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February 16, 2020

5 diversity trailblazers honored with Spirit of Excellence Awards

The American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession awarded five recipients its 2020 Spirit of Excellence Award during a luncheon on Feb. 15 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.

Spirit of Excellence awardees (left to right): Richard Pena, Donise E. Brown, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Judge Lora J. Livingston and Donald K. Tamaki

Spirit of Excellence awardees (left to right): Richard Pena, Donise E. Brown, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Judge Lora J. Livingston and Donald K. Tamaki

American Bar Association photo

The award, whose motto is “to the stars through difficulty,” celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who excel in their professional settings; who personify excellence on the national, state or local level; and who have demonstrated a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the field of law.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said being among the Spirit honorees was like the sense of soaring she felt watching a performance of “Hamilton.”

The 2020 award honorees (click a name to watch video of their remarks):

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director, Indian Legal Clinic at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University - In accepting her award, Ferguson-Bohnee noted that “we are standing on ancestral land [of an Indian tribe, which] we borrow for this event today.” The director of the Indian Legal Clinic, faculty director of the Indian Legal Program and clinical professor of law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, she has substantial experience in Indian law, election law and voting rights and status clarification for tribes.

 A member of the Pointe-au-Chien, Ferguson-Bohnee said she wanted to become a lawyer to help her tribe. She has assisted in complex voting rights litigation on behalf of tribes, and has drafted amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court for tribal clients on voting rights issues. She successfully assisted four bayou tribes in obtaining recognition from the State of Louisiana. More recently, Ferguson-Bohnee has advocated for the rights of unrecognized tribes in response to environmental disasters.

One of her first experiences with the ABA, she recalled, was attending a gathering of minority lawyers for a report on their numbers. She asked about Native American lawyers and was told they “were not statistically significant enough to include in the study.” The lack of visibility, and the exclusion, bothered her. “We are important, and we need to be included,” Ferguson-Bohnee said, noting that there are over 700 tribes in the United States, and approximately 2,600 Native attorneys. “The lack of funding, historical issues and discrimination mean that our Native lawyers carry a lot of weight on their shoulders.” We must use our skills to “make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged,” she said, “and we must work together to achieve justice.”

Donise E. Brown, director-corporate counsel for Starbucks – Brown accepted her award by quoting Thurgood Marshall, who said “none of us got where we are solely by pulling up ourselves by our bootstraps. We are here because somebody…bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” She thanked those lawyers who helped her “at every step of my career.”

As Starbucks’ director-corporate counsel, Brown is responsible for providing legal support for Starbucks corporate and retail real estate matters in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. She has served as co-chair of the Starbucks Law & Corporate Affairs Diversity Committee; is a Florida Bar Certified Diversity Trainer & Facilitator; a member of the executive committee of the National Bar Association’s Commercial Law Section; and is a member of the board of directors for Hope South Florida, a not-for-profit corporation that provides crisis and rapid re-housing assistance and support services to homeless families and veterans.

Brown said she wanted to open doors as they opened for her, “but to make different opportunities, more and greater than even those that I had.” She said that working in-house, she had “been afforded an opportunity to make diversity a part of the conversation.” Still, Brown said she was “disheartened” that those conversations are still needed. “There is still much that must be done,” but referring to the award’s name, she said, “I have faith in the human spirit” and wait for “a day when these conversations are no longer needed.”

Judge Lora Livingston of Travis County Civil District Court in Austin - Livingston described “how diversity can work” using the example of the diversity fellowship program she began at the Austin Bar Association, which she referred to as a “no-brainer.” Her goal was “to lift up first-year students” who had less exposure to law firms, corporate entities and the courts.

During the fellowship, the students spend five weeks working at the courthouse and five weeks working at a local law firm, for which they receive a stipend. Although Livingston thought law firms might lose interest in it in a year or two, “12 years later, the program is going strong,” she said.

In 2016 the Austin Bar Association and the Austin Bar Foundation awarded her the inaugural Joseph C. Parker, Jr. Diversity Award, named after the first African American president of the Austin Bar Association.

Richard Pena, president and CEO of the Law Office of Richard Pena, P.C. - “Our profession must reflect the population,” the Austin-based lawyer said as he accepted his award.

Pena represents injured workers, many on a pro bono basis. Pena was the first person of color to serve as president of the State Bar of Texas from 1998-99. He also served as president of the American Bar Foundation and was on the ABA board of governors. He is a past president of the Austin Bar Association, former chair of the Texas Bar Foundation and former chair of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation.

“Trust and confidence in the legal profession is critical,” he said, “that’s the cornerstone of our democracy.” Right now it’s under attack, Pena said, and “we must do everything to protect the legal profession.”

When one minority is attacked, all others must respond, he urged. “Please stand for justice.”

Donald K. Tamaki, managing partner of Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco - When Tamaki’s parents were sent to internment in 1942, his father was about to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley. His diploma was sent to him in a mailing tube, arriving at the horse stall where he was being held behind barbed wire awaiting the construction of detention camps. The diploma was the promise, but the mailing tube was his reality of life in America, his son said.

The San Francisco-based Tamaki received a Reginald Heber Smith fellowship to practice poverty law in San Jose in 1967 and co-founded the Asian Law Alliance. From 1980-83, he was executive director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco and served on the legal team that reopened the 1944 U.S. Supreme Court case of Fred Korematsu, overturning his criminal conviction for defying the removal of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans. In 2017-18, he was on the legal team filing an amicus brief in Trump v. Hawaii for the children of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, reminding the court that in 1944 when it abdicated its role as a check on the executive branch, it was a civil liberties disaster.

“The lesson of Korematsu is that democracy is not suddenly lost in a coup d’etat,” Tamaki said, but that we can lose our freedom incrementally, and our institutions “can be hollowed out from within.” He said that Korematsu often said, “Don’t be afraid to speak up,” and Tamaki added, “Our voices are now more important than ever.”