July 01, 2015

Words from the Heart about Work for Justice: The Personal Reflections of 16 Past Section Chairs

Brooksley Born, 1977–1978 “The Section has long been a leading force in the ABA in furthering equal rights and civil liberties. I have always been proud to be involved with the Section and its vital work.”

Llewelyn G. Pritchard, 1978–1979 “Nearly four decades ago I chaired our Section. In addition to continuing our role as the conscience of the ABA, we began a debate in the House of Delegates to support voting rights for the citizens of the District of Columbia; we were successful in having the ABA support the objectives of a privacy protection policy; and for the first time the Association, after our efforts, urged the federal government to strictly adhere to Indian treaty obligations. Also in recognition of our Section’s important role in mobilizing the attention and impact of America’s lawyers, we were invited by President Jimmy Carter to hold our Council meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where we were briefed on the president’s important human rights agenda by top officials of the Carter administration. The late Carrie Boggan who succeeded me as chair, was the first openly gay person in a leadership role in the Association and was a hero—his impact and leadership changed forever our Section and the ABA. The other members of the Council during my year were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Julius Chambers; Pat Higginbotham of the Fifth Circuit; Judge U.W. Clemon, the first Black federal judge in Alabama; Jay Rabinowitz, the Chief Justice of Alaska; Cruz Reynoso, of the California Supreme Court; Brooksley Born; Marna Tucker; and Martha Barnett, our Young Lawyers Division liaison. Our Council meetings were wonderful.”

Martha Barnett, 1983–1984 “Participating in the work of the Section allowed me to work on the cutting-edge—and often controversial— legal issues of the times with the leading scholars, lawyers, jurists, and advocates from around the globe. It gave me a ‘home’ in the organized bar and without the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, I most likely would have found other outlets [outside the bar] for my passion for justice and equality.”

Bill Robinson, 1987–1988 “I had a wonderful year as chair. Bob MacCrate and I started the AIDS Coordination Project, and the Section launched the Capital Punishment Project. I will always treasure the opportunity of working with the magnificent individuals on the Council at that time, especially Father Drinan, Peter Langrok, and Cruz Reynoso to mention just a few.”

Janet Studley, 1992–1993 “When I think of the Section and all it meant to me, I am reminded of the phrase we chose to introduce ourselves to potential new members: words to the effect of ‘remember why you wanted to be a lawyer.’ From the very first meeting I attended in 1981, the Section grabbed my attention as a young lawyer and vividly reminded me of why I became a lawyer. Thinking back on the wonderful people, the challenging issues, the drama— I must say that my years working on Section issues were exciting, exhilarating, and clearly some of the greatest and most enjoyable of my career.”

Rebecca Westerfield, 1994–1995 “Perhaps each generation of lawyers believes it has laid the foundation for rational solutions of evolving social justice and civil rights issues of the future only to find that developing technologies and historical circumstances require a fresh look and deeper thinking about new and some-times unimagined complexities. IRR’s role has always been to be the thought leader on the legal implications of these issues and provide a public and informed forum for debate and dis-course. May it continue to do so for another 50 years for the good of our posterity. One can only imagine what those issues will be in 2066.”

Abby Rubenfeld, 1995–1996 “I was so honored to have had the opportunity to work with this amazing Section. At every meeting and throughout every year of my involvement, including my year as chair, I always learned so much about so many significant issues. I was most impressed with the incredible diversity of issues we covered and the amazing success we had in gently guiding the entire ABA to do the right thing and take the right position on many topics. On my particular primary issue, LGBT rights, our Section made an extraordinary difference—not only in guiding the ABA on positions to adopt but also to follow up with powerful support in the courts and in Congress. Because of the work of our Section, the ABA filed superb amicus briefs in every major LGBT rights case that has gone to the Supreme Court in the past 30 years, and that played a role in making good law and helping millions of people. We did the same on so many issues. I am so proud to have had the opportunity to participate and to meet many fine lawyers from all across the country and the practice spectrum who support the work of this amazing Section. This Section allowed me to feel welcome in the ABA.”

 Muriel Morisey, 1997–1998 “Serving on the Section’s Council, including a year as chair, made me proud to be a lawyer. We pushed the ABA to be its best self with our work for civil rights and social justice. My favorite specific memory is the evening we honored Justice Thurgood Marshall with the first Thurgood Marshall Award. It was a privilege to be in the same room with him.”

