Keeping the Faith
By Sheila Pursglove
Mark Totten, an associate professor at Michigan State University College of Law and part-time federal prosecutor, went into law because he wanted the tools to serve others and make a difference on issues he cared about.
“I grew up in a faith tradition that talked a lot about 'loving the neighbor' and for me law was a very practical way to do so,” he explains. “My training in law empowered me and I love using my talents to protect and empower others, especially victims of crime and other wrongdoing.”
Totten joined the MSU Law faculty in 2008 and both his teaching and practice focus on criminal law. He also has taught courses on state and federal constitutional law, national security law, and an introductory course for first-year students on lawyers and ethics.
“The opportunity to help shape the next generation of Michigan lawyers, policymakers, and other leaders is very rewarding,” he says.
His current research is looking at the role of the states, and especially the State Attorney General, under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act to protect consumers in the financial marketplace — mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts, student loans, and more.
“Congress gave the states considerable powers to enforce federal law and I want to ensure these powers are used to protect the public, especially in the wake of an economic crisis that affected all of us and devastated many families in this state and elsewhere,” he says.
The Kalamazoo native and graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School earned his undergrad degree in communications from Cedarville College, before spending a year on a Rotary Ambassadorial Fellowship studying religion at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Returning stateside, he earned a Ph.D. in ethics from Yale University, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.
He then spent two years in Washington, D.C., first as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, then as a clerk for Judge Thomas Griffith on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, serving as the point-person for the judge on the many national security cases coming to the court in the wake of 9/11.
Pro bono work has always been important to Totten: In 2008-09, he chaired the Pro Bono Committee for the Kalamazoo Bar Association and helped start the Nonprofit Legal Assistance Program, to provide pro bono legal support for non-profit organizations in the community. And from 2005-11 he was a founding board member and legal counsel for a nonprofit organization that provides health care for thousands of Indonesians and is working to preserve the largest rainforest in that country, through an innovative strategy that uses affordable healthcare as an incentive to stop illegal logging.
Now he serves pro bono as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Michigan, out of the main office in Grand Rapids. He has worked on numerous cases involving predatory lending, child exploitation, domestic violence, homicide, drug crimes, and gun crimes.
“This work is deeply important to me. My colleagues are incredible lawyers and nothing beats the sense of fulfillment that comes from bringing justice for victims and protecting the public from harm,” he says.
He and a colleague recently won a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, involving a federal law meant to protect victims of domestic violence.
“The court had earlier interpreted the statute in a way that nearly rendered the law a dead-letter in Michigan,” Totten explains. “This victory renewed the law in our state. It's very fulfilling to have played a role in helping ensure victims of domestic violence in Michigan have strong safeguards.”
He also is passionate about helping protect children who are the victims of exploitation — often by people they should be able to trust.
“No one is more innocent and vulnerable than children, and the work we do to protect children and stop their exploiters is critically important,” he says.
Totten recently argued a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that he hopes will strengthen federal law in this area.
Totten and his wife Kristin — a lawyer with her own practice advocating for children with disabilities to ensure they receive proper services in the schools — make their home in Kalamazoo with their children, Grace, 5, and 3-year-old Jake.
In his leisure time, Totten enjoys running and cycling, and camping and hiking with his family in Michigan. Favorite places include hiking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula, and backpacking in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, north of Ludington.