August 03, 2020

Outgoing ABA president passes gavel; new leadership outlines priorities

Judy Perry Martinez passed the gavel to Patricia Lee Refo, who became president of the American Bar Association on Aug. 4 at the end of the ABA Virtual Annual Meeting. In her remarks, Refo vowed to go “anywhere in the world to advance the fight for justice and the rule of law.” 

The Phoenix litigator at Snell & Wilmer noted that in addition to upending “our communities and our lives,” the coronavirus pandemic “has also upended our practices, our courtrooms, our law schools — pretty much everything about what lawyers do and how we do it.” That disruption is creating a swell of legal needs, she said, in evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcies and domestic violence, among others.

Referring to “the twin evils of racism and unconscious bias” that have “prevented Black Americans from full participation in the promise of America,” Refo called on lawyers to “own the shortcomings throughout that system that disadvantage Black Americans, that build in barriers Black Americans must overcome that white Americans do not.” She included in this the “barriers inside our profession in our law firms and other practice settings ­— that unquestionably still exist and make it vastly harder for Black lawyers to thrive.  And for Black women lawyers, double hard.”

The two pandemics facing America, “one a physical virus that attacks our nation’s health and well-being, and the other a moral virus that attacks our nation’s soul,” Refo said, have served to strengthen the resolve of the nation’s lawyers.

“We choose to get to work to help to solve these problems. We are the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. We have work to do.”

Recent events “have compressed about 10 years of change into the past four or five months,” she said, but pointed to opportunities the disruption has presented.

One is the new Practice Forward initiative, which is “coordinating our work across the association to respond to the changes in the practice of law.” Sorting through which changes will likely become permanent — such as virtual hearings in some circumstances, new procedures, skills lawyers will need, and ethical and professional responsibility issues —­­­ will be among the issues the new group will address.  

Refo said the ABA Task Force on Legal Needs Arising out of the Pandemic, formed in April, will continue under the leadership of Jim Sandman, president emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation. 

Refo added that she has asked all ABA entities to move racial equity and anti-racism to the top of their agendas for the coming year. “We are all impatient for change, so let’s make it happen.

“What will you, personally, do to oppose racism and advance racial equity? What will you do today?” she asked. “Remember the empowering saying, ‘I am but one, but I am one.’”

Refo is also watching closely “regulatory innovations in several states, including here in Arizona, intended to improve access to justice.” Noting differing views on “these experiments,” she said “we will work with the academy and the regulators to agree on and then measure the objective metrics that will tell us whether and how innovations are bridging the access to justice gap.” 

Reiterating bedrock principles of the ABA, Refo said:

  • “We stand for a judiciary that is fair, impartial and independent of the executive branch — of every administration.”
  • “We stand for the equal treatment of every person by the police and by the justice system.”
  • “We stand for the rule of law, in which citizens and the government are held to account and where laws are administered fairly and without regard to privilege.”
  • “We stand for free and fair elections where all eligible citizens get to vote without impediments and have their vote counted.”

Outgoing president’s call to action

Earlier, outgoing president Martinez reviewed her year at the helm of the association.

Speaking of the long-overdue reckoning on race by the country and the profession, “This is our torch to carry,” she said. “Lawyers have a special responsibility to fight injustice, especially injustice caused by laws and practices that are racist and unjust in word or effect.”

She also called for lawyers to take the lead in defending “our most fundamental right.”

“Especially in this extraordinarily challenging year, we lawyers need to give our full-throated support to this bedrock of the rule of law and serve as poll workers, volunteer as poll watchers and be community champions of the right of all to vote freely and fairly.”

Martinez said not only do American lawyers show up during turbulent times and stand for protection of attorney-client privilege and the highest ethical standards, they do it “every day because we believe in equality, we believe in dignity, we believe that every person in our country is afforded constitutional rights.

“We do what we do because justice matters.”

President-elect reflects on troubling times

In his speech to the House of Delegates, newly elected President-elect Reginald M. Turner said the current moment in our country reminded him of “the last time I experienced such anxiety” — the 1967 riots in Detroit.

His father, a police officer, was on duty throughout the unrest, and Turner recalled tanks rolling down his street as police and National Guard tried to restore order. Afterward, an interracial group called Focus: Hope worked to help the area “face the acute social and moral crisis that gripped the city and the suburbs.” As part of their work, Turner’s family was paired with a suburban family, which “opened our eyes to the importance of diversity,” he said.

Encouraged by his father to become a lawyer, Turner learned that “most respected lawyers distinguish themselves by breathing life into the Lawyer’s Oath” by supporting the Constitution, respecting courts and judges and practicing law with integrity and civility.

“The ABA is our collective effort to fulfill the Lawyer’s Oath,” Turner said. “We work for just laws, human rights, a fair and efficient legal system and meaningful access to justice for all.”