William M. Saxton, former chairman of Butzel Long, dies at 92

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
William M. Saxton

Detroit — William "Bill" M. Saxton, a Detroit attorney known for his role in a landmark cross-town busing case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s, died Monday, April 15, 2019. He was 92.

The retired lawyer's former firm, Butzel Long, confirmed his death to The Detroit News, saying Mr. Saxton died at his home in Arizona.

The cause of death wasn’t provided.

"Bill was a leader of this firm for many years and was a titan of legal communities," said Justin Klimko, president and CEO of Butzel Long. 

Mr. Saxton, former chairman and CEO of Butzel Long, also lectured at the University of Michigan Law School and other institutions, including Wayne State. He is widely recognized for taking on the Milliken v. Bradley Detroit cross-district busing case, winning before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The case dealt with the planned busing of public school students across district lines among 53 school districts in Metro Detroit. The plan was devised in an effort to desegregate the districts following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

A federal judge ruled integration was not possible within the city's boundaries and ordered a plan to include surrounding, mostly white, school districts, according to the State Bar of Michigan.

In a controversial 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court overturned the lower courts and ruled that federal courts "could not impose a multidistrict, area-wide remedy upon local districts in the absence of any evidence those districts committed acts causing racial discrimination," the State Bar said on its website.

Mr. Saxton's career spanned more than 60 years.

The University of Michigan graduate joined Butzel Long in 1952 as a litigator, negotiator and counselor. He was considered a national expert in labor and employment law, the firm said. 

Mr. Saxton started at the firm when the two named partners, Leo Butzel, who joined in 1896, and Tom Long, who began in 1909, were practicing.

Colleagues said Mr. Saxton was "an instrumental figure" in the growth of the firm in the 1970s and 1980s. 

“Bill was a chief architect of the modern-day Butzel Long, yet had deep respect for our long and storied history,” said Klimko.

By 1990, in addition to serving as a member of the board of directors, Mr. Saxon was chairman and CEO. From 1997 to 2002, he was director emeritus of Butzel Long.

Klimko, who knew Mr. Saxton since he started at the firm in 1980, said he retired in 2002, but practiced up until about five years ago. He began spending most of his time in Arizona around 2009, the firm said, but he would return to Detroit during the summers.

"He would mentor young attorneys, which he loved, still enjoyed reading cases and practiced pretty continuously," Klimko said. "He would stay in touch even after he left."

He was elected as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, a fellow emeritus of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, a life fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a life fellow of the Michigan Bar Foundation and a member of the American Law Institute, the firm said.

Mr. Saxton was a life member of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judicial Conference. He was also a member of the Bar of the Michigan Supreme Court, United States Supreme Court, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

One of Mr. Saxton’s most significant honors was when he received the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice Award in 2003. Mr. Saxton is included for the Milliken v. Bradley case as one of 41 Michigan milestones.

Saxton is survived by his wife, Helen Saxton; his daughter Patricia (John) Painter; his son William D. (Lisa Goffman) Saxton; his stepchildren David (Judy) Livingston, Dawn (Jon) Abrahamson, Timothy (Diane) Livingston, and John (Nellie) Livingston; his granddaughter Kimberly Painter; and grandson Jeffrey (Jessie) Painter; the children of his stepchildren, Robert (Kelly) Livingston, Jessica (Chris) Gurney, Bill (Erin) Livingston, Katie (Aaron) Coy, Jacob Livingston and Thomas Livingston, along with three great-grandchildren, Hunter Livingston, Lauren Gurney and Owen Coy; and his sister Margaret Fowler.

A Memorial Service will be held on Friday at 4 p.m., at Valley of the Sun Mortuary and Cemetery, 10940 East Chandler Heights Road, Chandler, Arizona. Condolences to the family can be left at valleyofthesunfuneralhome.com.

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