An Interview with Dawn Van Hoek
Dawn Van Hoek is retiring after 42 years as a public defender/public defender leader in Michigan. Here are some thoughts on her career, public defense, and the future.NAPD: We understand that you are retiring. Congratulations! Please tell us about your career as a public defender.
There was never any doubt about my career – I watched “Perry Mason” as a child, and always identified with standing up for the little guy. That instinct was confirmed during law school, when I represented people charged with misdemeanors and was amazed at their need for legal and social services help. It was a short leap to my job as a SADO lawyer, where my first clients convinced me it was the right choice. I've been a lawyer at the State Appellate Defender Office since 1976.
My career as a public defender has been both challenging and exciting – I really love getting a new client and trying to figure out what happened. We are fortunate in Michigan to have a unified appellate process for reviewing the record and adding to it in post-conviction practice. Listening closely to clients, and investigating witnesses and forensic evidence, have producing amazing results, including many exonerations. It's always an uphill battle on appeal, and some of my most satisfying moments have involved clients who were grateful that I listened and cared.
Later years in management were equally satisfying, as they provided opportunities to improve the systems, at both appellate and trial levels. Through decades of work with colleagues and stakeholders, we finally managed to get a statewide Indigent Defense Commission which is tackling the trial-level problems. Within the appellate system, we merged management of the full-time appellate defender office (SADO), with the private assigned appellate counsel system (MAACS). We are working very hard to provide all appellate counsel with the training and resources they need to provide effective representation.
NAPD: What are you most proud of regarding your work?
I am most proud of hiring great people and empowering them to be the very best they can be. We pay a lot of attention to casting a broad net and looking for diversity when hiring, and usually achieve a good fit (turnover is very low). Once a lawyer or staff person is hired, it is my job to help them to succeed, and to get a budget that provides the tools for effective representation. I'm a pushover for additional training and new projects that push the envelope. And, I've become a pretty good grant writer over the years.
NAPD: What will you miss the most?
I will most miss interacting with the wonderful people in our two offices. After what is often a taxing commute, I always walk through the office doors and am happy to be there. We have a lot of fun together, and support each other in so many ways.
NAPD: What has SADO done to improve the state of the law in Michigan during your tenure there?
We've achieved a lot through litigation, creating precedent that trial attorneys use to get experts on forensic evidence. Most recently, we've shown some of the problems with shaken baby and ballistics evidence, leading to great results for our clients. We've litigated for clients affected by the Detroit Police Lab closure, and the discovery of thousands of untested sexual assault kits throughout Michigan. I think we've shown that convictions are sometimes based on faulty, or undiscovered, evidence that trial attorneys lack the resources to address. That advocacy very much contributed to the trial-level reform that occurred in 2013 through passage of the MIDC Act.
SADO also is very active in the review of court rules and processes that compromise access to justice. Through the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System, we've managed to connect clients with their lawyers sooner, and with access to investigation previously lacking. This has allowed them the time and tools needed to develop non-record issues.
NAPD: Over the decades many of the constitutional rights that were strengthened during the 60's and 70's have diminished in recent years. Why do you think that is? What can public defenders do to breathe life back into our constitutional protections?
That's a great question, and one I've pondered for some time. Michigan had a constitutional convention back in the Sixties, and even provided more protections than the federal constitution for citizens charged with crimes – I hate to think what would happen if we had another convention now. One of my theories for the decline is the de-emphasis on civics and government in early education. Core concepts like “three branches of government” seem to be poorly understood these days. When that happens, citizens don't necessarily understand that criminal defense is a necessary and desirable check on power.
It may seem simplistic, but I think we need better marketing. The public seems to love law enforcement shows, how about some more “Perry Masons?” The Innocence and Juvenile lifer movements have potential to bring criminal defense to life (in fact, a Japanese filmmaker is doing a documentary about our juvenile lifer clients). We have such powerful stories to tell, but we haven't leveraged them effectively to influence public opinion.
NAPD: What thoughts about the future of public defense do you have?
I'm very bullish about Michigan's prospects, with the understanding that we are starting from a very low position nationally. Incentives for local funding units are contained in the statutory scheme, and counties are just now engaged in planning compliant systems. State funding will be the key component of progress which, naturally is difficult to obtain. I'm optimistic that indigent defense will gain funding through the inevitable tax revenues generated by medical and recreational marijuana regulation. Some of Michigan's more progressive counties are getting out ahead of the curve by creating public defender offices – if they can gain a seat at the local tables, we'll do well.
NAPD: What other thoughts do you have?
I can't say enough about the friendships and support gained through participation in NAPD, and other national groups like NLADA and the American Society of Criminology. They very much informed my dedication to defender research and evaluation, all of which helped tremendously in funding, and overall management.
NAPD: Do you have any retirement plans?
Other than learning the accordion? 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.”