Rhoades McKee attorney Bruce Courtade completes his term as State Bar of Michigan president with a sense of accomplishment and renewed commitment to issues involving justice. Photo by Johnny Quirin
With his year-long term as president of the State Bar of Michigan winding down, Bruce Courtade said it came up on him faster than he thought it would, and it’s ending sooner than he thought it should.
Courtade took over the top spot Sept. 19 at the bar’s annual meeting, held at DeVos Place, and will turn over his seat to president-elect Brian Einhom of Southfield Sept. 18 at the bar’s annual meeting in Lansing.
“It’s been very busy but very rewarding,” said Courtade, a partner at Rhoades McKee, of the past year.
“Someone asked me if I would do it again, and I said — without sounding too much like Bill Clinton — ‘Define “again.”’ Because if you’re asking me, would I extend it a year, then, no, because it would kill me, kill my practice or both.
“But if you’re asking me, knowing about it what I now know about it, if I had the opportunity to get into a time machine and go back six years to when I made the decision whether to run, would I run again? Absolutely, it’s been a fantastic experience,” he said.
Prior to taking office, Courtade told the Business Journal the position would require a lot of traveling on his part, and he was right. He put 4,400 miles on his odometer in March alone and nearly 30,000 miles for the year. Much of that travel took him to Lansing for state bar meetings, but he also visited many of the state’s local bar associations and attended a slew of events on the state bar’s behalf.
Even though the travel took a bit of a toll, Courtade felt the trips helped him make some progress on the industry issues he held dear to him when he became president. Civic education was one of those. A big part of that was emphasizing everyone’s constitutional rights and the rule of law across the state.
“Whenever I spoke to groups of attorneys, I brought with me copies of the U.S. Constitution — little pocket copies. I would leave those with the attorneys and with the other guests I visited with, and I distributed over 1,000 copies of the Constitution during the year,” he said.
“That, by the way, was accepted with great enthusiasm by our members. A lot of our members asked me for extra copies of the Constitution so they could distribute those. And lawyers really understand the rule of law and how important it is to our society,” he added.
Courtade said those attorneys took up the challenge, with the result that programs to teach students about the Constitution are being expanded.
“So I feel a great sense of pride in that,” he said.
Another issue on his personal agenda was ensuring the state’s poorest residents have access to proper legal representation. Courtade admitted he didn’t think much could be done about the matter in only a year’s time, but then the state Legislature passed an indigent defense bill.
He called the legislation a great first step to ensure that all citizens’ constitutional rights to legal counsel will be met when they are charged with crimes that may result in their incarcerations.
“Frankly, it was something that I didn’t think we would be able to accomplish during my term,” he said.
The outcome of a related issue isn’t as clear. Courtade began his term hoping to stir up more funds for legal aid offices across the state, as those funds have dwindled over the last several years at the state and federal levels.
For instance, federal funding for legal aid from the Legal Services Corp. fell from $420 million in 2010 to $348 million a year later. That decline left low-income residents with less opportunity to gain access to justice in civil matters.
“We’ve been less successful at obtaining additional funding for civil legal aid. The down economy means there are more people who need civil legal aid than ever before, but the down economy also means that less interest is being paid on the funding for legal aid. So state funding went down and federal funding has been a continuing challenge,” he said.
Courtade went to the nation’s capital in April to meet with the Michigan delegation about the matter and found they were split on the issue. The reasons he was given for not increasing the funding varied. Most, though, were of an economic nature, as cuts have to be made somewhere when cash is tight.
But Courtade sees the issue differently. He feels spending money now will result in larger savings down the road. He said an increase in those dollars could possibly prevent homes from being foreclosed and help a woman in physical jeopardy obtain a personal protection order before a regrettable incident occurs.
Courtade also disagreed with the stance U.S. Congressman Justin Amash took on the matter. He said Amash told him funding for civil legal aid wasn’t called for in the U.S. Constitution. But Courtade said Justice — with a capital J — is found in the Preamble and can’t be achieved for everyone without access to the nation’s court system.
“I also pointed out the Pledge of Allegiance reads, ‘One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.’ So it’s in the last four words of the Pledge of Allegiance and the first sentence of the Constitution — and yet we can’t seem to get Congress to adequately fund it,” he said.
“When you account for inflation, it’s being funded at a lower level now than it was when the Legal Services Corp. was first funded during Gerald Ford’s presidency.”
This is an issue Courtade said is of paramount importance to him and he is pleased with the receptiveness some the area’s congressional delegates expressed on the matter when they talked with him.
“And I will continue to have discussions with them even after I’m no longer state bar president because it’s so important,” he added.
Courtade will perform his last official duty as president Sept. 18 when he passes the gavel to Einhom. The bar’s commissioners will meet twice that day. Courtade will chair the first meeting and will turn over the reins to Einhom, who then will chair the second.
“Then, on Sept. 19, I give my farewell address at the luncheon,” he said, “and he will give his inaugural address.”