“No organization of lawyers can long survive which has not for its primary object the protection of the public.”
— Roberts P. Hudson
First president of the State Bar of Michigan
Looking out over the past year — in fact, my whole life — it is easy to see that I stand on the shoulders of so many who came before me. Their presence, the paths they blazed, and the doors they opened made it possible for me to serve as president of the State Bar of Michigan. For that, I am so thankful because this year and this role have proved to me beyond any doubt that it is a privilege to serve.
My tenure introduced me to many people whom I am honored to have met and took me to many parts of this state to attend a variety of events.
Some were big: The Young Lawyers National Trial Advocacy Competition in my hometown of Detroit was a remarkable display of talent, diversity, and the bright future our profession can expect. The Young Lawyers Section and its members put together some of my favorite and most well-run events that I had the privilege of attending this year. The future, my friends, is in good hands.
Some were small: Quite honestly, some of the smallest were the most impressive. At these events, I was awed by those who were willing to take up the mantle to do the hard and too-often thankless work to make our state’s sections, committees, bar associations, and the legal profession as strong as they can be. These meetings were about the business of advancing the rule of law, serving the public, and creating a more just justice system. Attending these meetings took me to the north, south, east, and west, and they were a testament to the dedicated attorneys we have in our state. They filled me with gratitude and privilege to be among them.
Some were near: While not necessarily physically close to my home, I must also mention the Floyd Skinner Scholarship Reception in Grand Rapids, which is near and dear to my heart. This event left an indelible impression because I do not know if I ever have seen an event focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession that was so universally embraced by an entire community. Here, they not only promoted diversity, but actively recruited it and showered its scholarship winner with support, affection, and intentional inclusion.
Some were far: Two particular events, which are paramount moments of my presidency, come to mind here. They occurred at the very beginning and at the very end of my term and took me far off the beaten path and into rural western Michigan counties.
The first was in Allegan County, where we celebrated the 43rd Michigan Legal Milestone, which commemorated the passage of Public Act 109 of 1857. The law, introduced by state senator and former Allegan County prosecutor Gilbert Moyers, guaranteed — for the first time in Michigan — that attorneys who represent indigent clients would receive payment for their services.
As corporation counsel for Wayne County, it was a full circle moment for me. The 1849 murder case that inspired the law was tried in Wayne County, and here I stood 170 years later helping to recognize its significance. It hit home especially because I knew that even with the passage of the law, funding for indigent defense had moved at a glacial pace, except for the last five years.
Thanks to the groundbreaking work done by the State Bar, the Michigan Legislature, and the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, we have seen real progress including more than $150 million in state grants, training for indigent defense attorneys, assigned experts and investigators in 1,000 cases, and switching (at long last) to an hourly payment system in Wayne County.
The event showed me that even with great historic strides forward, the responsibility lies with each of us to continue the work of those who came before us.
That lesson culminated in what I consider the capstone of my presidency: the 44th Michigan Legal Milestone recognizing Percy J. Langster, who served as Lake County prosecutor from 1949-50. He was the first elected Black prosecutor in the United States and served with amazing grace at a time when one could argue that this country didn’t deserve his unwavering willingness to serve.
He served at the height of Jim Crow in a community that was predominantly white, but also home to Idlewild — an historic Black resort community that would grow into a destination for the Black professional class and greatest artists of the day.
As a former prosecutor myself, I look at Percy Langster with the utmost respect as a leader who epitomizes the true meaning of justice. The irony is that he was tasked with the responsibility of upholding justice at a time when he himself was overtly denied justice for the sole reason that he was Black. It didn’t matter the degrees he earned or even the title he held; he was subject to explicit racism every single day. His willingness to look beyond the unequal world in which he lived and rise above the unfair treatment he endured in order to best serve his community are admirable beyond what many of us today can imagine. By honoring Percy Langster, this giant of legal history now is receiving the recognition he deserves.
I look at so many others who came before me and recognize that each are their own moments of time that are part of a greater continuum. Today, I am proud of how inclusive our Bar is. I am proud of how seriously we take our responsibility to protect the public. I am proud that we continue to work unrelentingly to improve the rule of law by building a legal profession that mirrors the public we serve. The work is not complete, but it is another point in the arc of justice.
It has been a privilege to serve in this role. I owe a great deal of thanks to Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans, himself an attorney and lifelong public servant, who allowed me this opportunity to give back to the legal profession and to the state of Michigan. It is often overlooked that I am believed to be only the second public servant to serve as SBM president. I follow in the footsteps of Nancy Diehl, the 70th president of the State Bar, who this year is being honored with the Roberts P. Hudson Award, our highest honor. I was a young prosecutor in Wayne County when Prosecutor Kym Worthy allowed Nancy to serve in that role. Nancy was and is an inspiration to me. I find it no small coincidence that we both came into these roles with the support of our colleagues in Wayne County. It is a testament to our community’s generosity and commitment to the well-being of our entire state.
Finally, as I look back on this year, I am reminded once again by my beginnings as the son of James and Cleo Heath. My parents were born in rural Georgia, and like millions of other Black Americans, they were part of the Great Migration to the north. In search of a better life, they settled in Detroit. My father retired after 39 years of service to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department. My mother spent more than 20 years as a special education teacher in the Detroit Public Schools. They lived their lives by example, showing me the value of giving back. They inspired my career. They inspired my public service. They inspired my volunteer service with the State Bar.
I will forever be thankful for this past year and all it has given me, including the friends I’ve made and the history we’ve remembered. It has been a privilege to serve. Thank you.