New ACLU office looking for volunteers

March 5, 2011
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In December, Miriam Aukerman became the regional staff attorney for the newly established West Michigan office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. For now, though, she is the office — she works solo in a downtown Ionia Avenue location just north of Monroe Center.

Aukerman is currently responsible for nine counties in southwestern and western Michigan. She told the Business Journal that eventually her office will include the entire western half of the state from Benton Harbor to Traverse City.

One of the major tasks Aukerman faces is to increase the number of attorneys who are willing to donate their talents to her office and the ACLU mission.

“Part of the reason the ACLU can be so effective is that we work really closely with cooperating attorneys. These are private attorneys who want to volunteer their time and their expertise in their particular fields to work on ACLU issues,” said Aukerman, who previously worked with Legal Aid of Western Michigan as a Soros Justice Fellow and as founding director of the Reentry Law Project.

“It’s about $1.5 million a year in attorney time that’s donated to the (state) organization at this point,” she said.

Aukerman said her office has a committee made up of about a dozen local lawyers. Pete Armstrong of Varnum Law chairs the committee and has litigated cases for the ACLU in the past. The committee meets on a monthly basis to offer advice as to what cases the office should accept. Others volunteer to co-counsel cases.

“Individuals like Pete have contributed a great deal already,” she said. “But we’re trying to build additional relationships with other lawyers.

“It’s a great opportunity for law firms and for local lawyers to get involved in the cutting edge of the most exciting litigation and legal work that’s out there. For younger attorneys who don’t get out of the office that much, it gives them a chance to get involved with some really exciting issues.”

Aukerman said having volunteers like Armstrong in the organization’s cooperating attorney program allows the ACLU to expand its range and depth of available talent. She said she has 20 volunteers now and would like to double that number in the future. But more importantly, she wants an attorney base that covers a wide range of specialties that is capable of weighing in on a broad variety of legal issues.

She also would like to have some lawyers who may be interested in doing a few special projects, like monitoring polling places during elections to ensure that voters’ rights aren’t being violated.

Much of what the ACLU does revolves around constitutional law, and Aukerman said attorneys with that particular proficiency are naturals for her office. She also said she would welcome expertise in many other legal areas, ranging from something as local as zoning regulations to something as global as intellectual property law and most everything in between.

“We’ll see cases that involve criminal law, or cases that involve employment law, or cases that will involve issues of contracts. Much of it is about government issues. But there really is a broad range of work that we do, and one of the things that we’ve talked about is building a cadre of experts on a wide range of issues,” said Aukerman, who earned her law degree from New York University Law School and was a Keasbey Scholar at Oxford University.

Volunteering for the ACLU doesn’t require an attorney to have racked up a certain number of years in the legal field. For instance, Aukerman served as a volunteer for about a decade before joining the ACLU three months ago. She said she became a volunteer when she was still a novice in the profession.

“In my first case, I was paired with a very experienced attorney. It was a tremendous experience for me because I was able to really learn from both the ACLU legal staff and this other experienced private attorney. So we look for litigation teams that bring different levels of expertise. We are interested in people at all levels of professional experience,” she said.

“The reason people do this is they want to be involved in the forefront of civil liberties work and because the work is incredibly interesting and challenging. And it allows people to work on issues that they really care about — issues about equality, privacy and freedom,” she added.

“I personally found it to be some of the most interesting legal work that I did with those cooperating attorneys.”

Other volunteers include Thomas Logan, Lana Boldi, Win Irwin and Syed Naqvi, who comprise the local office’s board of directors.

ACLU critics brand the organization as being too politically liberal, even though it has gone to bat for conservatives and their issues. ACLU attorneys supported former President George W. Bush in a case where an opponent tried to have his yard signs banned during an election, and they have also backed conservative religious beliefs.

“The ACLU, I think, is not conservative and is not a liberal organization; it’s a principled organization. It’s an organization that says on free speech, for example, if you want to put up a (Virg) Bernero sign or a (Rick) Snyder sign, you’ve got the right to do that,” said Aukerman.

“It’s an organization that says if you want to have a Bible verse in your high school yearbook and express your religion, you can do that. If you want to have a verse from the Koran, you can do that. We’re very principled about respecting everyone’s right to speak, everyone’s right to worship. So it really is about upholding principles that are important to everyone across the political spectrum.”

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