State Bar Representative Assembly posthumously honors West Michigan's Vern Kortering



By Cynthia Price

Legal News

In a year that was short on West Michigan winners of State Bar of Michigan (SBM) awards, the  Representative Assembly chose to recognize posthumously a Muskegon attorney well worthy of the many awards he was given over the years.
The Michael Franck Award,  which recognizes a lawyer “who has made an outstanding contribution to the improvement of the profession,” went to Vernon D. Kortering, who (as noted in the Muskegon County Legal News) died at the age of 80 earlier this year.

Although his son, David, originally nominated his father for an Unsung Hero Award, the Representative Assembly (RA) instead saw fit to honor Kortering with the Michael Franck Award.

It is clear that Vern Kortering contributed to the improvement of the profession as well as to the improvement of the lives of many.

At times controversial, Kortering started his years in practice by, among other areas, defending and counseling those who wished to avoid the draft for what they considered an unjust war, the
undeclared war in Viet Nam. This was true despite having himself served in the Air Force from 1952 to 1956.

It was after that service that the Holland native went first to Hope College, and then to the University of Michigan Law School, receiving his J.D. in 1962. He clerked for Michigan Supreme Court Justice Eugene Black, whose influence was to stay with him the rest of his life.

Along the way he also married his beloved wife Lois, and the two moved to Muskegon where he was hired by its then-largest law firm, Marcus, McCroskey, and Libner.

Kortering continued to get involved where others feared to tread, focusing on discrimination and civil rights cases. as well as union matters and workers’ compensation law. In the mid-1980s he helped start Libner, Vanleuven, Kortering, Portenga, Evans and Portenga, and in 1997 began a small practice with his son, continuing, after David left in 2010, until he was 78 in 2013. His commitment to serving his clients was unwavering.

“He fought cases on principle,” says son David, who specializes in child welfare cases and now Social Security disability and is also a former RA member. “One of the most impressive things about him is that he never turned away a client, no matter what their plight or circumstances. A lot of times he was told, ‘You don’t stand a chance,’ but then he would go on to win.”

As David Kortering noted when he accepted the award on behalf of his father and family at the RA during the SBM annual meeting on Oct. 8 in Novi, his dad often went without payment or accepted reduced or delayed payment.

At the RA meeting, Legal Aid of West Michigan attorney Dan Bonner, who won the Michael Franck Award himself in 2009, said,  “Upon completion of law school in 1983, my dream was to practice poverty law as a Legal Aid lawyer. When I returned to Muskegon to fulfill that dream, I soon discovered that there was already a lawyer here who had been selflessly representing the poor and the marginalized for years, often at no charge. That man was not a Legal Aid attorney. Vern lived the spirit of pro bono.”

Bonner, to whom Kortering was both friend and mentor, was overcome by emotion as he concluded. Commented David Kortering, “When Dan Bonner got a little choked up all of us in the family got a little choked up. It was very touching, and it was fitting for Dan to present the award. We’re very grateful he could do it.”

Indeed, mentoring generations of Muskegon-area lawyers is another way in which Vern Kortering contributed “to the improvement of the profession.” David notes, “He made himself available to help any attorney, or even judge, who approached him. That’s why he was called a lawyer’s lawyer; he embodied the true meaning of being a counselor.”

At the time of Kortering’s death in  January, Judge Timothy Hicks of the 14th Circuit Court said in a letter to the family that Kortering was “THE best person at using the law for perhaps its highest purposes--to help provide justice to those less fortunate, and to move our society to better places."

In addition, the NAACP, of which Kortering was a Golden Heritage member, added a resolution to Kortering’s accolades, resolving in part, “That we, the Executive Committee, Officers and Members of the Muskegon Branch NAACP #3147 will remember his zest for the rights of those underprivileged and downtrodden and commitment to the cause of law and civil rights.”
Kortering’s legacy is well-served by the greater attention the Michael Franck Award brings.

The RA also did give out an Unsung Hero Award this year, to Chief Judge Allie Greenleaf Maldonado of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians for her above-and-beyond work with drug courts, especially helping women and juveniles succeed at them. She also played a lead role in drafting the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act.

After the awards presentation, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young addressed the assembly. The Chief Justice concluded his informational talk by saying, “I’m here to say thank you for the insights in the Judicial Crossroads report. There have been  such reports for decades, but what we needed was the will and perseverance to do something. And now, we’re doing it.”


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