Law Day focuses on awards, voting and election issues, collegiality

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 LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

On April 30, a crowded room celebrated Law Day at a commemoration held by the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) and Thomas M. Cooley Law School one day ahead of the official national Law Day May 1.

Law Day was first designated in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower, at the suggestion of his legal counsel, Charles Rhyne, who was also serving as the President of the American Bar Association (ABA). It was codified by Congress in 1961. Sponsor of the day has always been the ABA, which sets the theme for each year’s widespread celebrations and recognition events.

The ABA has this to say about this year’s theme, American Democracy and the Rule of Law; Why Every Vote Matters: “As we approach the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 2014 Law Day theme... calls on every American to reflect on the importance of a citizen’s right to vote and the challenges we still face in ensuring that all Americans have the opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

And in a proclamation issued May 1, President Obama stated, “[O]ur Founders created a government... rooted in the belief that just power derives from the consent of the governed. It is a system that can only function through the rule of law. This Law Day pays special tribute to the right to vote, the cornerstone of democracy.”

The keynote speaker at Wednesday’s luncheon agreed that the right to vote and access to voting are critical components of our democracy.

Jocelyn Benson, currently interim Dean of Wayne State University Law School and associate director of the Damon J. Keith Civil Rights Center, ran for Secretary of State in 2010 and authored State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.

Benson listed three threats she sees to the voting process in the U.S.: lack of participation, which she attributes in part to a failure to educate people to prepare to vote, and in part to not using up-to-date technology; gerrymandering, or “a growth in the partisanship on how we draw our voting districts;” and the influence of money in politics, exacerbated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon.

As a practical matter, Benson urged everyone to consider becoming a poll worker, also called election inspector. The Grand Rapids City Clerk’s office had supplied applications for attendees.

The event started off with a welcome from Patrick Geary of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, who chaired the Law Day committee, who turned the proceedings over to current GRBA?president Kristin Vanden Berg.

The Liberty Bell Award, for a non-attorney individual or organization who has advanced the rule of law, went this year to philanthropist and retired businessman Armen G. Oumedian. The Legal Assistance Center nominated Oumedian because his largesse has benefited them among many others; Cooley professor Chris Hastings, current LAC?president, introduced Oumedian.

Five attorneys were recognized for 50 years in practice: James Booth Burr, Jr., Robert P. Cooper, Richard G. Leonard, Frank S. Spies, and John D. Tully. Burr and Leonard were not able to attend, but the other three happily accepted the GRBA’s congratulations.

Vanden Berg gave the President’s Award, for those who have given of their time to make a difference at GRBA, to Mark Smith of Rhoades McKee, primarily for his work on the 3-Rs student civic education program.

The well-respected and widely-recognized Miller Johnson attorney and mediator Jon Muth received the prestigious Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award, introduced by Bruce Neckers of Rhoades McKee. Neckers and Muth, formerly powerhouse trial lawyers, have both focused their practices on mediation, and Neckers told the crowd that at statewide “neutrals” meetings, when Muth speaks, people listen.

For his own part, Muth emphasized that it has been due to the wonderful Grand Rapids Bar community that he has thrived. He said he is willing to accept such awards himself because he hopes that they will inspire young lawyers to carry on the tradition of civility, mutual respect and professionalism.

It has become something of a tradition for Cooley Associate Dean Nelson Miller to donate one of his books to all in attendance. He edited  Teaching Law Prac-

tice: Preparing the Next Generation of Lawyers with Charles Cercone and Christopher Trudeau, and it includes a tribute to Cooley’s Phil Prygoski, who has been called one of the 20 outstanding law professors in the country.

Miller also gave a brief update about Cooley’s progress since the last Law Day, focusing on the slight increases in the rates of employment for law school graduates, even though the past couple of years have seen declining enrollment.

He introduced Assistant Dean Tracey Brame to talk about Barbara Craft, recipient of the Marion Hilligan Public Service Award. Noting Craft’s graceful melding of professional and personal life and her long list of accomplishments, Brame said that when she first met Craft, her thought was, “I want to be just like her!”

Craft attested, echoing Muth’s words with a different perspective, that the support of the Grand Rapids legal community has made it easy to excel.

Watch for further coverage of Law Day in upcoming issues.