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Joe Surkiewicz: ACLU, MVLS to honor top volunteers

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service will be honoring volunteers at events this month — including an attorney credited with changing Maryland’s social and political landscape in a career that reached the U.S. Supreme Court three times.

First up: On Oct. 4, the ACLU will bestow its Elisabeth Gilman Award on C. Christopher Brown, the ACLU’s general counsel and a founding partner at Brown Goldstein Levy LLP.

“When Chris came to the ACLU in the ’80s, the affiliate and its activists were doing a great job, but it was a shadow of what it is now,” said ACLU executive director Susan Goering. “There was no full-time legal director. Chris joined the board and changed the organization forever for the better. He was a breath of fresh air.

“There’s no other single person who has contributed as much to modern-day ACLU in the last 30 years,” Goering said. “And, at the same time, there’s nobody who has contributed as much — and consistently — to changing Maryland’s social and political landscape.”

For starters, Brown helped build the affiliate’s docket, including voting rights cases in 10 different municipalities and counties around the state.

“Those cases changed the complexion of governments across the Eastern Shore,” Goering said. “Throughout history, there had been no blacks from the Eastern Shore serving in state or local governments, despite many counties that had significant African-American populations.”

Throughout his career, Brown has championed the rights of the disadvantaged, she added: “In his early career, he practiced law in the D.C. federal courts under legal giants like Judge J. Skelly Wright. He represented the poorest people, many of whom were being chewed up by the very government bureaucracy that should have served them.

“He worked on access to the courts, the right to a Social Security hearing — that’s huge; he changed the federal legal landscape. He defended children who couldn’t get benefits because their parents weren’t married. He fought retaliation against workers and for the right of pregnant women to get unemployment insurance. He fought for the right of police officers to organize. He fought for the right to overtime pay for gardeners and chicken catchers.

“Chris is such an engine of social reform,” she said. “He hums along in his own quiet way. He’s soft-spoken, yet deliberate and mindful. He doesn’t miss a beat. He’s made such a difference — and doesn’t gloat about it.”

The awards ceremony will be at the University of Maryland Campus Center, 621 W. Lombard St. in Baltimore. Tickets are $75. Other honorees include Carl O. Snowden (who will receive the inaugural C. Christopher Brown Award) and Sarah Poster (the Jack Levin Volunteer Award). For more information, go to

Celebrating pro bono

The MVLS will “Celebrate Pro Bono” by honoring its outstanding volunteers for 2012 on Oct. 18 at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Westminster Hall in Baltimore. The event also kicks off the American Bar Association’s national Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Oct. 21-27.

The keynote speaker is James J. Sandman, president of Legal Services Corp., which funds Maryland Legal Aid and other nonprofit legal services programs across the country.

“The purpose of the event is to highlight the great work of the private bar,” said MVLS executive director Bonnie Sullivan. “Legal Aid, while doing an enormous amount of good work, can’t do it all. So it’s up to the private bar during this continuing economic crisis and funding cuts to legal service programs.”

The envelope, please:

Yollette S. Atkinson of Atkinson & Mentzer LLC, will receive the Volunteer of the Year Award. “Yollette became a volunteer and has taken on a wide variety of cases pro bono,” Sullivan said. “She’s done a lot of work with folks who have almost no place to go for tax disputes with the IRS.”

The Firm of the Year Award goes to Grossbart, Portney & Rosenberg, a consumer debt and bankruptcy firm. “Robert Grossbart is an indefatigable worker in bankruptcy and foreclosure,” Sullivan said. “He is an incredible resource for us who can identify clients who should go into bankruptcy and save their homes.

“His partner, David Portney, also accepts pro bono cases from MVLS, as well as volunteering regularly for the Debtors Assistance Project at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court,” Sullivan said.

Frank E. Turney, of The Law Offices of Frank E. Turney, will receive MVLS’ Partnership Award. “Frank is a solo practitioner in Towson who has taken an enormous number of cases,” Sullivan said. “He’s also provided us access to consumer bankruptcy software for pro bono cases used by other pro bono attorneys.”

In particular, Turney waged a three-year litigation battle for an MVLS client with disabilities. The result: The discharge of more than $300,000 in student loan debt as part of her Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. “Frank’s tireless efforts resulted in a precedent-setting outcome and important victory for persons with disabilities. And this is a solo doing it pro bono!” Sullivan added.

The free event begins at 6 p.m. and includes a catered buffet. To register, go to

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is