April 03, 2020 Appellate Judges Conference

AJC Chair's Column

By Hon. Albert Diaz, Charlotte, NC

My thanks to those who joined us at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas!  As is our custom, the Conference participated in the annual Judicial Clerkship Program.  Now in its 20th year, the program—a joint effort of the Judicial Division and the ABA Council for Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, with support from LexisNexis®—offers a diverse group of law students an intensive look at what it takes be a law clerk. 

This year nearly 70 students from 15 law schools spent three days working with judges at all levels of our courts.  The program began with the students attending two arguments before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which for many was their first opportunity to see our appellate judiciary at work.  The program next pivoted to what goes on behind the judicial curtain.  Led by the legendary Frank Sullivan, the students, with guidance from the judges, tackled a research assignment involving the intersection of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses.  The students also received invaluable advice about the judge/clerk relationship and what judges look for when selecting clerks. 

A highlight of the program was the keynote address delivered by Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.  Justice Guzman, one of seven children of Mexican immigrants, recounted her remarkable journey to the highest echelon of her state’s judiciary.  Her inspirational wisdom and advice resonated with the students, many of whom afterward sought a photo with the Justice.  And the inspiration continued as the law students also attended the ABA’s Spirit of Excellence Award luncheon, where four outstanding leaders (lawyers Donise Brown, Richard Pena, and Donald Tamaki, and Judge Lora Livingston) were honored for their life’s work in promoting racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession.

By the time this column goes to print, the Judicial Division’s March 2020 National Judicial Outreach Week (NJOW) will have come and gone.  NJOW is a focused effort to bring attention to the role of courts in preserving the rule of law.  I know full well that many of you participate year-round in this effort.  Indeed, I listened with amazement at the Midyear Meeting to the many outreach programs that judges engage in.  Let’s continue this important work!

Justice Guzman and her Education Committee are busy planning the 2020 Appellate Judges Education Institute (AJEI) Summit.  Those of you who have attended previous summits know that it’s the premier program for judges, practitioners, and academics with a passion for appellate advocacy.  There is nothing else like it.  Please join us November 12-15 in Austin, Texas!

I pause here to recognize AJEI’s long-time President Craig Enoch (himself a retired Justice of the Texas Supreme Court) who stepped down at the Midyear meeting.  Craig has been the heart and soul of AJEI, having served as President since its inception.  We will miss his sage counsel and passion for judicial education, but he leaves with our thanks and eternal gratitude.  I am pleased to announce that the AJEI Board has elected Robert Edmunds (a former chair of our conference and retired Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina) to succeed Craig.

Let me end with a moment in history.  Over the past two years, The New York Times has printed obituaries of previously overlooked historical figures.  In January, the Times focused its attention on Homer Plessy.  Lawyers understand the significance of Plessy’s decision to board a train in Louisiana and insist on a seat in a whites-only car.  Plessy’s arrest after he refused to move led to the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, sanctioning the fictional doctrine of “separate but equal.”  It would take 58 years for the Court in Brown v. Board of Education to right the wrong inflicted on Plessy and countless other Americans, who asked only that they not be treated as second-class citizens.  By then, as the Times notes, “Plessy had long been dead” having passed away in 1925.  But, in a fitting coda, the Times recounts a meeting in 2004 between a Plessy relative and the great-great-granddaughter of Judge John Howard Ferguson, who ruled against Plessy at trial.  That meeting eventually led the two relatives to create The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, which seeks to preserve the historical significance of the case and the legacy of those who fought for civil rights.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. assured us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Homer Plessy would no doubt agree.

Hon. Albert Diaz

Hon. Albert Diaz

2019-2020 AJC Chair