2005 Thurgood Marshall Dinner Makes National Headlines
On Saturday, Aug. 6, 2005, the Section presented Hon. Abner J. Mikva with the 2005 Thurgood Marshall Award in Chicago, Ill. Mikva has the rare distinction of having served in all three branches of the federal government; as Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton; as a Representative of the State of Illinois in Congress; and as a Judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1985-86, he served as Chair of the Section of Individual Rights. The Section was proud to honor Judge Mikva for his many years of public service and his continued service to the Section.
Keynoting the event was U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Justice Stevens remarked, “Abner is able to disagree without being disagreeable. He understands that reasonable people can differ without thinking less of each other. Never does he hold a grudge. Would that we had more public servants with his ability, temperament, and character!”
Justice Stevens’ address made national headlines as he commented on the national debate on the death penalty. National networks and newspapers from around the world reported on Justice Stevens’ remarks concerning flaws in the administration of capital punishment.
Justice Stevens stated, “a significant number of defendants in capital cases have not been provided with fully competent legal representation at trial.” He added that, “gruesome facts pose a danger that emotion will play a larger role in the decisional process than dispassionate analysis,” and that the “admissibility of victim impact evidence encourages jurors to decide in favor of death rather than life on the basis of their emotions rather than their reason.”
Stevens said that the current system for jury selection, “creates an atmosphere in which jurors are likely to assume that their primary task is to determine the penalty for a presumptively guilty defendant,” and that, “the process creates a risk that a fair cross-section of the community will not be represented on the jury.”
Stevens also shared his concern that judges often make life or death decisions knowing they must stand for re-election. He said that, “it creates a subtle bias in favor of death.”
Also present to honor Judge Mikva were thirty of his former law clerks. Jeffrey L. Bleich spoke on behalf of the former clerks, sharing his humorous yet fond memories of his time working for Judge Mikva. In recounting the moment he revealed to Mikva that he would be leaving to clerk for the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Bleich told the crowd of almost six hundred people that Mikva gave him a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution as a gift for Rehnquist, saying, “I don’t think he’s ever read it.” When Bleich presented the gift to Rehnquist, the Chief Justice said, “I suppose he thinks I’ve never read it.” Rehnquist went on to tell Bleich that he and his poker buddy, Mikva, disagreed on the meaning of every amendment to the Constitution except the third (quartering soldiers in private homes) "and that’s only because it’s never come up."
Mikva’s “ability to treat all people equally and yet make each one feel special is the overriding characteristic by which he is known,” said Bleich.