Voters’ rights have taken some big hits in the past year.
The Supreme Court first invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a decision last summer, and then, earlier this year, the court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission promised to change the political donation game, giving wealthy individuals more power in the election process by removing donation limits.
Therefore, the American Bar Association’s selection of "American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters” as this year’s Law Day theme is particularly timely.
The Grand Rapids Bar Association has invited Jocelyn Benson, interim dean of Wayne State University, to speak at its annual luncheon and awards ceremony, scheduled for 11:30 a.m., Wednesday, April 30, at the University Club, 111 Lyon St. NW.
Benson has a background in election law. She founded the nonprofit Michigan Center for Election Law, which has produced a book to help guide Secretaries of State on ways they can guard and protect the vote.
Benson will present “Every Vote Matters: Current Issues Impacting the Right to Vote” during the luncheon.
“I’m going to talk about decisions at the local, state and national level by legislators, Congress and the courts that collectively have impacted the ability of our democracy to function,” Benson said.
“There have been several decisions by the United States Supreme Court in the last decade that, piece by piece, have been dismantling gains made in the past that protected the right to vote.”
She said her presentation would focus on three main topics: voter participation, the influence of money on the vote and gerrymandering.
Benson said since the Supreme Court invalidated one component of the Voting Rights Act, some states, including Michigan, have enacted voter ID laws that could make it difficult for some people to vote.
“I think it’s important to note with voter ID issues that there has always been a requirement that voters identify themselves before they cast a ballot,” she said.
“The current strain of ID requirements are problematic because they are restrictive in what IDs are acceptable. If you have a driver’s license, you can vote. If you don’t, it’s going to be harder. Not everyone has a driver’s license.”
Benson said student and employer IDs can be just as valid in proving someone is who they say they are, but those IDs are often prohibited by voter ID laws.
People living in poverty often cannot afford an unnecessary driver’s license for the purpose of voting, and younger people are increasingly opting not to drive, so voter ID requirements hit two important demographics on Election Day.
“There are a lot of best practices that some states have adopted, and Michigan has not,” Benson said. “Even though we might not be at the top of the list of states doing the worst things right now, we are far from being able to say we are doing the best things. Our voters really deserve the best.”
Benson is very concerned with the McCutcheon decision and other potential consequences of campaign finance laws.
“As an effect of those decisions regarding money in politics, average citizens’ voices are being drowned out of the political process,” she said.
“A lot of that is due to Supreme Court decisions that have opened the floodgates for corporations, in particular, to spend inordinate amounts of money to get people elected.”
Finally, gerrymandering is handing votes over to the controlling political party.
“Decisions on how districts are drawn by members of Congress have enabled the politicization of our districting process,” she said.
“We have four members of Congress who are not seeking reelection in Michigan (this year). We’ll talk about why the representatives coming out of those districts are a foregone conclusion because of how those districts were drawn.”
Benson said American democracy is currently under siege due to many of these recent decisions and there is potential for serious economic and educational consequences. “A healthy democracy is important in our society,” she said.
The GRBA also will hand out several awards during the luncheon.
The 2014 Liberty Bell Award goes to Armen Oumedian. The award honors a non-lawyer or nonprofit organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice or to advancing public awareness of the Constitution and legal system.
“He was nominated for his philanthropic gifts and his support of the Legal Assistance Center,” said Kristin VandenBerg, president of the GRBA. “He has been active in the community since leaving his illustrious business career. In addition to having gotten excited about the work of the Legal Assistance Center, he has also focused his interests on experiential learning opportunities for students.”
This year's President's Award goes to Mark Smith, attorney at Rhoades McKee, in recognition of his dedication to and support for the GRBA.
“Mark has served the bar in probably almost every capacity in the last 31 years he’s been a lawyer,” VandenBerg said.
She said Smith was nominated for the President’s Award specifically for his work with the 3Rs program, which helps introduce students to careers in the law.
“(He was nominated) for his three-year effort to get the 3Rs program going in partnership with GRPS,” VandenBerg said. “He was the driving force behind that initiative, and he contributed so much of his time and energy to it.”
Jon Muth, attorney at Miller Johnson, will receive this year's Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award.
“It’s designed to honor folks for their entire career of service to the bar, the profession and the community,” VandenBerg said.
“He served the Grand Rapids Bar Association in many capacities, including as chair of the pro bono committee, and he is one of the founders and driving forces in the founding of the Kent County Legal Assistance Center. He served as the organizational chair and he remains as a trustee,” she said.
Muth also has been involved in several important capacities with the Michigan Bar Association, including serving as its president. He also has been a trustee of the Michigan State Bar Foundation. He has previously received the Michigan Bar’s highest honor — the Roberts P. Hudson award — and the GRBA’s President’s Award.
Cooley Law School will present the Marion Hilligan Public Service Award to Barbara A. Craft.
“She taught for 20 years at Davenport. She’s been involved in a great number of bar activities. She’s always been a really enthusiastic promoter of issues of justice,” VandenBerg said.
“Barb has been a member of the GRBA board of trustees and she’s chaired the Lawyer Referral on Legal Information Services Committee. She’s been on the board of the Legal Assistance Center and very active in the Women Lawyers Association.”
The GRBA also will recognize James Booth Burr Jr., Robert P. Cooper, Richard G. Leonard, Frank S. Spies and John D. Tully for 50 years of service in the legal profession.
Admission to the Law Day luncheon and awards ceremony is $25. Call the Grand Rapids Bar Association at (616) 454-5550 to register.