ABA Day in Washington, the association’s annual grassroots lobbying event coordinated by the Governmental Affairs Office, brought a record number of state and local bar leaders to the nation’s capital this year to meet with members of Congress on issues of importance to the legal profession.
“It is your local voices that have the power to make your congressional delegations stop and listen,” ABA President Paulette Brown told the group. “We come here annually, but our message must echo in congressional offices long after we leave,” she said, urging attendees to continue to reach out to their members after they go home.
The more than 360 participants – from 48 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands – traveled around Capitol Hill over three days for hundreds of meetings, focusing on the following priority issues:
Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The bar leaders urged members to reject LSC funding cuts and support President Obama’s request for a $90 million increase to bring the LSC appropriation to $475 million for fiscal year 2017. The increase would allow LSC, the backbone for America’s legal aid and pro bono system, to continue to support legal aid offices across the country that serve society’s most vulnerable citizens.
Criminal Justice Reform. Participants focused on the urgent need to enact bipartisan evidence-based sentencing reform that reduces reliance on incarceration and keeps the public safe. The legislation, S. 2123 and H.R. 3713, would reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences for lower-lever nonviolent drug offenders, incrementally expand the “safety valve” that permits judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum in qualified cases; and give retroactive effect to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. Following the ABA Day meetings, a revised version of the legislation garnered additional Republican support and cosponsors.
Another criminal justice priority is the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to, among other things, require states to end the jailing of youth for noncriminal status offenses, implement data-based steps to reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and strengthen access to counsel.
ABA Day provided an opportunity, during a reception and dinner at the National Museum of the American Indian, to recognize senators and representatives with Justice Awards for their support for issues of critical importance to the ABA and the administration of justice. This year’s recipients were: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for introducing and advocating for sentencing reform and JJDPA reauthorization legislation; Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), for his leadership in focusing on unfair collateral consequences for those convicted of criminal offenses and his support for a more just and humane juvenile justice system; Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), for his support for voting rights, reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, and reform of civil asset forfeiture laws; and Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), for her commitment to combating child sex trafficking, support for LSC, paycheck fairness and voting rights, and her efforts to bring affordable housing to distressed communities of color.
At the annual Capitol Hill reception, a Grassroots Advocacy Award was given to Miami attorney Neal Sonnett, former chair of the Criminal Justice Section and the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (now the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice), who has been an admired and influential member of the ABA for decades. His work has included chairing the Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants and the Task Force on Domestic Surveillance in the Fight Against Terrorism, which were instrumental in developing ABA policies for protecting the nation’s security and civil liberties following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Also receiving a Grassroots Advocacy Award was the Military Spouse JD Network, a group that advocates for military spouse lawyers and pushed for ABA policy adopted in 2012 urging jurisdictions to consider changing bar admission rules to help these spouses practice law as they are moved around the country by the military.
Three law students – Christopher Jennison, Madison Hardee and Jordan Glasgow – were recognized for their contributions, through their personal stories, to the ABA’s #SaveLoan4Giveness social media campaign to preserve the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
Keynote speakers during the opening session included Reps. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.), who helped launch the Congressional Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus, and David Jolly (R-Fla.). Both emphasized their support for legal services funding. Stephen Saltzburg, former chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, briefed the group on the criminal justice issues. At the breakfast briefing the next day, Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, commended the ABA for its work toward criminal justice reform, and President Brown presented an ABA Presidential Citation to Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who is retiring this year.
In his message to attendees, ABA Day Planning Committee Chair Bob Carlson thanked participants for contributing their valuable time and said he was confident that they “can and will make a difference,” through their advocacy visits. Planning is already underway for next year’s ABA Day in Washington, scheduled for April 25-27, 2017.