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January 01, 2007

Human Rights Heroes: Our Leaders and Members

by Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J.

There was anguish at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA) in August 1965. The ABA had been almost invisible during the great moral struggles that led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Indeed, the ABA in 1965 was a group of only some 40,000 white male lawyers.

But the ABA changed its positions radically in 1966, when it approved the formation of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR).

It was the late Jefferson Fordham, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Erwin Griswold, dean of the Harvard Law School and later Solicitor General of the United States, who advocated a new section of the ABA to be devoted to the protection and advancement of civil rights and civil liberties.

There was opposition, or at least some reluctance. And the name, born of compromise, was awkward. But the list of Section chairs, including three who have become ABA presidents, attests to the Section’s influence on the ABA’s image, mission, and future over forty years of IRR struggles and triumphs.

I stand in awe of all those who have helped the IRR reach this point. They have contributed hundreds if not thousands of hours to such visible and highly successful goals as eliminating unfairness in death penalty processes, improving the legal status of women, guaranteeing equality for gays, and many other difficult issues. A review of ABA policy positions adopted since the Section’s founding reveals the IRR’s intensive and extensive influence on the ABA’s accomplishments and aspirations.

Many Section leaders deserve recognition, but two who have passed away in the last year contributed in special ways. Lloyd Cutler, founding member, past chair, and counselor to presidents, helped shape the Section’s early work and recruit its future leaders. John Pickering was an original Section member who worked tirelessly over four decades to advance Section issues in the House of Delegates and throughout the ABA.

The Section staff’s contributions also deserve recognition. During my year as chair, staff and members developed a magnificent ABA Annual Meeting program series celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, which touched on every one of the Constitution’s first ten amendments. That celebration of the adoption by the thirteen colonies of what has turned out to be the finest declaration of rights in the history of the world caught the attention and enthusiasm of virtually everyone attending the meeting.

The Section’s celebrated Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner is only the visible part of all the ways in which IRR continues to proclaim and promulgate the basic rights of all people.

It is almost impossible to overstate the challenges that IRR will face in the next forty years. Most of its work will relate to the implementation of internationally recognized economic and political rights around the world.

IRR’s fortieth anniversary reminds us of the great and noble lawyers who have preceded us in the endless struggle for human rights. They have understood and carried out the central and sacred role of lawyers. That role was stated in the first code of law issued nearly two millennia before Christ, by Hammurabi. Its preamble says that “the purpose of law is to protect the powerless from the powerful.” That is IRR’s mission still.

Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J.

Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J., longtime professor at Georgetown University Law Center and formerly dean of Boston College School of Law and member of Congress from Massachusetts, died on January 28, 2007, at age 86. He was IRR Section chair from 1990 to 1991 and IRR Section delegate in the ABA House of Delegates from 1993 to 1996. In 2001, he received the Section’s inaugural Robert F. Drinan Section Service Award in recognition of his lifelong dedication to advancing justice and promoting human dignity in the United States and around the world.