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January 24, 2018

A New Year's Message from the Chair: Get on Your Feet!

CHAIR’S COLUMN – January 2018

Robert N. Weiner

Robert N. Weiner is Chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and a Partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP The Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice



I consider myself lucky to have been born in this country at this time, a country unlike others, one predicated not on common ethnicity, or geography, or religion, but on a principle—that we are all created equal, and endowed with inalienable rights.  And yet, in this greatest of democracies, the actions of our government over the last year have provided cause for concern.  For example, the President has:

  • Imposed a ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.
  • Shut the door to refugees fleeing oppression in other countries.
  • Attacked the integrity of federal judges who ruled against his Administration.
  • Vilified women who accused him of sexual misconduct.
  • Pardoned a sheriff convicted of criminal contempt for defying a court order against racial profiling.
  • Repeatedly called for restricting freedom of the press.

In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Reversed efforts to move away from mass incarceration and reform the criminal justice system.
  • Rescinded advice against jailing poor people when they cannot afford to pay court fines and fees.
  • Withdrew plans to phase out privately operated prisons.
  • Switched positions to contend now that Title VII does not bar discrimination against LGBT individuals.
  • Urged the court to uphold Texas voting restrictions that a federal court held were based on prejudice against minorities. 
  • Retreated from oversight of local police departments found to have discriminated against, profiled, and brutalized members of minority communities.

The lists could go on, but these examples—both individually and collectively—are more than sufficient to raise the critical question: 

What are you doing to protect our civil rights and liberties?

 “Nothing” is not an acceptable answer—not now, and not 25 years from now when you look back on how you used your legal skills in defense of the rule of law.

There are many ways to step up, but at the very least, you should support the ABA’s Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice (“CRSJ”), by joining if you are not a member, by recruiting new members, by contributing financially, and by participating in the Section’s activities.  The ABA is the largest professional association in the world, the voice of the American lawyer, and within the ABA, our Section has the mission of addressing the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.  Your support and participation makes us more effective. 

Let me be clear:  CRSJ does not and will not engage in partisan politics.  Our concern is civil rights and social justice.  And a threat to civil rights and social justice is a concern no matter the political stripe of those who pose it.  Such threats, moreover, emerge from across the political spectrum and the partisan divide.  It is the gravity of the current threat that motivates our call for action.   

I want to make equally clear that our Section does not speak for the ABA.  That is the job of the ABA President.  Nonetheless, we can convene advocates and others interested in protecting the rule of law.  We can provide a forum for discussion.  We can educate.  We can innovate.  And we can focus attention on the perils that lawyers have the ability, and ultimately, the moral obligation, to defuse. 

The respect for individual rights in this Nation reflects the goodness of the American people.  That fundamental decency provides powerful protection for our democratic values.  But the commitment of people like the lawyers active in our Section is part of that goodness and decency, and it is critical to that protection.

I hope that for all of you, 2018 is happy, rewarding, and memorable, for all the right reasons.