Mike Greco, 2000–2001 “For 50 years the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities has been the legal profession’s steadfast voice of reason and con-science in countless difficult and successful battles to protect rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution. The challenges that will confront the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice during the next 50 years will be more difficult, more threatening, and more perilous for all individuals, and for democracy. Not engaging in those battles until the last ounce of energy has been spent is not an option.”

Mark Agrast, 2002–2003 “I became involved in the ABA because of the work of this Section— because of its willingness to speak out on behalf of unpopular groups and ideas at a time when it was far less easy to do so than it is today. Over the years, the Section has enjoyed a level of influence out of proportion to its modest numbers and resources because it has attracted committed leaders who knew how to work strategically and collaboratively to accomplish their goals. It is largely thanks to their efforts that the ABA of 2016 is a much more progressive and inclusive organization than it was 50 years ago.”

Robyn Shapiro, 2007–2008 “My work with the Section is an unforgettable highlight of my three-decade legal career. The Section’s legacy, the projects we undertook during my term as chair, and the remarkable individuals with whom I had the honor of working represented for me a poignant confirmation of the importance of fighting, often on behalf of those with no voice, for equality of opportunity and the rule of law. The work of the Section is a continuous reminder that denying human rights challenges our humanity—and that because our destinies are bound together, freedom must include commitment to others.”

Neal Sonnett, 2008–2009 “I became active in the Section in the 1980s because it provided outstanding leadership to the ABA and the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. In 1991, as chair of the Section’s Criminal Justice Committee, I expressed deep concern in Human Rights magazine that the Bill of Rights had ‘never been in more trouble.’ As chair of the Section, I decried the ‘steady erosion of basic civil liberties and core constitutional rights in the name of fighting the-so called war against terrorism’ and warned that there had ‘never been greater threats to our civil liberties.’ Unfortunately, recent events make it painfully clear that serious threats to our civil rights have not waned, and that our Section and its new generation of leaders need to be ever vigilant and continue to be ‘the conscience of the ABA.’

Kay Hodge, 2011–2012 “Having studied the lack of diversity in the legal profession for many years, I have become convinced that we need more than bar association pro-grams. This nation needs to provide every child with a quality education, particularly from preschool through high school. My year as chair gave me the opportunity to shine a light on this issue and produce a program on this need entitled ‘The Unfinished Work of Thurgood Marshall: Addressing the Achievement Gap in Education.’ It was a unique opportunity to bring together experts to address an issue essential to the fundamental change that this country must make to ensure real equality of opportunity.”

Stephen Wermiel, 2012–2013 “The Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities has long been and remains today the place in the ABA that reminds you of the good that lawyers can do to provide rights, opportunity, and voice to those in our society who have too little. It is a source of great pride to see how hard members of the Section work to advance justice, equality, and freedom.”

Myles Link, 2013–2014 “It is an honor to have served as Section Chair, to work with so many dedicated professionals and volunteers, and to enjoy the sense of common purpose that we share as members of this Section. In my year as chair the Section focused on issues of poverty and income inequality in America. We supported the ABA Board of Governors Convocation on how lawyers can assist communities to address the poverty in their midst. We established the Task Force on Economic Justice, ably chaired by the out-standing Professor Susan Jones and attorney Lynne Barr, which has since become the Section’s Committee on Economic Justice, and we worked throughout the year with the incomparable Professor Peter Edelman and the ABA Commission on Homeless-ness and Poverty. At our Fall Council Meeting we visited the Friendship Place Homeless Shelter’s Welcome Center in northwest Washington, DC, and at our Spring Council meeting visited the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale, Arizona, and held a program at Arizona State University on the Constitution and same-sex marriage legislation in Arizona. And during that year we pursued the process of introspection and outreach which led the Council to vote to change the Section’s name to clarify for all, who we are and what we do.”

Mark Schickman, 2014–2015 “I’ve always considered the Section to be the home of great leaders, heroes of mine, including Cruz Reynoso, Ab Mikva, and Martha Barnett. I had the long-standing fantasy that our Section could cure social injustice, but I’ve come to realize that evil will never disappear— the important thing is to keep fighting against it. During my year as chair, the challenge between privacy and national security came to the fore, driven by technology that is capable of revealing all of our secrets all of the time. The great and important issues never go away. So thank God for our Section’s passion to address them.”