on the subject, along with his work for the United States Supreme Court Advisory Committee which formulated the Federal Rules of 1938. His contribution to the work of the Committee also included provision for summary judgments -- a procedure which had received his special attention when drafting the Michigan Court rules of 1931. In 1937, he called attention to pre-trial procedures that had been developed in Detroit, remarking that pre-trial conferences (including judge, prosecutor and defense attorney) provided "an open, business-like and efficient presentation of real issues," and "that its general adoption and use might do much to restore the confidence of the public in litigation as a desirable means of settling disputes."

    In the field of appellate practice Sunderland urged, among other reforms, the simplification of the appellate record, and he expressed strong opposition to double appeals made necessary by systems of intermediate appellate courts. In this area he wrote some eighteen articles. Sunderland's writings were voluminous, and he was in constant demand as a speaker at bar association meetings. In almost all cases, his speeches resulted in published papers. His last book, The History of the American Bar Association, was written long after his retirement and published in 1953 by the association for distribution among its members. On his 84th birthday in 1958, his family presented him with, and distributed, a privately printed bibliography of his writings.

    Nationally recognized for his scholarship, Sunderland was a research associate with the Sterling Foundation at Yale University from 1921 to 1922, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1934, the University of North Carolina from 1935 to1938, and the University of Southern California in 1936. He was president of the Association of American Law Schools in 1930, chairman of the National Conference of Judicial Councils in 1932, and a director of the American Judicature Society. In 1933 he drafted the Illinois Civil Practices Act, which was adopted in that same year.

    In addition to his Law School work, Sunderland served for twenty-five years as business manager of the Faculty Board in Control of Student Publications. The organization was bankrupt when he took over in 1917, but he turned it around with both financial and editorial advice. By 1931, Sunderland had accumulated enough reserves to initiate plans for a new building designed by Irving K. Pond, equipping it with the best and latest printing presses. Also active in area community affairs, he served from 1925 to 1934 on the Ann Arbor Board of Education and from 1931 to 1943 as a director of Cranbrook's Kingswood School, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Sunderland was married to Hannah Dell Read and had a son and two daughters.

    In 1952 Professor Sunderland received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Michigan, an honor seldom bestowed upon one its own faculty members. He also received honorary degrees from Wayne State University and Northwestern University. When he died in 1959 at age eighty-five, the Michigan Law Review dedicated its November issue to his memory.

  -- Bentley Historical Library, Finding Aids Project for Edson  Read Sunderland Papers 1895-1956.


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