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2018 Robert F. Drinan Award for Distinguished Service

Honoring Stephen J. Wermiel

Friday, February 2, 2018 • ABA Midyear Meeting • Vancouver, BC, Canada

The Section honored Section Chair Prof. Stephen J. Wermiel with the 2018 Robert F. Drinan Award for Distinguished Service. The award, named in honor of the late Father Robert F. Drinan, a former member of Congress who chaired the Section in 1990-91, recognizes individuals whose sustained and extraordinary commitment to the Section has advanced its mission of providing leadership to the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties, and social justice.

About the Recipient

Stephen J. Wermiel is a Professor of Practice in Constitutional Law and part of the Program on Law and Government at American University Washington College of Law. He is past chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice (CRSJ) (formerly Individual Rights and Responsibilities) and author of a monthly column on SCOTUSblog aimed at explaining the Supreme Court to law students. He is co-author of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, the definitive biography of the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in hardcover 2010 and by University Press of Kansas in paperback in 2013. He is also co-author of The Progeny: Justice William J. Brennan’s Fight to Preserve the Legacy of New York Times v. Sullivan, published by ABA Publishing in 2014. At the Washington College of Law, he serves as an adviser to and was past associate director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, in which Washington College of Law students teach constitutional law in the public high schools of Washington, D.C. He also is faculty adviser to the Moot Court Honor Society and serves on the advisory boards of the Administrative Law Review and the Journal of Gender, Social Policy and Law.

In the ABA, Prof. Wermiel serves as Chair of CRSJ's Publications Committee and as Co-chair of its First Amendment Rights Committee. He also is a member of the ABA Standing Committee on the Silver Gavel Awards, and serves on the editorial boards of CRSJ’s Human Rights Magazine and the ABA Forum on Communications Law’s Communications Lawyer Magazine.

Wermiel holds expertise in the U.S. Supreme Court, having covered the court for the Wall Street Journal from 1979 until 1991. Wermiel teaches constitutional law, First Amendment and a seminar on the workings of the Supreme Court. Early in his career, Wermiel was a Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe. While teaching in Atlanta in the 1990’s, he served on the board of directors and on the legal committee of the ACLU of Georgia. He earned his B.A. from Tufts University in 1972 and his J.D. from the Washington College of Law. He is a member of the D.C. Bar.

Credit to AU Washington College of Law

Remarks from the Award Reception

I would like to thank the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice for this great honor. What an honor to have ABA President Hilarie Bass and President-elect Robert Carlson here. And other leaders, Judy Perry Martinez and Jim Silkenat. I think I should honor the Section for giving me the opportunity and the pleasure to continue to work on the issues of civil rights and civil liberties about which we all care so deeply. Thank you Section leaders, Rob Weiner, Wil Schooley, Sheila Thomas, Wendy Mariner, Richard Soden. Thank you to staff director, Tanya Terrell for years of support, encouragement and friendship. Distinguished past winners of the Robert F. Drinan Award, Estelle Rogers, Walter White, Myles Lynk. I honor you tonight.

I want to touch very briefly on 3 things: Fr. Drinan, the Section, and the road ahead.

First, the remarkable Robert Drinan. I had the great pleasure of getting to know him, although in a rather different capacity than most of you in this room who may have worked with him. I went to Washington, D.C. in 1974 as a 24-year-old correspondent for the Boston Globe. In a small news bureau, I was what was known as “the local angle guy,” charged with covering the to and fro of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, especially as it related to issues of local concern in Boston and New England. Fr. Drinan was one of my people. As I arrived in Washington, he was getting ready for his prominent role on the House Judiciary Committee as it considered and then approved articles of impeachment against President Nixon. From his fortitude in the impeachment fight to his steadfast support for civil rights and civil liberties, he was a force of nature. But perhaps my favorite memory is one that demonstrated that it was not always an easy time to be a member of Congress, which he was from 1971 to 1981. In the mid-1970s, the Pentagon, first under Nixon and then under President Ford, proposed to cutback and then close a military base next to Drinan’s District, Ft. Devens. I will never forget the beautiful incongruity of Drinan, one of the most passionate critics of defense spending in the U.S., fighting to save Ft. Devens because of the jobs and economic impact the base closing would have on his constituents. But of course that was also the hallmark of a great congressman, because he understood when politics was gritty and local and when issues were philosophical and global, and he knew how to walk that line.

