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January 01, 2007

Chair's Column

by Robert E. Stein

It has been forty years since the founding of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR). Marking the anniversary with a special issue of Human Rights is both appropriate and instructive. It is appropriate, as IRR over the years has be ­­ en a voice of conscience within the American Bar Association (ABA). It is instructive, as lessons learned from past achievements can help guide us into the future. Three Section chairs have gone on to lead the ABA as president: Jerry Shestack (1997–98), Martha Barnett (2000–01), and Mike Greco, who completed his term last year. All have provided us with their thoughts in this issue. We also have drawn quotes from other Section chairs that we hope will provide more understanding of where the Section was during a variety of periods.

I have looked back over IRR’s history and its accomplishments. The Section’s challenge is to learn from its past efforts to meet current concerns in support of civil rights, human rights, civil liberties, and social justice. Articles in this issue of Human Rights analyze issues relating to national security, privacy, human rights, and civil rights by looking both back and ahead. Other articles review the Section’s experience launching projects that have become a vital part of the ABA, including the AIDS Coordinating Committee and the Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project.

This issue’s Human Rights Heroes column—a fixture of the magazine—was written by Robert F. Drinan, S.J., a former Section chair, active member, law professor, and, most important, a human rights hero in his own right. Father Drinan died on January 28, 2007. His clear and compassionate voice will be missed. In 2001, the Section recognized the importance of Father Drinan’s work in promoting civil rights, human rights, and social justice by creating the Robert F. Drinan Section Service Award to be given to a person who best epitomizes these core values. Father Drinan received the inaugural award, and it will remain a living memorial to this exceptional human being.

It also is interesting to note that many of the issues that we have confronted and stewarded over the past forty years have become far less controversial than they were when originally raised. The Section’s involvement in those issues—sometimes viewed as the rantings of a fringe group—has helped transform them into mainstream concerns, some now even taken for granted within the ABA. Such transformations will not be and should not be the case for all issues. Our current preoccupation with national security and civil liberties should make us aware that we cannot assume that the successes of the past automatically will be carried into the future. For this reason, the IRR committees’ continuing work on health and genetic rights, civil rights, First Amendment rights, the death penalty, women’s rights, sexual orientation and gender equity, privacy, equal access to civil justice, and other ongoing issues is as important now as it was in the Section’s earlier years.

By integrating its forty years of experience into its current work, IRR will be able to take on these continuing challenges more effectively and will remain the conscience of the ABA.

Bob Stein
[email protected]