Champions are often known for making those around them better. They do this because they see the bigger picture and understand the importance of teamwork.
Dawn Van Hoek is a champion.
When it comes to indigent criminal defense, she sees the big picture, she has a game plan, and she makes everyone around her better.
These qualities were on full display in July 2013 with the passage of groundbreaking legislation creating the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission.
Her nominators called the formation of the commission "the culmination of more than a decade of work" by Van Hoek and others who dedicated themselves to creating "a working and constitutionally compliant trial-level public defense system in Michigan."
But that might be putting it mildly.
According to Van Hoek it's the culmination of a lifetime of work that began decades ago.
In 1978, she helped create State Appellate Defender Office's Criminal Defense Resource Center to provide critical services to criminal defense attorneys statewide, including access to pleadings, practice manuals, summaries of appellate decisions, newsletters, and training events.
She includes the creation of the Resource Center among her greatest accomplishments, noting that she is proud to have encouraged a "sense of community" among criminal defense attorneys, especially those who have limited access to colleagues.
"Empowering criminal defense attorneys to do the best possible work has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my career," she said.
Since then, Van Hoek has been deputy director, chief deputy director, and now director of SADO, which has succeeded as a national model for appellate indigent defense. In that time she has worn many hats and done many things, including participating in legislative workgroups, helping draft legislation, conducting surveys on indigent defense systems and fees, and even authoring a white paper, "Penny Wise and Pound Foolish," which detailed the underfunding of the trial-level indigent defense system, and was cited by Attorney General Eric Holder in a speech about indigent defense reform.
"Ms. Van Hoek has spent her entire career improving the level of indigent defense in Michigan," her nominators said. "She is a true Champion of Justice for Michigan's indigent criminal defendant population, and by extension our entire criminal justice system."
Of course, Van Hoek, who called the award "the pinnacle of my professional life," said she's far from done.
"Representing the underrepresented in society has provided my compass, a source of passionate engagement that only grows with time."
Story by Lynn Ingram