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Bar to honor 2013 award winners Sept. 18

State Bar of Michigan (SBM) members will honor the best in the legal profession Sept. 18 at the Lansing Center. Eleven major awards will be presented at a special banquet held during the SBM Annual Meeting Sept. 18 to Sept. 20.

Kurt E. Schnelz, winner of the Roberts P. Hudson Award, has been deeply involved in bar work for more than 20 years. He’s held just about every position one can hold, and done just about everything one can do. But when asked which of his many accomplishments stands out the most, he quickly says, “The friendships I’ve made, and how much closer I’ve grown to my dad.”

Schnelz’s dad, retired Oakland County Circuit Judge Gene Schnelz, blazed the path to bar service for his son. “It’s a family tradition,” Schnelz said. “To be a professional means you give back. There was never a second guess.”

He credits his father’s example for that, noting that his dad won the Hudson award in 1994, making them the first father-son combo to win the award. He also credits the friends he’s made at the State Bar, including current State Bar President Bruce Courtade who raved about Schnelz’s ability to balance family and business.

“Family is of paramount importance to Kurt,” Courtade said. “He’s never happier or more engaged than when talking about his kids and their latest endeavors.”

At the same time, Courtade said, he’s been a key player on hundreds of issues over the years and a great mentor to new bar leaders. “He was an integral part of several executive committees, chairman or co-chairman of many board of commissioners work groups, and always offered solid, sound input on issues before the board.”

Judge Donna T. Morris is the winner of the Frank J. Kelley Distinguished Public Service Award. To those who know her best, Morris is Grandma Judge, the conscience of her community and Mother Earth.

“She worked to avoid attention and notoriety and instead spent her career on the bench committed to helping those most in need. She is a friend of the forgotten, the lonely, and the needy,” wrote her nominators, Julia A. Close and Joseph G. Sepsey.

On her appointment to the Midland probate bench in 1980, Morris was always willing to go the extra mile for the individuals appearing in her courtroom. She sat up nights with them, invited them to her home for holiday meals and has performed their marriage ceremonies. For more than 12 years she headed up efforts to plan, fundraise, construct and operate the Midland County Juvenile Care Center, now the cornerstone of the Midland County probate court.

She also worked with the Michigan legislature to update the Michigan Mental Health Code allowing judges to travel to hospitals to hear competency hearings. Morris also established the Dorothy Dow Arbury Pinecrest Endowment Fund for the operation of Pinecrest Farms, a facility that provides assisted living care to elderly, mentally ill and developmentally delayed people.

Most lawyers agree that it’s important to give back to the legal profession. And many lawyers give back plenty. Then there’s Eugene Driker, Champion of Justice Award winner. Driker sets the bar on giving back, and at 76 he’s still raising it higher.

“When many other individuals Gene’s age have decided to ‘slow down’ or cut back, he instead moves forward with new tasks and new responsibilities,” wrote Jules Olsman in his nomination of Driker.

Among those tasks and responsibilities he is the chairman of Carl Levin’s federal judicial selection committee, which he has done for 35 years. He is also passionate about his college and law school alma mater, Wayne State University, where he has served on the board of governors for more than 10 years, including a stint as chairman from 2007-2008.

Professor Robert Sedler, winner of last year’s John W. Reed Michigan Lawyer Legacy Award, commended Driker for his exemplary work as chairman of the Wayne State Law School Campaign for the 21st Century, which raised more than $15 million for the school and resulted in a major expansion of the building.

Michele L. Halloran does whatever it takes to help those in need. She has served on the Michigan State University curriculum committee, university steering committee, faculty senate, university council, and as faculty coach for MSU teams that took first place in the American Bar Association Student Tax Challenge competitions.

She has served as a founding member and first president of the Michigan Women’s Tax Association, on the Michigan Department of Transportation’s business tax advisory group, East Lansing Children’s Film Festival board of directors and on the Advent House Ministries board of directors. But it is how she approaches her day job, as director of clinical programs at MSU College of Law, where she truly excels.

When Halloran stepped into this role with Advent House in 2000, she oversaw two clinics. She has expanded them to eight, dealing with immigration, civil rights, pleas and sentencing, small business and nonprofits, chance at childhood, first amendment, housing and low-income tax-payer law.

Valerie R. Newman, as an assistant defender with the state appellate defender office and Criminal Defense Resource Center and an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School, works every day to improve the system, and lately she has been getting big results for her efforts.

She argued Lafler v. Cooper at the Supreme Court of the United States. The justices ruled 5-4 in her client’s favor last March. The New York Times reported that the decision is the most important criminal justice decision since Gideon v. Wainwright.

Newman also worked on the defense team that worked to overturn the conviction of the Highers brothers, two brothers who had each already served 25 years in prison for a murder they adamantly maintain they did not commit. Newman has served for years as co-chairman of the SBM Eyewitness Identification Task Force, co-chairman of the SBM Criminal Issues Intiative, a member of the SBM committee on justice initiatives, and president of the Michigan Chapter of American Constitution Society. She created the Culinary Challenge, an event that raises money to support Alternatives for Girls, Crossroads for Youth and the Women Lawyers Foundation Scholarship Fund.

Thanks to the work of Ann L. Routt, deputy director of Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Ann Arbor, the surrounding counties and the state are better places. During her nearly three decades with the organization, Legal Services of South Central Michigan has grown from an organization serving four countries to one covering 13 counties and overseeing five statewide programs — the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, the Michigan Poverty Law Program, Farmworker Legal Services, Michigan Law Help and the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative.

