For three quarters of a century, John Feikens ’38 has been fascinated by conflict—or, more precisely, by the resolution of conflict.
At Eastern Academy (now Eastern Christian High School) in Patterson, N.J., Feikens had a class in commercial law. “I enjoyed thinking about how conflict could be resolved in courts of law,” he said.
After a three-year pre-law program at Calvin and graduation from the University of Michigan’s law school, Feikens and his wife, Henrietta Schulthouse Feikens ’39, set up a home and a general law practice in Detroit. There he became active in Republican politics, chairing, in the 1950s, Michigan’s Eisenhower Committee and the Republican State Central Committee. In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Michigan’s governor, George Romney, appointed Feikens and Damon Keith, now a judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, co-chairs of the state’s new Civil Rights Commission.
All of this put him in the arenas of large-scale conflicts. But it wasn’t until he was appointed a federal judge for the Eastern District of Michigan that Feikens began to see the resolution of complicated conflicts as his life’s mission.
“That sense of mission grew on me more and more over the years of the case,” he said.
The case he refers to was a lawsuit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brought in 1977 against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for pollution of the Detroit River. Judge Feikens was given, with the case, oversight of all operations of Detroit’s water system. That meant supervising not only renovations to antiquated pipelines and pumping stations, but also rate negotiations between the city of Detroit and its suburban water customers. The suburbs accused the city of overcharging them, while the city accused the suburbs of trying to take advantage of a water system Detroit built.
“Under the law I was given the power to force the parties into compliance,” Judge Feikens said. “But I realized that they had to learn to work together, so I looked for ways to persuade them to try cooperative solutions.”
It took Feikens over 30 years of persuasion and innovation—the establishment of a public/private Water Quality Consortium, for example. But finally, in May of this year, Judge Feikens presided over a hearing in which three counties and 48 communities agreed to a plan that not only resolved past disputes but, more important, spells out a process for solving future disputes without resort to lawsuits.
“He is an absolute master at bringing the personnel of highly complicated institutions together,” said retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Patty Boyle. “He never loses his own dignity and courtesy, but he moves all the parties toward each other in a way that doesn’t cause them to lose face.”
During his 39 years on the federal bench, Feikens has applied his mastery to other complex class action suits: overseeing, for example, the restructuring of educational opportunities for Michigan’s prison inmates. At nearly 92, he chooses to hear fewer cases than he used to. But he still relishes the opportunity to engage in his mission. How it enlivens him came through in a Stob lecture Feikens delivered at Calvin in 1994:
“It is in this facing (of conflict) … that we experience not only the weariness and frustration, but also the richness of living and achieving. … Through this process (of conflict resolution) we are involved in the completion of creation.”
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