Eli Savit: On Learning, Teaching and the Law By Noah Bernstein

In 2014, the now-Washtenaw County Prosecutor-elect stood head and shoulders above Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as they posed for an annual photo of the U.S. Supreme Court justices and their respective clerks. With a neatly buzzed haircut and an energetic smile, Eli Savit, the former starting center for the Kalamazoo College basketball team, was, by almost any measure, in contrasting posture to Ginsburg. Understanding how their qualities worked in harmony, and its impact on Savit’s prosecutorial principles, requires more context than just their ambitiously progressive values and love for the law.

To do this, we have to rewind to a time before Savit’s time as a clerk, law student, history teacher or basketball player. We must look back to 1989, to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Upon hearing that 11 million gallons of oil had rushed into Alaska’s Prince Charles Sound, Savit did what few first graders would, start a club. Savit’s “Stop the Oil Spills Club” brought a dozen classmates — out of a grade of 25 — together, and they discussed how to prevent environmental crises in the future. This effort was not overlooked by parents either. On the occasion that Savit and his friends asked their parents politely, they would march around downtown Ann Arbor, posters in hand.

In fourth grade, Savit built upon this experience. He took his first, true foray into politics: going door-to-door for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. In the decades since, he has worked for every Democratic nominee for the White House.

As a high schooler, Savit attended Pioneer High School (PHS) in Ann Arbor, Mich. and quickly found his footing yet again. He worked his way to Editor-in-Chief of the Pioneer Optimist, the student newspaper, and captain of the basketball team. Nevertheless, Savit, a self-described teenage rabble-rouser, maintained a tense relationship with the school’s administration.

In Savit’s tenure as the Editor-in-Chief of The Optimist, he uncovered, of all things, that someone had rigged the homecoming court. Prior to printing the article, however, the principal stepped in and blocked the story’s publication. Upon learning this, Savit and his friends tore through Supreme Court case law on students’ rights to free speech in a last-ditch effort to publish the story. They eventually discovered that they could, in fact, run it with one substantial contingency: they had to pay for it.

“Once [the principal,] in my view, censored our newspaper, some friends of mine and I actually raised a couple thousand dollars from our classmates to get it printed,” Savit said. “We printed up copies [of the story] on our own dime and distributed it to our high school classmates.”

In 2001, Savit graduated from PHS and headed to Kalamazoo College, where he split time between the classroom and the basketball court. Upon getting his bachelor’s degree, he became an American history teacher at a public middle school in New York City. It was there that he learned how to work with kids, not just teach them.

Savit, standing center, was the starting center for the Kalamazoo College men's basketball team.

After Savit’s stint as a schoolteacher, he returned to school, not as a teacher, but as a student. Back in Ann Arbor, he studied law, political science and philosophy at the University of Michigan (UM); he is now a law lecturer at the UM. When he got onto campus and analyzed legal texts for the first time, he realized that, if he wanted to make a difference, law was his best bet. So, after graduating, he turned to the justice system.

Becoming a clerk on both the Court of Appeals for the Ninth and District of Columbia Circuits, Savit became acquainted with the processes and broad applications of federal law.

Regardless of this experience, he did not see himself as a contender for a Supreme Court clerkship. Dubbed by legal experts as the holy grail for newly-minted law graduates, out of more than a thousand applicants, nearly all of the 32 accepted Supreme Court clerks attended the top four or five law schools in the county. Because of that, Savit thought that working for the Court was merely a fantasy.

This felt more tangible, however, once Judge David Tatel of the D.C. Circuit encouraged him to apply. Tate had a close relationship with Justice Ginsburg — one that was all but necessary to aid Savit’s application. Savit was denied the position — for the first time. He turned to Williams & Connolly, one of the most selective law firms in the country. But after further encouragement from his former professors and Tatel, Savit applied again. The second try was the charm, and he was accepted as, not just Ginsberg’s, but also Justice Sandra Day O'Connor’s clerk.

“You always listen to the judge,” Savit said, laughing. “It was no different in the application process. I was on cloud nine for a couple of months after I got [the Supreme Court clerkship].”

Selected applicants, like Savit, must wait nearly a year before stepping into the Court as a clerk. During this time, he reflected on how he got the job.

