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April 07, 2023 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

NCSCJ Chair's Column

Change Is In The Air

By Hon. Andra Sparks, Birmingham, AL

Theologian John Maxwell said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” This should guide us during this most unusual time in ABA history. Change is in the air from the Executive Director’s office throughout the sections and divisions. There’s no reason for alarm because a short review of the ABA’s history reveals that the pinnacle legal organization is certainly no stranger to change.

The ABA that we have now is very different from the one started in 1878. It has been in a constant state of change since those first 75 lawyers from 20 states and the District of Columbia met in Saratoga Springs, New York. The ABA is the national voice of the legal profession and works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in our work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education and works to build public understanding around the world.

The ABA has changed in organizational structure since 1893 to be the behemoth of 34 sections, divisions and forums today. All of which is supported by association headquarters in Chicago and Washington, D.C. with program sites in Texas, California and some 60 countries throughout the world, a staff of more than 1,000 and a consolidated budget of more than $200 million.

The membership roll has changed in every respect since the 1912 leaders rescinded the membership of William H. Lewis, the first black Assistant U.S. Attorney General. Those leaders felt that it was “the settled practice of the association to elect only white men as members.” To be more specific, the Judicial Division has expanded a few times since its creation in 1913 as the Committee on Judicial Administration.

The early seventies brought about new changes when the current format of the Division with its six constituent conferences was created. Ironically, this was fifty years ago and long before the advent of arguably the greatest revolution in criminal courts brought about when the drug wars and attendant explosion in substance abuse cases led to the creation of “accountability or “specialized” courts in Miami, Florida in the late 1980s. This new way of approaching criminal dockets laid the foundation for the creation of specialized courts which specifically target defendants with substance use issues involving drugs or alcohol, driving while intoxicated or domestic violence cases. Special dockets were also established for defendants with mental health issues and for military veterans.

The ABA’s publishing arm has changed since the first ABA Journal came out in 1915. No one could have imagined that there would be digital versions of this magazine that you can read without physically touching it.

There has been an amazing change in leadership since Mary Florence and Mary Grossman became the first two women elected to membership in 1918. No one would have imagined that by 2023 the leadership of the association and all divisions would regularly be held by women and individuals of all ethnic backgrounds.

We continue to evolve. The global COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reimagine how services are delivered. We must make these decisions in the face of declining membership base and revenue. Jack Rives, the outgoing ABA Executive Director, notes that we’re only reaching about 25% of licensed attorneys.

At every critical juncture in the history of this organization there were those who sensed the need for change those who were against it. But nothing ever remains the same. Change is inevitable. The ABA will keep changing and evolving. Whether we direct the process or not, change is already occurring.

There are a few things I learned about change. It is inevitable. As Victor Hugo has said “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Change is also unavoidable. We can delay decisions which have to be made – but not forever. America is doing business differently. People work from remotely locations and make that option a condition of their employment. Because of this change, meetings and trainings are different. We must change our approach to support this changing dynamic. We have already started in a sense. Virtual meetings are here to stay and are regularly held throughout the Association.

I have also learned that change is necessary. Without the significant changes over the last few decades, it’s doubtful that I would ever be able to pen this column. I’m glad that things have changed for me and so many others.

We must discuss what we can do differently while making our conference, division and association better and stronger. I want to help lead that conversation while we can control the process, because if you know like I know, change is going to come.

Hon. Andra Sparks

2022-2023 Chair, National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

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