Most lawyers, whether they make their living representing personal injury victims or others, have a few heroes who inspire them to fight the good fight, to go above and beyond, and to be courageous warriors for their cause. We at Michaels & Smolak are no different. So let us tell you about one of our heroes, George Michaels.
To tell the George Michaels story, we need to take a walk through the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center (located right next to the historic William H. Seward museum and about a mile from the Harriet Tubman home, in our home town of Auburn, New York), which had its grand opening on November 13, 2018. The Center celebrates New York State’s progressive history of promoting social and equal rights by luminaries such as Harriet Tubman.
As we start our tour, the first thing we see is a seven-and-a-half-foot commemorative statue of Harriet Tubman, which adorns the entrance.
Harriet Tubman escaped from southern slavery and settled in Auburn, but then made thirteen brave forays into the South, risking her life each time, to free approximately seventy other slaves. She was known as “The Moses of her people.”
As we walk through the doors, and past the reception desk, we are greeted by a permanent display occupying two walls of thirty-eight great Americans selected for their efforts “in the cause of equality”, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglas, Constance Cook, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.
Four Auburnians also made it to those walls: Harriet Tubman (of course), William H. Seward, Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Mott Osborne, Prison reformer, and George Michaels, a lawyer, New York assemblyman, and father of our senior partner, Lee Michaels. Our firm traces its roots back to George Michaels.
Why was George selected? The story unfolds on April 9, 1970, in Albany. A historic bill (pre-Roe v. Wade) was up for vote in the New York State Assembly. The bill, if passed, would legalize abortion in New York State whereas everywhere else in the United States it was illegal. George, a long time member of the Assembly, who personally favored passage of the bill, at first voted against the Bill in deference to the beliefs at that time of his conservative, largely Catholic constituency. When all the votes were tallied, he saw that the Assembly vote had ended in an unexpected tie. If the tie continued, the bill would be defeated. Mr. Michaels then stood up in front of the entire assembly and asked to be heard. He announced he was changing his vote in favor of the bill. Cheers and boos filled the great assembly hall. He acknowledged that his vote would end his political career, but nevertheless he could not let another woman die in a botched backstreet abortion.
Many will still strongly disagree with his decision. Many did back then, too. But no one can dispute that, by following his personal moral compass all while dooming his political future, he demonstrated great courage. That one vote did indeed end his political career.
In 1991, late in his life, Mr. Michaels was recognized as a finalist for the John F. Kennedy Foundation, Profiles in Courage Award. The award recognizes a public official at the federal, state, or local level whose actions demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership.
Now George is honored again, permanently, next to the likes of Harriet Tubman, in the halls of the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center.
Firm Member Jan Smolak stated; “Our firm is greatly honored that Mr. Michaels, our firm’s founder, has been permanently enshrined along with other great Auburians such as Harriett Tubman, William H. Seward, and Thomas Mott Osborne at the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center. Our firm salutes the late Mr. Michaels for his heroism in the cause of women’s equality.”