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January 01, 2007

IRR Then and Now: Two Presidential Reflections

Current Section Chair Bob Stein, on behalf of Human Rights, asked two of the three Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section (IRR) chairs who went on to become American Bar Association (ABA) presidents to comment on some of the issues they faced while chairing the Section and to compare their times as chair with their respective years as president. (The third, Michael S. Greco, has provided his thoughts in an article titled “Past as Prologue” in this issue of the magazine.) Jerry Shestack was chair in 1969–70 and president almost thirty years later, in 1997–98. Martha Barnett chaired the Section in 1983–84 and was president in 2000–01. Their e-conversation follows.

HR : What drew you to IRR as a Section?

JS: Let’s recall 1963. The Civil Rights revolution was deep in its struggle. Throughout the South, protesters were jailed without due process, and the rule of law was trumped by an unyielding segregationist society. In the South, there were not even a handful of lawyers willing to undertake the defense of civil rights workers, and the bar in the rest of the country was largely apathetic. In 1963, President Kennedy formed the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law. Bernie Segal and Harrison Tweed were co-chairs, and I was the committee’s pro bono executive director. At that crucial time, a group of ABA members led by Jeff Fordham saw the need for the ABA to be involved in the civil rights struggle and in other aspects of trying to maintain a just society. To that end, we founded the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. Happily, I was part of that group.

MB: As a young associate at Holland & Knight, I had the good fortune to work with Chesterfield Smith. Chesterfield had just completed his term as president of the ABA, and I accompanied him to my first Annual Meeting. He told me to “go find those people in the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities,” that I would like them. What he did not tell me was that “those people” included the shining stars in the legal profession—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Charles Joiner, Cruz Reynoso, Brooksley Born, Jerry Shestack, Yale Kamisar, Bob Kutak, Bill Coleman, and Alex Forger, to name just a few. I soon realized that the issues that drew these lawyers to the Section were the very ones that had attracted me to the legal profession, issues relating to civil rights and the emerging rights of women and minorities. I was hooked from the moment I walked into the room.

HR : When you became an IRR leader—as chair and years leading up to it—what were the main issues that you grappled with?

JS: We had a huge agenda, which included support of women’s rights, support for human rights treaties, support for legal services, and addressing diversity.

MB: The years have blurred my memory of the specific issues, but, looking back on the mid-eighties, it seems that just about everything was on the agenda, from First Amendment issues to homelessness to private business clubs. The Section began to focus on issues related to sexual orientation and Native American concerns. Civil rights and the rights of women continued to be priorities, as did the growing recognition of the importance of diversity in the profession.

HR : How responsive was the rest of the ABA to those concerns? How was IRR viewed then by the rest of the ABA?

JS: For many, the Section was regarded as extremist and an irritant, disturbing the status quo. One time, a House of Delegates member moved to hold me in contempt for pressing human rights issues. The ABA then was largely a white male organization, and satisfied to be so. Changing that took more than a walk in the woods.

MB: I have always viewed my tenure with the Section as my springboard into the leadership of the ABA, even though some ABA members at the time viewed the Section as liberal and out of the mainstream of the bar—and thought that I was politically naive. The Section gave me an opportunity to serve in a leadership role at an early age and to be involved in most of the cutting-edge legal issues of the day. Those experiences, and the resulting friendships and connections, proved to be invaluable. Even though the Section was controversial, I have always believed that most ABA members understand its important role and support it as an integral part of the ABA.

HR : What changed in the period between your IRR chair term and your years in the ABA leadership?

JS: ABA leaders became younger, more open, more diverse, and more caring. The Section was both persistent and persuasive, and gradually won respect and supporters. To many, wisdom never comes. I suppose we should not complain when it comes late.

MB: The biggest change I saw between my tenure as Section chair and president of the ABA was that the agenda of the Section doubled and tripled and expanded to meet the challenges of a global environment and a technological society.

HR : How did you bring your passion for civil rights and social justice to your ABA presidency?

JS: By hard work, by meetings in diverse venues, by careful speeches, by enlisting allies, by winning confidence, and by an unflagging dedication to what Justice William J. Brennan called “the higher calling of the law.”

MB: My commitment to the ABA has always been based on the opportunity to be involved in civil rights, the independence of the legal profession, and the rule of law. Every opportunity I had, I focused on these core principles in my programs, speeches, and activities.

HR : How have we done since then? Have there been changes in the ABA and the nation’s understanding of IRR’s issues? What were some of the issues, activities, policies, etc., for which the Section had an impact on the national scene?

JS: Indeed, since IRR was founded, there has been a sea of change in the ABA. Human rights, civil rights and liberties, diversity, gender equality, legal services, concerns with the disabled have all become our mainstream goals and programs. We are a far better profession as a result, one we can all be proud of. Of course, many deserve credit for our advance. I believe the IRR’s advocacy had a special impact on the ABA’s endorsement of human rights treaties, and in advocating legal services, diversity, and women’s rights.

MB: The Section has had a major impact on the death penalty debate, on all aspects of civil rights, on the promotion of women’s rights, on the elimination of a tax exemption for private business clubs, on the First Amendment relating to the press and freedom of religion, on immigration policies, on sexual orientation and gender identity, and on children’s advocacy. Sometimes the Section fought these battles alone, but most of the time we joined with others in the Association to move the profession, and indeed the country, forward.

HR : What are some of the future challenges and opportunities that you see for IRR as it enters its fifth decade? On what issues or kinds of issues should we focus?

JS: The times create the need. In today’s times, the need to provide liberty without overriding our liberties is a critical need. An ongoing need is pro bono service, which must be taken seriously as a professional obligation. I think our main challenge is to enlist far more lawyers in helping further our values of liberty, fairness, due process, and nondiscrimination. The issues are vital, and we are too few.

MB: The need for the Section is even greater today than it was when Jerry Shestack, Cecil Poole, Jeff Fordham, and others had the vision to create a way for the ABA to be involved in the social and legal issues of the times. Some of the same challenges, such as discrimination, still exist. New challenges arise every day, as evidenced by the recent experiences arising from the war in Iraq, such as torture, and enemy combatants, and the role of the executive.

HR : What messages should we give to young lawyers and law students about the importance of IRR and the value in joining the Section?

JS: Justice Learned Hand once wrote, “There are few callings in the world which give greater opportunity for satisfaction to one’s self, and which are of more benefit to one’s fellows.” Join us and share in our endeavors. I guarantee that working with our Section will bring you satisfaction. Yes, and joy, too.

MB: I would tell the young lawyers of today the same thing that Chesterfield Smith told me over thirty years ago—“Go find those people in the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.” I would add, “Working with them, you can change the world and, in the process, you just might change your life.”