Former judge urges crowd to fight for fairness at polls

Erane Washington, Blondeen Munson honored for service

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The war against bias isn't won by omission or a failure to act, former Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey Collins said during a passionate speech at last week's 21st annual Bias Awareness & Inclusion Dinner.

"You defeat (bias) when people of good will all come together and are vigilant," Collins told a crowd of 75 gathered at Weber's Inn in Ann Arbor. "The struggle for justice and peace is just that. It's a struggle. And I commend all of you for having a voice in this struggle."

Collins, now Wayne County's Deputy CEO, was the keynote speaker of the annual awards dinner jointly hosted by The Washtenaw County Bar Association and The Vanzetti M. Hamilton Bar Association at Weber's Inn.

Collins provided an overview of voter identification laws across the country and explained that electoral profiling is another term for voter suppression, which involves a strategy designed to discourage voting.

"The word strategy tells me that it is not by accident; that it is by design," he said. "And the design is to discourage. Are there barriers being placed in the path of targeted people, whether they are minorities or students or the elderly, preventing them from exercising their fundamental right to vote?"

Many laws have recently been passed across the country relating to the topic of voter suppression and voter i.d. law, he said, noting that in some cases, Departments of Justice have prosecuted cases of voter fraud.

He noted the 2002 case in New Hampshire in which Republicans hired a telemarketing firm to jam phone lines of a Democrat-leaning Get Out the Vote operation.

And he told of an incident in Wisconsin in 2005, in which five employees of the John Kerry campaign were charged with the Election Day tire slashing of about 20 vans that Bush supporters had intended to use to drive to polling sites.

Election ID cards have stirred debate in Indiana and Texas in particular, said Collins.

"It wasn't all that long ago that there was voter intimidation going to the polls," said Collins.

It took federal legislation via the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to curtail and prevent discriminator practices such as mandatory literacy tests, a quiz on the U.S. Constitution or poll taxes.

Just recently in the swing state of Ohio, the issue was early voting, when the Secretary of State in Ohio tried to curtail the practice of early voting.

The Obama campaign successfully sued the Ohio secretary of state to keep early voting locations open through the weekend preceding Election Day.

Many African Americans vote on the Sunday before the Tuesday election, leaving church services with the admonition to "Take your souls to the polls!" Collins said.

ACLU files suit

In Michigan just last month, the ACLU filed suit to stop Secretary of State Ruth Johnson from asking voters if they are U.S. citizens on ballot applications, he explained.

Gov. Rick Snyder had vetoed a bill that mandated the box, but Johnson overrode his authority.

On Oct. 5, U.S. District Judge Paul Borman told Johnson to remove citizenship check-off boxes from November ballot applications, insisting it slows the voting process and could cause confusion.

People should know what their voter rights are before they go to the polls, Collins said.

"I would encourage all of you as we move forward, that this issue is not going away and that all of you have a voice," he said. "There is no shortage of issues. When I was a judge on the Court of Appeals, there was a lack of African American law clerks, and the court valued diversity. We put together a committee to study this issue. And the court put its money where its mouth was and provided funding for outreach."

He went to his alma mater, Howard University, to interview potential clerks.

"We hired, and made a difference," he said.

"Whatever your circle of influence is, whether it's a classroom or a courtroom or the community, you have a voice!" he said, sounding much like a preacher at the pulpit. "If we are members or aspiring members of this noble profession, you have a voice! We are the guardians of justice. Years from now ... when history will be told, Did you have a voice? Or did you hit the mute button?"

Washington honored

Attorney Erane C. Washington was presented the Frederick Douglass Racial Justice and Harmony Award given to those who have fought to receive justice for African Americans, other minorities and women while working for harmony, equality, and respect among all Americans.

Speaking on behalf of the VHBA, attorney Robyn McCoy explained that Washington demonstrated all of the above through her roles as assistant public defender, judicial attorney, private practitioner, and in leadership positions in the local and state bar associations and gubernatorial appointments.

Calling Washington a "foot soldier in the criminal justice arena," McCoy praised Washington's determination to fight for justice for the impoverished, commitment to promoting justice and racial harmony, and her recent efforts to achieve diversity on the bench.

Washington acknowledged that it's been a challenging year.

"It's been a lot of work and a tough row to get to where I am right now," said Washington, who had hoped to be on the Nov. 6 ballot to become a Washtenaw County Trial Court judge. "But the bottom line is when I was told I was going to get this award, I was very humbled by that."

She quoted Martin Luther King. Jr. as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964: "I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ''oughtness'' that forever confronts him.

Washington said that as she thinks about the annual Bias Awareness dinner, she thinks about the obligation attorneys have taken on to do what they ought to be doing.

"We have a lot of work to do," she said. "I find that when I go in the courtroom and I am challenging whatever that issue is that I think is where we ought not to be, it's because I truly believe that in making that effort, one day we will get to where we need to be."

Washington encouraged the crowd to consider diversity and inclusion on a daily basis.

"We have to be concerned about who we are bringing into our corporations, who we're bringing into our firms, who we're bringing into our courtrooms, and who we're placing on our benches to ensure that fairness and justice for all is not just a goal that we set, but also what we do every day," she said.

"I Have a Dream" award

The WCBA presented its Martin Luther King, Jr. ''I Have a Dream'' award to Blondeen Munson, who retired in 2010 after working at Legal Services of South Central Michigan for 32 years. It recognized her "dedication to building trust and respect between the community and the legal system" and her "tireless devotion to the cause of social justice."

Bob Gillett, Executive Director of Legal Services of South Central Michigan, recalled the time the Legal Services staff was asked to come up with some skits for the Law Review. One idea was for everyone in the office to ask for Munson's advice and approval. Lawyers asked Munson for legal advice while the director asked a budget question of her.

"I don't think the skit ever got filmed, but that theme was not far from the truth in the office," he said.

Gillett said Munson is known for many memorable quotes, often involving scripture.

One famous Munson quote, he said, was: `Well, I'll go to that damn meeting, but I'm just going to sit there and I won't say anything.'

Inevitably, the next day's newspaper would include a photo of Munson speaking to a roomful of people.

Another Munsonism--"But what do I know? I'm just a poor black woman from the community."--was typically made after making a sophisticated political commentary, he said.

Gillett said Munson made the legal system accessible and understandable to many hundreds of low-income and minority clients. He called her a cheerleader for, and part of the conscience of, the local African American community.

Accepting the award, Munson recalled that before she started working at Legal Services, she signed a quick claim deed after getting behind in her house payments. She said she'd worked at Legal Aid about 15 minutes before she realized she'd made a big mistake.

She soon realized how many others made similar mistakes.

"I made a decision that nobody that I knew was going to lose anything ever again because they didn't know what their rights were and they didn't know where to go," she said. "That was my motivation."

Munson thanked the attorneys for donating so many pro bono hours.

"I miss working," she said. "It was easy to refer people when you worked with so many good attorneys as I have over the years."

In his speech, Collins noted how much he admired the work of both honorees.

"Very often in the day-to-day practice of law, you can become cynical; you can become jaded," Collins said. "Being here tonight and hearing about the good work that the bar associations are doing, that the awardees are doing, really inspires me."

He said the honorees' work were examples of the law being a noble profession in helping lives.

Published: Thu, Oct 25, 2012

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