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Dawn Van Hoek looks back on her years as Michigan’s Appellate Defender

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Dawn Van Hoek is retiring from her position as Michigan’s Appellate Defender, where she managed the state’s indigent appellate defense system, including of the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO) and the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS). At SADO, she obtained millions of dollars in state funding for direct legal services, as well as federal grant funding for innovative projects such as identifying wrongful convictions, improving training for assigned defense counsel, improving access to investigation, providing reentry services and examining lab processing of ballistics and sexual assault evidence.

Thorpe: You’ve been a public defender your whole 42-year legal career. When did you decide on that path?

Van Hoek:
There was never any doubt – I watched “Perry Mason” as a child, and always identified with standing up for the little guy. That instinct was confirmed during law school at Wayne, when I represented people charged with misdemeanors and was amazed at their need for some help. It was a short leap to SADO, where my first clients convinced me it was the right choice.

Thorpe: You’ve been recognized for many innovations and advances at SADO including obtaining millions of dollars in state funding for direct legal services, as well as federal grants for other innovative projects. Is there one advance you’re most proud of?

Van Hoek:
I really have to mention two advances for SADO and the justice system. First is the increased emphasis on appellate investigation of facts, which empowers us to present challenges to forensic evidence that might have been lost, hidden or misinterpreted at the trial court level. Assigned trial attorneys have a very difficult time of managing fact investigations due to money and time constraints, so we try to expand that opportunity on appeal. With federal grant support, we have obtained dozens of exonerations for clients whose convictions were based on bad or incomplete forensic testing, misidentification, or missing witnesses. That, plus obtaining a meaningful chance at release for our juvenile lifer clients, have been amazing high points.

Second is the merger of SADO and MAACS in 2014, consolidating management of Michigan’s appellate defense system. The primary goal is the increase of resources for the MAACS roster attorneys, empowering them to competently investigation and present an appellate defense. Thanks to a powerful team at MAACS, led by Brad Hall and Kathy Swedlow, we’ve accomplished a lot in a short time.

Thorpe: You were instrumental in the adoption of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) Act in 2013. Tell us about that.

Van Hoek:
What a journey! Like so many others who never gave up, such as Frank Eaman, I participated in dozens of work groups, seminars, committees and group efforts to change a very broken trial-level system. Organizing my files recently, I discovered bill drafts I helped to write that date back to 2003, and much activity preceded those efforts. I had a few very memorable moments during the journey: first was grabbing a legal pad to craft the legislative resolution that led to the 2008 NLADA report detailing system shortcomings. In more recent years, I helped to develop an economic case for reform from my appellate perspective: well-resourced trial defense avoids expensive appellate defense – and generates just results for our clients. That argument produced other memorable moments, which included presenting testimony to Congress and the Michigan Legislature on this subject.

Thorpe: In addition to your job-related activities, you were active in other community work and efforts toward the advancement of women in the legal profession. How different was it for a young woman entering the law four decades ago than today?

Van Hoek:
The differences go far beyond just having to wear a skirt for court appearances back then! It was common to be asked about raising a family while working, and whether a pregnancy clouded your mind. Domestic violence was still a dirty little secret, and women were sometimes convicted for fighting back against their abusers. The culture gave women activists a lot to target, and I was proud to take part in the defense of battered women charges with crimes, and to help create the State Bar’s Domestic Violence Committee.

Thorpe: Would you like to give a parting shout out to other staffers at SADO?

Van Hoek:
You couldn’t find a more able, passionate, and creative group of advocates in what is widely considered the best appellate defender office in the nation. As a manager, I simply hired or promoted the very best people, and got out of their way. My respect and love for them exceeds the space allowed here: many thanks to the administrative team of Mike Mittlestat (Deputy Director), Wendy Dealca (Office Manager), Marilena David-Martin (Training Director), Julianne Cuneo (Chief Investigator), Fernando Gaitan (Network Administrator), Bryan Vance (Fiscal Manager), Eric Buchanan (Systems Analyst), Joanne Moritz (Receptionist), Amanda Smith and Kristen Menear (Case Managers), Ruth Paeth (Office Assistant), as well as our colleagues at MAACS (Brad, Kathy, Maria-Rosa Palmer, Jane Doyle, and Sabrina Schneider).

Their dedication to our mission, and desire to improve the system, are an inspiration. As for our extraordinary staff of attorneys, administrative assistants, interns, and special project staffers – SADO’s clients are exceedingly well-served by their exceptional advocacy.

Thorpe: Any interesting retirement plans? Skydiving? Oil painting? A punk rock band?

Van Hoek:
I’m there, if it’s “The Clash!” In reality, life has come full circle as I hope to spend more time farming with my husband, Peter, our kids, and grandkids. We grow heirloom apples and chestnuts at our family farm in northern Michigan, now mostly for our own consumption, but perhaps more commercially in the future. I intend to be known as “The Old Prune.”
 

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