ACLU director to be honored as Champion of Justice Kary Moss has head up the Michigan chapter since 1998


By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Kary Moss says she is honored to have received a 2011 Champion of Justice award from the State Bar of Michigan.

But as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Moss is even happier to talk about the causes she has championed on behalf of the ACLU, and those who've found justice as a result.

"I'm proud of the fact that as consistent as we are on the issues we're most well known for -- free speech and the right to associate -- we've also been able to really respond to particular needs presented by the economic crisis in Michigan," said Moss, who has headed the ACLU of Michigan since 1998.

Despite the state's economic problems, the ACLU has increased its impact across the state, and is doing more and more work on behalf of those with low income, she said. Attorneys have filed a number of cases involving debtor's prisons, and shed light on the way costs are passed down to those who can least afford it. They're also advocating in the legislature and with the state court administrative office to change the laws, make sure laws are enforced, and make sure indigency is considered in sentencing.

"Costs of government services are getting increasingly passed down to low income people," said Moss, "and there hasn't been a whole lot of thought about the unintended consequence of the budget crisis in the state. We're the only organization that's really dealing with it."

The ACLU, for instance, represented a homeless woman who was sent a bill for her son's room and board in juvenile detention, then jailed when she couldn't pay the bill. Her earnings from a work release program were later used to pay for her own incarceration.

Often lost in the conversation about how to improve the schools, Moss said, is recognition of the children lost in the system because they drop out, or are suspended or expelled.

The ACLU of Michigan recently received a generous grant from the Kellogg Foundation that will be used to help keep students out of the "school-to-prison pipeline."

"These kids are frequently just completely lost in the education system and end up in the prison system," Moss said. "The zero tolerance law in this state is applied in a fairly brutal way."

The ACLU represented a student expelled because his hair was too long, a girl who faced suspension for bringing an eyebrow archer to school and a 6-year-old who faced expulsion for bringing a toy gun to school.

"There's often such a quick response to get rid of the perceived problem rather than deal with it, and we advocate now a lot for the use of restorative justice," Moss said.

Moss, an Ann Arbor resident, has led two ACLU capital and operating campaigns, and has overseen high-impact and important civil rights cases, such as the country's first challenge to the government's effort to close immigration court hearings to the public and warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Administration.

Moss earned a Master's in International Affairs from Columbia University and a JD from CUNY Law School at Queen's College. Prior to joining the ACLU of Michigan, she clerked at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then served as staff attorney with the ACLU in New York.

Moss said people may not realize how hard the ACLU works to build bridges across the political aisle. She said she recently got a call from a former Republican congressman offering to help with a privacy case the ACLU is working on.

"I don't think you can deal with complicated social problems unless you're willing to work very hard to find common ground," she said. "To the extent that we are -- quote unquote -- controversial is often because we're dealing with very important issues, and we're dealing with issues that frequently resurface. They don't ever permanently go away. As Franklin said, `Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.' And that's the role we treasure."

The Champion of Justice award recognizes practicing lawyers and judges who've shown integrity, superior professional competence and outstanding accomplishments in their communities.

Five Champion of Justice awards are given out each year. This year there are seven recipients because two of the awards are shared by two people.

The others receiving the award this year include Jacqueline Doig, Barry L. Howard and Edward H. Pappas (shared), Monica Nuckolls and Judge M.T. Thompson Jr. (shared) and Rebecca Shiemke.

The recipients will be honored at the State Bar of Michigan Annual Meeting Awards Banquet on Wed., Sept. 14 at the Dearborn Hyatt.

Published: Fri, Jul 15, 2011