ABA’s House of Delegates Hears From ABA Leaders
Association presents Morris Dees with highest ABA honor; adopts policy on criminal justice reform, civil immigration detention standards, ethics resolutions
Improving gender equity in law, assisting victims of human trafficking and ensuring adequate state court funding are among the issues the American Bar Association is addressing in order to improve access to justice and the rule of law.
The ABA’s House of Delegates, its policymaking body, met Aug. 6-7 to hear from the association’s top leaders and the Legal Services Corporation; to present the association’s highest honor, the ABA Medal; and to consider resolutions for adoption as ABA policy.
Dees said he was honored “to be recognized by an organization that is considered the glue that holds our whole legal system together in America, the American Bar Association.”>> Watch video of Dees’ acceptance speech
On the first day of the House meeting, delegates heard from outgoing President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III. Chair of the House Linda Klein praised Robinson’s leadership on the state court funding issue, and Robinson spoke about the responsibility lawyers have in standing up on behalf of courts and an independent judiciary. Robinson said that it was not good enough that lawyers as officers of the court “can make a difference. We must make a difference. It is our privilege and sacred responsibility to do so.”
Robinson also spoke about the association’s diversity efforts, including increasing outreach to bars of color, continuing the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, and making diversity a focus of ABA appointments and section leadership. He also emphasized the ABA’s commitment to law students and young lawyers through the new Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.
At the close of the Annual Meeting, Laurel G. Bellows took the helm of the association. Bellows outlined her plans to use her position to combat human trafficking, further gender equity and protect against national cyberterrorism.
Bellows spoke about the individuals who are “unfree in the Land of the Free,” the modern-day slaves who are victims of human trafficking. Bellows said that as president, she would ensure that the ABA drafts business law standards, encourages pro bono efforts by lawyers and assists with training for first responders. In closing, Bellows emphasized that lawyers change policies, change laws, and “we change lives.”
A highlight of the House meeting was awarding the Medal of Honor. “The presentation of the ABA Medal to Morris Seligman Dees Jr. represents our profound admiration for his personal courage and incomparable leadership as one of the greatest civil rights lawyers of our time,” Robinson stated.
Upon receiving the ABA Medal, Dees spoke about the lonely existence of being a civil rights lawyer in the Deep South in the 1960s. But he continued by saying that being in the House and receiving the award erased that loneliness.
Dees noted that he didn’t get the award by himself — that he was grateful for the work of the lawyers of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the lawyers around the country who take on pro bono cases and the contributors to the center. He also spoke proudly that the center, in light of the attack outside of Milwaukee at a Sikh temple, “was tracking the very man who did this.”
In speaking about the civil rights cases with which he has been involved, Dees praised the courageousness of the members of juries who have put their lives and safety at risk, as well as the judges who have given members of the Aryan Nations and the Ku Klux Klan fair trials.
Dees praised the ABA’s work on behalf of the rule of law, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., saying to the members of the House, “You will not be satisfied ‘until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
The tough economic times also took a prominent spot in the House. John G. Levi, chairman of the Legal Services Corporation Board of Directors, emphasized the need for legal services, particularly in these challenging economic times. “The combination of the significant underfunding of civil legal assistance together with the chronic underfunding of our state courts is seriously undermining America’s commitment to provide justice for all.
“The cracks in our civil justice system may not be as visible as those in our bridges and highways, but they are just as real and, in my view, pose an even greater threat,” Levi continued.
The House concluded by recognizing its new leadership. In his acceptance speech to be president-elect, James Silkenat noted that, “Among the many important roles played by the ABA, and by other bar associations in the United States, is that they help us be better lawyers and judges and educators and citizens, better able to help our clients and better able to serve the public and our justice system.”
The ABA House of Delegates also considered and adopted policy of importance to the profession and the public, including ethics in the legal profession, criminal justice reform and civil immigration detention standards governing the treatment of persons in the U.S. immigration detention system.