April 25, 2017

Fighting Discrimination at Home; Building a Free Judiciary Abroad

Jeff Tolman

This month we have the stories of Elisa Moran, a civil rights litigator who fights for people who face discrimination, and Roger Sherrard, who helped the nation of Albania build an independent judiciary.

Elisa Moran, Denver, Colorado

I had the great fortune to spend August 1994 at Gerry Spence's Trial lawyers College being tutored in the art of advocacy by such great lawyers as Gerry Spence, Morris Dees, Joe Jamail, Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, Rikki Klieman, Judy Clarke, Garvin Issacs, and Albert Krieger. It was as close to winning the lottery as I'll ever come. I was thrilled by the experience much like a kid locked in a candy store. Elisa Moran was my trial partner during that month. While I enjoyed very much preparing cases with Elisa, and getting to know her, our paths had not crossed in the last 23 years. I decided to call Elisa and catch up on how her practice has evolved.

Elisa was raised in Seminole, OK, in the only Jewish family there. Her father was elected mayor and immediately integrated the local swimming pool. Her grandmother, living in then-segregated Tulsa, OK, was prone to get on a city bus and walk to the back to sit or stand with the black riders. On numerous occasions she was removed from the bus for disturbing the peace. Elisa's brother, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, has established an Innocence Clinic that has gained full acquittals for about a number of incarcerated men and women. So grew the seeds of a future civil rights and discrimination lawyer.

After attending Indiana University as a telecommunications major ("I liked being a DJ, but lots of times I felt I was talking only to myself.") Elisa attended the University of Colorado Law School, graduating in 1981.

Elisa's current practice has three divergent sections; civil rights litigation, employment litigation (including class actions with our TLC classmate John Mosby), and federal criminal defense. In 2015 Elisa and John successfully took a case before the U.S. Supreme Court over the appropriate timeline when a federal employee must file a discrimination complaint.

She most enjoys the fact her practice is different every day, no two days are alike. Elisa also generally likes her clients and finds it easy to be empathetic with those discriminated against based on their race, gender, handicap, or sexual identity. She least likes doing legal research. Perhaps the greatest compliment to Elisa, and what she has shown about a lawyer's place in society, is that her younger daughter entered the University of Colorado School of Law last fall. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

In addition to her practice, Elisa is active in The Anti-Defamation League. While currently President of the Board of Salus World, an organization dedicated to providing mental health services to needy men and women throughout the world, she has served on the boards of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Children's International Summer Villages, The Rocky Mountain Children's Health Foundation and Rose Women's Organization. Elisa was a 2005 recipient of a Channel 7 "Everyday Hero Award" for her work with Head Start in the Denver area.

Speaking with Elisa I was reminded of a quote from the great Racehorse, Richard Haynes: "If I am doing my job right, half the people in town ought to hate me all the time." So it goes for lawyers who represent the discriminated against and the underdogs.

Roger Sherrard, Poulsbo, Wash.

Sometimes you don't have to go very far for a good story, and a reminder how, as lawyers, we can be a catalyst for change big and small. I went down Front Street and spoke with Roger Sherrard.

Roger was one of the five lawyers in Poulsbo when I threw my "Jeff Tolman, Lawyer" sign on Highway 305 on March 15, 1978. The others were Jay Roof, Conrad Green, Bob Krucker and Phil Malone. I was number six and replaced Roger as "the new lawyer in town."

After being raised near Seattle, Roger entered West Point in the 1966 class followed by Rick Atkinson in "The Long Gray Line." From West Point, Roger's life journey took him to Italy, Vietnam, law school (graduating in 1975) and on to Poulsbo to practice with his brother Jean and Bill McGonagle that same year.

In 1991, as a speaker at the only law school in Bulgaria his remarks on the importance of an independent judiciary were published in a national paper. Returning home, Roger received letters from two Albanians who didn't know each other, each asking for his help in their nation. Roger had found his calling and has been to Albania 50 times advocating for the courts.

When he first began working with the Albanian courts their greatest need was paper on which to write their opinions.

The understanding of a free judiciary was unknown, unfathomable, in the beginning. The first time the Albanian Supreme Court came to visit members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the visitors observed the room where deliberations occur. The visitors asked: "Where's the phone?"

"There is no phone," was the answer.

With an honestly baffled look, an Albanian Justice responded, "Then how does the president tell you how to rule?"

So the journey toward a free judiciary began and has continued for decades with more ups and downs than the ball in the average NBA game. Government officials have continually told Roger and his colleagues in Advocates International the reasons judges should not be trusted. Two Prime Ministers have opined that the government has an inherent right to call the judge and let him or her know how the case should be decided.

For his work Roger was awarded The Medal of Freedom from the Albanian government, its highest civilian honor. I know few people who could have dreamed of making a difference in an entire nation as Roger has. Roger's quest has continually been to allow the words at the beginning of the Albanian Constitution to ring true in every city, town and village – in the heart of every lawyer, judge and citizen – forever.

"We, the people of Albania, proud and aware of our history, with responsibility for the future, and with faith in God and/or other universal values, with determination to build a social and democratic state based on the rule of law, and to guarantee the fundamental human rights and freedoms, with a spirit of religious coexistence and tolerance, with a pledge to protect human dignity and personhood, as well as for the prosperity of the whole nation, for peace, well-being, culture and social solidarity, with the centuries-old aspiration of the Albanian people for national identity and unity, with a deep conviction that justice, peace, harmony and cooperation between nations are among the highest values of humanity."

Perhaps Roger encapsulated his time working in Albania best when he said to me: "How many people have had the opportunity to see a country move from a dictatorship to self-determination? I have been able to from the inside and out. What a great adventure it has been."

The lesson: Our education and training has given us attorneys the opportunity to help create change. In our clients, in a discriminatory system, in a country. Elisa and Roger's stories remind me why I am proud to be a lawyer.

Jeff Tolman

Jeff Tolman is an attorney in Poulsbo, Washington.