Professor Harold Norris, considered one of Michigan’s most celebrated advocates of civil liberties, taught Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Women and the Law classes to more than 5,000 students during his 35 years at the Detroit College of Law (now Michigan State University College of Law). He inspired his students to embrace the Bill of Rights as a living document to protect minorities, women, and “the least, the last, and the lost” and assure equal treatment and dignity under the law.
Norris graduated from Detroit's Central High School, where he met his future wife, Frances, in 1935. Planning on a teaching career, he received Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Michigan in 1939 and 1941, respectively. He then spent the next four years in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He graduated from Officer Candidate School (attending the Harvard Business School program to train Statistical Control Officers) before spending almost three years in Britain and France with the Ninth Air Force, Air Transport Command.
After his service, he entered Columbia University, which offered an accelerated program for veterans. Norris received his law degree from Columbia University in 1948 and returned to Detroit to practice law. After briefly working for two other practitioners, Norris set out on his own, launching his own practice focused on constitutional, criminal and administrative matters. Active in bar association work, he helped initiate compulsory automobile liability insurance, secure the inclusion of lawyers in the Social Security Act, and write the Michigan Automobile Liability Accident Claims Act.
A self-described “child of the Depression,” Norris was sensitive to the happenings in Detroit in the late 1940s, particularly workers’ efforts to make government responsive to the employment, housing, health, and education issues at the time. His clients included a variety of labor unions and numerous community groups. He fought for the relocation of Detroit residents facing eviction due to major land clearance projects in the 1950s and helped reconstitute the American Civil Liberties Union to assist teachers and students who had been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
In 1961, he was elected a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention, representing Detroit. Recognized as a principal architect of the Michigan Bill of Rights, Norris authored the provisions of the 1963 Michigan Constitution prohibiting racial and religious discrimination, elements that remain essential portions of our constitution.
In addition to teaching and practicing law, Norris was the author of seven books, including a volume of poetry. He is widely known for “The Liberty Bell,” a poem about fundamental rights; the piece hangs in the lobby of the home of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. A copy of his poem is on display at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library.
His numerous awards and honors include the inaugural John W. Reed Michigan Lawyer Legacy Award in 2011 from the State Bar of Michigan, who cited him as a law-school professor whose influence on Michigan lawyers elevated the quality of legal practice in the state. He received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Wayne State University in 1981 for his outstanding contribution to the professions of teaching and the law, and, in 1988, Norris received the Distinguished Warrior Award from the Detroit Urban League for being a champion of civil liberties.
A proud Jew, Norris was active in the Michigan chapter of the American Jewish Congress. He retired from the legal profession in 1996 and died in October 2013 at age 95.
Brian Kalt, the Harold Norris Faculty Scholar at MSU Law, said this of Prof. Norris: “To him, the law was not just a set of abstractions to occupy people in ivory towers. In his view – and in his hands – the law was a tool to achieve justice for regular citizens, against abusive government practices.”