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November 09, 2020

American Bar Association announces 2021 Spirit of Excellence Award recipients

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2020 — Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Lori E. Lightfoot, the first Black female mayor of Chicago, are among the five honorees announced today as recipients of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession’s 2021 Spirit of Excellence Award. The award recognizes commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession and will be presented during a virtual ceremony on Thursday, Feb. 18, during the ABA Virtual Midyear Meeting.

The Spirit of Excellence Award celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who work to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession. The awards are presented to 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 law.

“At this critical moment, the commission is redoubling its efforts to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in the legal profession and in our justice system,” said section chair Michelle Behnke.  “As we work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, we also think it is important to pause for a moment to celebrate and herald the leaders who have been championing diversity, equity and inclusion in their respective spheres.”

The 2021 award recipients (click on the honorees’ name for a photo):

Barbara L. Creel, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law. She has devoted her career to public defense, specializing in Native American rights and individual civil rights. Creel has extensive experience in tribal courts, federal Indian law and federal criminal law. She is known as an Indian civil rights “guru” by other federal Indian law practitioners. Her current research centers on the sentencing disparities Native Americans experience in federal courts under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Creel is a frequent speaker on Native American rights and Indian law for groups such as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She also gives trainings on race and civil rights for the administrative office of the U.S. Courts. As a law professor, she introduces her students to federal habeas corpus in the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, arguing and winning habeas cases filed on behalf of Native Americans.

Román D. Hernández, managing partner of Troutman Pepper’s Portland, Oregon, office. He has a national litigation practice focusing on employment law and commercial litigation and has appeared before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Hernández has a long record of community service. As a second-year associate, he was one of three founders of the Oregon Hispanic Bar Association. He served as national president of the Hispanic National Bar Association and has served on numerous boards of directors in Oregon. He has received the “Ohtli Award” from the Government of Mexico; the Edwin J. Peterson Professionalism Award from the Oregon Bench and Bar Commission on Professionalism; the President’s Diversity & Inclusion Award and the Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award from the Oregon State Bar; and the Civil Rights Champion Award from the Oregon League of Minority Voters.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights legal organization. Ifill served as an assistant counsel for LDF from 1988-93, litigating voting rights cases. She left LDF to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, where she also litigated civil rights cases alongside her students for 20 years. Ifill returned to LDF to lead the organization in 2013 and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices in the struggle for racial justice and equality. Under her leadership, LDF has intensified its litigation challenging voter suppression, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and housing discrimination, and has taken a leadership role in resisting federal efforts to roll back civil rights gains in areas such as affirmative action, employment discrimination and school discipline policies. The organization is at the forefront of civil rights organizations challenging unconstitutional policing practices in cities around the country. A critically acclaimed author, her scholarly articles and her 2007 book, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” reflect Ifill’s lifelong engagement in and analysis of issues of race and American public life.

Lori E. Lightfoot, the first African American female mayor of Chicago. Since assuming office in 2019, Lightfoot has undertaken an ambitious agenda of expanding opportunity, racial and ethnic diversity and inclusive economic growth across Chicago’s neighborhoods and communities. Her early accomplishments include landmark ethics and good governance reforms and worker protection legislation, as well as key investments in education, public safety, affordable housing and financial stability. Lightfoot has also undertaken investment initiatives specifically targeting Chicago’s Black and Latino communities. Prior to her election, Lightfoot served as a senior equity partner at Mayer Brown. Previously, she served as president of the Chicago Police Board, as well as the chair of the Police Accountability Task Force. Lightfoot has also served in other city government roles and as assistant U.S. attorney.

John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC in Washington, D.C. Yang leads the organization’s efforts to advance the civil and human rights of Asian Americans to create a fair and equitable society for all through policy advocacy, education and litigation. For example, in 2019, Advancing Justice | AAJC and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund represented the interests of Asians, Latinos and Native Americans in successfully barring the Trump administration from including a citizenship question on the 2020 census that would have resulted in an unconstitutional undercount of immigrants and communities of color. Yang co-founded in 1997 the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, the first organization dedicated to addressing the direct service legal needs of Asian Pacific Americans in the D.C. metropolitan area. He also served as the principal adviser to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on issues related to Asia during the Obama administration.

This virtual event is open to members of the press. For media registration, please contact Robert Robinson at [email protected].

The mission of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is to promote racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. The commission serves as a catalyst for change, so that the profession may more accurately reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of society and better serve society. The commission promotes the recruitment, hiring, promotion and advancement of attorneys of color and works to ensure equal membership and employment opportunities for diverse lawyers in the ABA. The commission accomplishes this through many initiatives, activities and programs, including the annual Spirit of Excellence Award.

The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.