Her career arc and the organization’s growth during that time are certainly impressive. Even more inspiring is Routt’s work on behalf of domestic violence survivors, low-income parents and others who would otherwise fail to get the legal representation they desperately need.

In her tenure with Legal Services of South Central Michigan, she has represented more than 1,200 clients specializing in cases dealing with third-party custody, termination of parental rights and domestic violence cases.

Annette Kay Stanfield Spinks was a woman of firsts. Not long after earning her law degree from the University of Michigan, she became the first female attorney at the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority, rising to senior assistant general counsel. She was the first African American female jurist in Oakland County. She was appointed a 46th District Court magistrate in 1987 and held the position for 23 years while maintaining a private practice.

In 1990, Spinks co-founded the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association and served as its first female president. She was also the first president of the D. Augustus Straker Bar Foundation and spearheaded its law school scholarship fund. She also worked with the Straker Bar, the Wolverine Bar Association and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan to co-create the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Majors for Justice Advocacy Competition, which awards scholarships to Michigan high-school students. The competition has since adopted by the National Bar Association and expanded across the country.

Spinks died in December of cancer on her 60th birthday. The scholarship program she helped create was renamed the Kay Stanfield Spinks Law Student Scholarship in her honor.

Professor James J. White will receive the John W. Reed Michigan Lawyer Legacy Award.

How many of us can say that our commercial transactions professor literally “wrote the book” on the UCC (uniform commercial code)? Everyone who took White’s commercial sactions class at the University of Michigan Law School can. And for those who didn’t have White, or haven’t heard of him, it’s still highly likely he influenced your law school career. That’s because White really did write the book on commercial law. His Handbook of the Law Under the Uniform Commercial Code, co-authored with Cornell Law Professor Robert Summers, remains the leading treatise on the UCC, not to mention the best-selling hornbook of all time.

White is also remembered as an unparalleled influencer of legal minds and a larger-than-life teacher with a wonderful sense of humor. Veteran lawyer and commercial law professor Barkley Clark who, along with his wife, co-authored two commercial law treatises, called White “the standard by which all commercial law educators are measured.”

Thomas Buiteweg said he will continue to serve as an inspiration to his students and peers.

Robert G. Mossel will receive the John W. Cummiskey Pro Bono Award.

Mossel, Ford Motor Company’s pro bono chairman, spearheaded an effort to refocus the program to better address community needs and determine how the corporation’s 85 in-house attorneys could use their skills to have the greatest impact on the state.

Ford attorneys are now involved in a number of legal programs ranging from food-stamp clinics and criminal expungements to nonprofit assistance and veterans’ benefits projects. Mossel was instrumental in Ford and the Legal Aid and Defender Association collaborating on a pilot project to help individuals and families not receiving food stamps or not getting the maximum allowable benefit despite being eligible.

The association estimates clients have received $180,000 in food-stamp benefits they otherwise would not have gotten. Ford attorneys also volunteer to help low-income clients expunge their criminal records — many people cannot get jobs or housing because of prior criminal convictions — by providing advice on the court process and reviewing and finalizing pleadings. Through the first six clinics, attorneys have helped about 200 clients.

Elizabeth A. Kitchen-Troop will receive the Kimberly M. Cahill Bar Leadership Award.

Kitchen-Troop, who focuses on high-conflict divorce and custody cases, learned a few years ago that a growing number of Washtenaw County residents couldn’t afford quality legal representation. So she asked her fellow Washtenaw County Bar Association Board members to help her figure out a way to deal with the issue.

The board formed an ad hoc committee to look into the matter. It soon became a committee of one. No programs of its kind existed in Michigan, so Kitchen-Troop reached out to bar associations across the country with similar initiatives, learned about their program and figured out the elements that would and wouldn’t work in Washtenaw County.

Her efforts led to creation of the Modest Means Program, which provides legal representation at a reduced rate for individuals at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty guideline. As Modest Means chairman, Kitchen-Troop has mentored several volunteers, focusing on young attorneys or attorneys not experienced in family law.

Marge Palmerlee will receive the Liberty Bell Award.

Twenty years ago, Palmerlee and her then 13-year-old son volunteered to help out at Degage Ministries in Grand Rapids, a facility that serves the homeless, unemployed, mentally ill and physically disabled. They were looking for a way to give back. And that’s exactly what they did. In fact, Palmerlee gave back so much and with such passion that Degage hired her to be their executive director just a few years later. At the time, Degage had four employees and served coffee every evening to about 50 people. Palmerlee knew they could do more.

“We started meeting with people and asking them how we could help them in their journeys,” Palmerlee said. “We listened to their most pressing needs and we acted.”

They added a laundromat, a hair salon, showers and other programs, and they expanded their dining room and started a state identification program. They also added Open Door, an overnight center for women who need a safe haven. Since its inception in 2003, the center has served more than 2,000 women.

As for Degage, the ministry now serves about 500 people per day, 10 times more than it did when Palmerlee took over.

Established in 1935, the State Bar of Michigan is composed of more than 41,000 practicing attorneys and judges. The mission of the group is to improve the administration of justice, promote the legal profession and build public understanding of our legal system.

Visit www.michbar.org for more information.

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers from a press release submitted to eastvillagemagazine.org. The story is edited to conform to Associated Press and local style. The group or individual who submitted the story is responsible for all information provided.)

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