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January 01, 2007

Message from the President on the Section's 40th Anniversary: The Long Road

by Karen J. Mathis

To consider the impact of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR), both on our nation and on the American Bar Association (ABA) itself, one need only briefly recall the years before IRR’s formation four decades ago.

America ’s conscience was being shocked by the sight of uniformed law officers attacking peaceful black citizens with dogs, fire hoses, and clubs. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders were pleading for the most basic of rights: the right to vote and an end to segregation.

Amid the confusion, the organized bar was just emerging from a sleepier time. Reflecting the profession, the ABA was overwhelmingly male and white, and it had no entity equipped to address the seismic issues raised by the civil rights movement.

The founders of IRR, and those who followed in their footsteps, have changed all that. As the stirringly informative articles of this fortieth anniversary issue recount, IRR has from its inception challenged the bar to live up to our profession’s highest ideals. While the ABA’s many Sections cover virtually every facet of the law, IRR’s very purpose is synonymous with the Association’s guiding motto: “Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice.”

Following President Kennedy’s call in June 1963 for the bar to get more involved in civil rights issues, pioneers like Jefferson Fordham, Abner Mikva, and Jerome Shestack pressed the ABA to create a Section focusing on issues of individual rights.

As Fordham, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said, “We of the bar can have no higher responsibility than the safeguarding of individual liberty. We must not let the great problems of our times . . . pass us by.”

After three years of long debates, pointed criticism, and the addition of the words “and Responsibilities” to the new Section’s name, IRR was unanimously approved by the House of Delegates in August 1966.

IRR’s passion and energy are sometimes unsettling to fellow bar members—as recently as 1996, the Section’s thirtieth anniversary, then-Section Chair Leslie A. Harris wrote that IRR lived with the “constant reminder that our mission is not entirely welcome within our Association.” But this anniversary issue shows IRR’s extraordinary impact on the ABA, on its policies, on the nation, and even the world. Like all seekers of justice, IRR has put what is right ahead of what is popular. It has reminded all lawyers how critical it is that we speak truth to power.

Today, the ABA and its leadership are vastly more diverse and infinitely more willing to tackle controversial issues than the ABA of the early 1960s. Following are just some of the legal and justice issues in which IRR has played a leading role: access to civil justice; international rule of law, including human rights treaties; the rights of native Americans; rights of the physically handicapped; the death penalty moratorium, and protection of due process, habeas rights, and right to effective counsel in capital cases; continuation of affirmative action; privacy; due process rights for all in our post-9/11 world; legal rights of people living with HIV/AIDS; the Bill of Rights Project; elimination of all forms of discrimination; and reproductive choice.

Relying on the more than 200 policies for which IRR has received House of Delegates approval, the Section also has participated in amicus briefs in a wide number of federal cases, including protecting rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act and opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Section’s work after September 11, shows that it is not in any way slowing down or resting on past laurels. Starting at a time when the nation was still reeling in fear from the terrorist attacks, IRR has worked vigilantly to ensure that we protect our rights, as well as our security. IRR has played a leading role in asserting the legal rights of enemy combatants, opposing torture and opposing domestic surveillance of Americans without proper oversight by the courts and Congress.

IRR’s body of work is extraordinary, but as the writers of this anniversary edition make clear, there are new chapters to be written in this Section’s history. The quest for justice will never end, and therefore IRR’s unique role in the ABA will never lose its relevance.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan spoke to IRR in 1986, and his words remain just as true today.

We do not yet have justice, equal and practical, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused, for the displaced persons of the technological revolution, for alienated youth, for the urban masses, for the unrepresented consumer . . . for all, in short, who do not partake of the abundance of American life. . . . The goal of universal equality, freedom and prosperity is far from won and . . . ugly inequities continue to mar the face of our nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of the struggle.

As we celebrate the fortieth year of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, we call to mind the resolve of the Section founders, the inspiring and hard won achievements, and the long road we have yet to travel as a profession, as members of this nation, and as human beings. Well done, IRR. We are proud of you.

Karen J. Mathis

Karen J. Mathis is president of the American Bar Association. She is a practicing lawyer in Denver, Colorado.