“It is just human nature that when you succeed, you think it's because of your own hard work,” Savit said. “And when you don't, it's because of bad luck. But the truth of the matter is that luck is involved with everything.”

It was with this in mind that Savit bounded up the Court stairs in Oct. 2014 for his first day. As a clerk, he was primarily responsible for summarizing upwards of 10,000 petitions asking the Court for a writ of certiorari. The justices reviewed his recommendations and ultimately selected around 60 to actually hear. In scouring thousands of cases, he would find hand written petitions from clients themselves — once, even, from a prisoner alleging mistreatment at the hand of prisoner guards.

“I had this 30,000-foot view of everything that's going on in the American legal system,” Savit said. “It struck me how many people were suffering and how many mistakes we might be making.”

When Savit was not dissecting the petitions, he worked closely with Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor. Being a night owl, Ginsburg worked until three or four in the morning and expected her clerks to do the same. He and Ginsburg would go over every word of that night’s opinion until it was perfect.

“In those wee hours of the morning, alone in this marble palace with Justice Ginsburg, it hit me what an incredible opportunity it was to be sitting there at that particular moment,” Savit said. “She kept human beings at the center of everything that she did. She saw the law as a potential driver of equality and saw the promise of the law as being something that could impact people's lives for the better.”

Ginsburg was Savit’s idol since his childhood, but it was O’Connor, the first female justice of the Court, who most fervently pushed him to go into public service. By 2014, she had retired, but was still a major advocate for civil education in schools. While Savit wrote speeches and essays with her, she persuaded him to go back to Michigan.

In Oct. 2015, when his clerk term expired, Savit returned home. Upon arriving back in Detroit, he took a job at Jones Day, the same firm that Justice Antonin Scalia previously worked for. In Savit’s time at Jones Day, he worked closely with corporate clientes. At the same time, however, the Detroit Public School (DPS) system was careening into bankruptcy. Citing his passion for education that was sparked by teaching and sustained by O’Connor, he began to offer the DPS pro bono legal assistance.

After three months of this back-and-forth, Savit left Jones Day and took the job as senior advisor and counsel to the Detroit mayor, Mike Duggan. There, he worked on correcting the course of the DPS.

“I had to give back a lot of the money that [Jones Day] had paid me, but it was worth it,” Savit said. “I wanted to get up in the morning and do work that I thought was meaningful and valuable. I didn't want to sit on the sidelines in Detroit at that point in its history.”

Savit’s political involvement from his first grade club all the way to Supreme Court clerk and Detroit’s chief counsel proved fundamental in his recent campaign for Washtenaw County Prosecutor. But the cornerstone of his candidacy was not centered around his resume. Instead, outstanding youth and progressive support stole the show. His platform of eliminating cash bail and re-examining the criminal justice system with a fresh perspective captivated most all who listened. Bernie Sanders, a stalwart of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing and two-time presidential candidate, and John Legend, an eleven-time Grammy winner, were two of those people. Accordingly, both Sanders and Legend endorsed Savit’s campaign.

“What happens in [prosecutor’s] offices across the country is critically important and will impact millions of lives,” Sanders said in a press statement. “We need district attorneys and prosecutors who understand that their job is not throwing people in jail but that their job is fighting for justice.”

Savit’s younger volunteers echoed this enthusiasm, all 120 of them. He remarked that in a traditional county prosecutor’s race, he would be thrilled to have only 20. With such a massive campaign footprint, Savit and his team made over 350,000 phone calls, canvassed nearly all of Washtenaw County and designed policy.

“Once that snowball started rolling, it just kept accelerating,” Savit said. “We won the campaign because of our incredible team of largely high school and college interns and volunteers.”

Savit’s wide-spread student involvement was rare, but the responsibility he delegated to them was even more unorthodox. He attributes his ability to engage and confide in students to his time as a teacher.

With teenagers in charge of entire outreach operations and contributing to policy, Savit viewed it as one more chance to foster a learning environment.

“[My volunteers] may be young, but they're creative,” Savit said. “And if you give them responsibility, they're going to run with it. They're going to do things that you could never have imagined. I'm sitting here preparing to take office right now, because of the work that they did, and the ideas that they had. So, get involved and don't be afraid to speak up.”
Created By
Noah Bernstein


Photos courtesy of Eli Savit