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January 30, 2022

The Space - Time Continuum of Public Interest Law

by Charlie Sabatino

The full PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 43, Issue 3.

Thirty-seven years is both a long time and a short time -- a long time for me to be in one place, but a short time in the scheme of social change.

There are very few times when major social change occurs in a single year or two. I think of 1965 as one of those years with the passage of Medicare and Medicaid and the Civil Rights Act. But even those grand achievements had gestation periods that went back years. As I look back over my notes and calendars and publications of nearly four decades, there are so many issues that are remarkably the same but dressed in different clothing each time they step into the sights of policy makers.  Then again, there are new issues we never imagined would burst through our doors.  I type that last sentence wearing a mask.

Being in any area of advocacy for the public interest of course requires patience, tolerance, and endless determination-- more often than not over more than one lifetime.  My moving on from the ABA is more like the passing of a marathon torch.  I feel best about the fact that my teammates are ready to clutch and run with it.  They are incredibly qualified, determined, and passionate about the work.  In fact, our sphere of teammates is far more expansive than we tend to think.  Despite the barriers and frustrations we face in trying to move progressive policy and practice forward, there is no shortage of incredibly talented and dedicated change agents whose range of talents and universe of priorities they address go far beyond my limited vision.  I am but one star in a vast constellation.  That realization never fails to fuel my optimism.

One other not so secret ingredient to staying in the game for the long run is humor.  John Pickering, a legal giant in the ABA and mentor early in my career at the ABA, could attack an issue like a one-man bomber squadron, but he never took himself too seriously.  Quoting George Bernard Shaw, he once explained to me, “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It's the funniest joke in the world.” More importantly, John taught by example that humor facilitates tolerance – that is, tolerance of human foibles, but not tolerance of human suffering and injustice.  Whether you consider yourself a fighter, a peacemaker, or problem-solver, humor and tolerance go a long way to keeping us engaged in our mission, along with a well-grounded sense of justice.  That’s why the ABA has so long been the platform of my professional career.