Judicial forum highlights local Law Day celebration

April 30, 2012
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State and local bar associations across the country will celebrate Law Day this week, and both the Grand Rapids and Michigan associations will honor the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association, however, with help from the Thomas Cooley Law School, will celebrate the date a few days late, in order to give its members a timely forum that reflects the Law Day theme created by the American Bar Association for this year’s event: “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.” The theme gives special recognition to the nation’s courts as keepers of the country’s democratic rights.

Although Congress proclaimed in 1961 that Law Day should fall on May 1, the local bar is holding its annual luncheon at the University Club two days later.

“The reason we are celebrating Law Day on May 3rd instead of the traditional May 1st is we had the opportunity to have former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Cliff Taylor attend as a speaker to address the issue of judicial selection in Michigan,” said Mark Smith, president of the GRBA and a partner in the Rhoades McKee law firm.

“His counterpart in the discussion will be former Mayor John Logie of Grand Rapids, who has been actively involved in reviewing and evaluating alternative systems of selecting our justices in Michigan,” he added.

Smith said that portion of the program will be devoted to detailing the merits of the current system, which involves judicial nominations made by the political parties followed by non-partisan elections. The discussion will include the various alternatives to making those selections.

“These run the gamut from juror appointment-type processes that are used in some states to citizen panels, merit reviews, selection by a committee and recommendations. There are a variety of ways this could be handled,” he said.

Smith said a report that will make some selection recommendations is coming soon from a group commissioned by the state Supreme Court.

“So I think we can expect to hear from Mayor Logie the outcome of that process and probably some advocacy by him as to the necessity of a change, from his point of view. And we can expect that Justice Taylor will be advocating the current system, which he has done on numerous occasions,” he said.

How the state selects its judges may have greater meaning in light of a recommendation that 45 trial-court judgeships be eliminated along with four justices in the appellate system, a proposal unanimously endorsed by the Michigan Supreme Court and backed by five other state judicial groups. The same report also said 31 new trial-court judgeships were needed but not recommended because of the economic climate. Gov. Rick Snyder supports the report’s findings.

The forum also fits the ABA’s Law Day theme in that states, such as Michigan, are cutting spending on courts and, in turn, eliminating some access to the courts.

“To some degree, the discussion has to do with finances in terms of how the ABA has sort of packaged this year’s theme. We took a little bit different of a twist on that because of our feeling that, once you get into the justice system, you’re entitled to a fair shake by the system. It deserves exploration as to whether our system currently provides that,” said Smith.

In addition to the forum, the Law Day luncheon will announce the winners of four awards. The bar will honor three individuals or organizations with its Liberty Bell, President’s and Worsfold awards, while Cooley Law School will present its public service award.

“The Liberty Bell is something more associated with the bar association. We actually have a committee that is involved in selecting the recipient of that award, and that’s one that we try to hand out on an annual basis,” said Smith.

The bar has successfully done that each year since the award’s inception in 1962. Court Appointed Special Advocates of Kent County was the 2011 winner and the 50th recipient of the award, which honors efforts that advance the cause of justice. “That program matches volunteers with children that go through the court system in sort of a foster-care-type relationship,” said Smith.

The President’s Award was established in 2002 and is given to a bar member who has made special contributions. Jack Hoffman, a partner at Kuiper Orlebeke PC, won the 2011 honor. The Worsfold Distinguished Service Award, created in 1989 and named after the late Don Worsfold, recognizes an association member for his or her service to the bar, the profession and the community. Last year’s honor went to Randall Velzen, a partner at Velzen, Johnsen & Wikander PC.

The Cooley Law School Marion Hilligan Public Service Award is given annually for contributions made by a legal professional to governments or community organizations that reflect individual responsibility in promoting public health and welfare through law. Last year’s winner was Judge Patrick Bowler. The school’s award was named after its first dean, Marion Hilligan.

The State Bar of Michigan has taken a different approach to Law Day by launching a contest that invites projects based on the day’s theme. The competition is wide open: Those entering can chose the form their project will take, including plays, debates, video game designs, essays, podcasts and more. The state bar will award $4,000 in cash prizes to the most creative ideas, with one winner receiving the grand prize of $1,000.

“The idea behind this unique contest is to promote greater public understanding of the law and to create more partnership opportunities for lawyers and the community at large,” said Julie Fershtman, president of the state bar.

The idea for Law Day was conceived in 1957 by then-ABA President Charles Rhynes as a way to mark the nation’s commitment to the rule of law. A year later, President Dwight Eisenhower established the first Law Day. Three years later, Congress set the official date.

As for Smith and others members of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, they’re looking forward to Thursday’s event. “I think it’s always fun to recognize the achievement of people, and to have a program like we’ve been able to line up to coincide with the event is just a fantastic pairing of events,” he said.

“We wanted this judicial forum in one way or another because we thought it was important in an election year to have some reasoned dialogue about how we do things. And it just fits wonderfully with the theme of Law Day.”

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