On Nov. 23, 2020, a Republican lawyer named Aaron Van Langevelde cast a decisive vote to certify the results of the presidential election in Michigan, acting despite pressure from members of his party to do otherwise.
He declined to speak with the Boston Globe about his decision, but he provided a copy of a March 26 speech he gave at Cardozo Law School, where he received the inaugural Jacob Burns Center Award For Professional Courage, that explains his thinking.
Here is that speech in full:
Thank you, Professors Sebok and Roth, Dean Leslie, faculty, staff, and students at Cardozo Law School.
I am very honored and humbled to accept this award. As Professor Sebok knows, I was initially reluctant to accept it. I am not someone who seeks out the spotlight or accolades, but I truly believe in promoting the practice of law, legal ethics, and public service. I believe that integrity matters. When I started my legal career, I was fortunate to have great mentors – judges and attorneys - who taught me to do the right thing and follow the law. I know they would agree with me here today that integrity and honesty as an attorney are what matter the most. There are certainly times when the practice of law challenges these principles, but we must do our best to adhere to them, even in difficult circumstances. I am hopeful that the Burns Center for Ethics will pass on the same lessons I learned to the next generation of attorneys, and I am proud to speak here today to help with that mission.
I also thought it was important to speak on November 23. For those of you who don’t know, I was one of four members on the Michigan State Board of Canvassers, which has a number of election related duties, most importantly certifying election results. In November, we were tasked with certifying the results of the presidential election in the midst of widespread public discontent and controversy. Misinformation about the election - and election law - was rampant and growing worse by the day.
As tensions escalated, some political leaders urged the Board to withhold certification based on unproven allegations of voter fraud, even though we had no legal authority to do so. The Board was essentially asked to disregard the oath of office, to abandon its longstanding ministerial (or administrative) role, and to ignore a clear legal duty, along with a hundred years of legal precedent. We were asked to take power we didn’t have. What would have been the cost if we had done so? Constitutional chaos and the loss of our integrity. Our institutions and the rule of law were being tested. And as tensions worsened, it was clear that my family and I were in danger.
There were a lot a people who would have preferred I said nothing, voted no, or abstained. I am sure a lot of people didn’t want me to make it to that meeting. In fact, there were even some people who hoped I would resign. At one point, I was actually told I had resigned – which was (as you can imagine) a surprise to me. But nothing could be farther from the truth: I did everything I could to make it to that meeting, even though I knew it would cost me my position on the Board. Despite all the chaos, I did everything I could to advocate for the truth and defend the rule of law. I knew I was doing the right thing – regardless of consequences. And I refused to compromise my integrity.
As an attorney (and extremely amateur historian), I believe the rule of law is a worthy cause; it is our great inheritance. Our country is not a monarchy or a dictatorship; our constitutional and legal system is based on the rule of law. And the legal profession must do all it can to make sure the rule of law takes precedence over the whims of partisanship. It must do all it can to make sure the chaos that happened November, December and January never happens again. History must not repeat itself, and attorneys have a huge role to play in making sure it doesn’t.
I hope the events of November demonstrate that integrity matters. I also hope it highlighted the importance of true public service. I was honored to serve the People of the State of Michigan, and I continue to believe public service is the highest calling. My hope is that students listening here today will consider some type of public service. Public service done right can make the world a better place. Even a small, obscure Michigan Board can make a difference.
I agree with Michigan’s longest serving attorney general, Frank Kelley, when he said: “Public office can be done without partisanship, bigotry, or stupidity.” We need to do the right thing - the legal thing - rather than the political thing, regardless of personal or professional consequences. During my time on the Board, I tried do to that. I tried to never let politics influence my service to the citizens of Michigan, regardless of the fact I was nominated by a political party. I am hopeful that more of our leaders – and future leaders here today - adhere to that principle. We need to do what’s right and tell the truth, even when it’s politically inconvenient, and put our country and the people over politics.
Thank you so much for this award and letting me speak here today. And thanks to those who have supported me, especially my wonderful wife and family.