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7 diversity trailblazers honored by ABA

7 diversity trailblazers honored by ABA

By John Glynn

The American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession recognized seven lawyers with its 2014 Spirit of Excellence Award for their outstanding achievements toward advancing diversity in the legal profession.

Spirit of Excellence Award recipients (left to right): Leo M. Romero, Wendy C. Shiba, I.S. Leevy Johnson, Frankie Muse Freeman, Brenda Harbin-Forte, Patricia D. Lee and Benjamin F. Wilson

“Diversity, like justice itself, is a goal that requires constant vigilance and hard work,” Commission Chair Reginald M. Turner Jr. said. “This year’s honorees have distinguished themselves as legal trailblazers. They are also leaders in the fight for equal opportunities within our noble profession. It is our privilege and our pleasure to recognize them all with the ABA Spirit of Excellence Award.” 

The awards were presented at the 2014 Spirit of Excellence Awards Luncheon on Feb. 8 at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago during the ABA Midyear Meeting.

Award recipients are:

Frankie Muse Freeman, a well-known civil rights pioneer in St. Louis, Mo., was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She also served as the lead attorney in a 1952 landmark case that led to a ruling that declared segregation in public housing illegal.

Freeman, who was also instrumental in advocating for the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, says lawyers must continue the work to preserve those rights.

“A few months ago the U.S. Supreme Court diminished part of it as you know, and we are hoping that at least congress will revise and make the necessary amendments to the voting rights act,” Freeman said. “There are still a lot of things happening in terms of voter id legislations in several states in which I am very sure that the members of ABA will take appropriate action.”

Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte, a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, Calif., has led efforts in her state to increase diversity in the legal profession and on the bench — convening the first judicial diversity summit and instituting a process to assess the demographic makeup of the California bench.

“It is critical that public confidence in our judicial system exists and that hinges on a diverse judiciary. Diversity is important and critical to the notion of a fair and impartial justice system… Our court system should look like the citizenry of this country,” Harbin-Forte said.

“If we are to reach the ideal of diversity in our judicial system than all groups must come together. Everyone must join this effort.”

I.S. Leevy Johnson, a nationally renowned criminal defense attorney, became one of the first African-Americans to be elected to the South Carolina General Assembly since Reconstruction and the first African-American president of the South Carolina Bar.

Johnson expressed the importance of ending discrimination in the profession.

“When we examine the membership of our profession and realize we still have not completely eliminated racial, ethnic, gender, sexual and disability discrimination I say to you  - we can do better,” Johnson said.

Patricia D. Lee has played a key role in developing and implementing important diversity initiatives at the State Bar of California. She began her legal career as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) attorney in San Francisco.

 “Access to justice is the hallmark of our judicial system and the essence of the role of the legal profession. It means providing legal representation to all for the resolution of legal disputes regardless of income or background,” Lee said. “This concept is basic to the function of our system and our role as lawyers we are here to guarantee a voice for our clients and our communities.”

Leo M. Romero is a longtime professor and former dean at the University of New Mexico School of Law. As dean, he created the school’s Indian Law Certificate Program and helped to shape the state’s judicial selection process.

“I am proud of what my law school has accomplished over the 40 years I have been on the faculty. We have given many minority students the opportunity to study law, become members of our profession and to make significant contributions to our state,” Romero said. “I am also pleased that I played a role in these accomplishments.”

Wendy C. Shiba is a retired corporate attorney and immediate past president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. Her 30-year legal career includes stints in private practice, government service, teaching and as executive officer for three top U.S. companies.

 “When I think about the meaning of the spirit of excellence award, I see it as a celebration of how far we’ve come, not only as individual attorneys, but collectively as an entire profession and that is what makes the spirit of excellence award ceremony so special,” Shiba said. “It is all the more special that my fellow honorees and I are receiving this special award in the year in which we will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Benjamin F. Wilson is a highly respected environmental lawyer and adjunct professor of environmental law. He founded the D.C. Diverse Partners Network, which provides support and networking for more than 300 minority partners, and the African-American General Counsel and Managing Partners Network.

Wilson spoke about the educational and criminal justice issues facing young African-Americans in Chicago and the need for lawyers to assist in guaranteeing they have a brighter future.

“Today, black people in Chicago are being murdered at an alarming rate… Far too many are children.” said Wilson. “The ABA, and those of us in this room, have work to do… Somewhere in America a couple is driving to start a new life. A baby girl is bouncing in her car seat and already her parents are planning for her future. Let us resolve right here and right now that we will ensure she has a real future.”

The mission of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is to promote racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. The commission serves as a catalyst for change, so that the profession may more accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of society and better serve society. The commission promotes the recruitment, hiring, promotion and advancement of attorneys of color and works to ensure equal membership and employment opportunities for diverse lawyers in the ABA. The commission accomplishes all this through many initiatives, activities and programs, including the annual Spirit of Excellence Award.

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