I also owe him a debt of personal thanks – and here I’ll confess to a conflict of interest 40 years ago. Since he had been the dean of Boston College Law School for 15 years before his election to Congress, I solicited his help when I decided to go to law school at night while still covering local issues in Washington for the Boston Globe. He wrote me a lovely letter of recommendation which, with some years and the Wall Street Journal Supreme Court job intervening, contributed to my current position as a law professor because it helped launch me on my way to law school.

Let me next say a few words about the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. I was recruited by then staff director Penny Wakefield to work on the section’s Human Rights Magazine. That was 17 years ago, and I never left. I can look around this room and say with some pleasure that when it comes to this Section, I am still a short-timer. But what a time it has been. I would not trade for anything the opportunity to have been inspired by countless Thurgood Marshall Award winners and previous Robert Drinan honorees, to have shaped and even written for issues of Human Rights Magazine that have dealt with just about every imaginable compelling issue of a generation, to have been part of this group of dedicated individuals when we were fighting for: economic equality; environmental justice; prison, sentencing and police reforms; improved educational opportunity; protection for immigrants; an end to a broad range of discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, American Indian status and more, to have helped in some small way to see the ABA file amici briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action, same-sex marriage and many more issues. I have often joked with Tanya Terrell that she needs to warn me if I am becoming the dinner guest who won’t leave.

But this is my ABA home, and I don’t want to go anywhere else. I come from a family shaped by awareness of civil liberties. I don’t think I have ever told this story in public, but my father was a victim of the McCarthy Era. He and my mother were young socialists at Brooklyn College in a way that was fashionable among intellectuals in New York  in the 1930s. Later he became a mid-level federal diplomat in the State Department. In the early 1950’s, he was subpoenaed to appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to answer questions about others he had served with at the State Department. After declining and asserting his 5th Amendment right, he lost his job, could not get another position in government, and sold insurance in Brooklyn for the rest of his career, successful but bitter. That injustice has never been far from my heart; it was there when, as a 15-year-old, I walked into a meeting of the Brooklyn Civil Liberties Union and said I wanted to volunteer. They weren’t quite sure what to do with me, but they put me to work. Or at 18 when I told the principal of the monthly high school newspaper that I wouldn’t let him censor a story I planned to publish. And it is still a motivating factor today.

Let me finally say something about the road ahead. The work of this Section, unfortunately, is living proof of the adage that the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties is a marathon not a sprint. In the now more than 50 years since first the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and now the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice was created, there has been much progress toward making this nation a fairer, more just, more equal place. Yet we have always known and never had any illusions about how much more is left to do. The fact that the hill we are climbing is now getting steeper thanks to the outcome of the 2016 election is only reason to keep going; that we find ourselves climbing trails we thought we had already conquered is only reason to push harder, perhaps to look for new paths over familiar ground.

And if I may make one plea, it is this. The fight for equality, for justice, for opportunity is critical to all of us and to the future of this country. As you fight that fight, I ask you to remember the critical roles that freedom of speech and freedom of press have played in these struggles. I understand that there are times when offensive speech seems scarcely worth protecting and when an unresponsive or irresponsible press seems hardly worth the effort. But in my view the struggle for those essential First Amendment freedoms, now under attack, is an integral part of all of the other battles we fight, because free speech and free press are tools integral to the success of all else in our democracy.

Let me close with one lesson I learned from the late Justice William J. Brennan Jr. with whom I got to spend many hours in his last years on the bench as I worked on his biography. When the Supreme Court began to turn more and more conservative in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, when he found himself more often in dissent and less able to cobble together seemingly miracle majorities, he would think of his colleague and friend from earlier in his tenure, Justice John M. Harlan, who shouldered much of the dissenting workload during the Warren Court years. “Now I know how John Harlan felt during the Warren Court,” Brennan would remark. “But I always told Harlan then and I believe it now,” Brennan would say, “that the pendulum will swing back my way in due time.”

It is an honor to work with people who will keep fighting until the pendulum comes back this way.

Thank you.