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February 22, 2021

ABA president defends rule of law, reviews accomplishments

House introduces president-elect nominee

American Bar Association President Patricia Lee Refo gave a robust defense of the rule of law, diversity efforts and the ABA’s effectiveness in her address to the House of Delegates on Feb. 22 at the virtual ABA Midyear Meeting.

Noting the many upheavals caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted the second virtual major ABA meeting, Refo found an upside. “Thanks to the remote platforms we’ve all gotten accustomed to,” she said, “we’re vastly extending the ABA’s reach, increasing a typical event’s turnout from dozens or hundreds into the thousands.”

She calculated that she had “spoken in front of nearly 30,000 people in the last six months, not counting podcasts, TV and radio and on-demand viewing.”

Refo urged ABA members to emerge from COVID-19 “building a justice system in America that is more just, that provides more access to more people in better ways and that moves us ever closer to the promise of equal justice under law.”

The ABA started on that path immediately, she said, with the formation last March of the Task Force on Legal Needs Arising out of the Pandemic, which immediately got to work.

“Task force members warned of a looming tsunami of evictions if the moratoriums on them were to expire,” Refo said. “The ABA helped draw public attention to this impending crisis with op-eds and letters to the editor while lobbying Congress for the need for rent relief for tenants and landlords.”

In addition, the ABA worked to mobilize state bars to encourage their members to provide pro bono legal services, and one way America’s lawyers answered the call was by volunteering to respond to questions on ABA Free Legal Answers. The virtual legal advice clinic has fielded nearly 140,000 inquiries since its 2016 launch, and recently expanded to offer help on veterans’ and immigration questions.

Refo also put a spotlight on the Practice Forward initiative, which features timely resources on topics such as remote work and virtual proceedings. “This topic in and of itself is critical when you consider that Texas state courts alone have held more than a million virtual court hearings via Zoom since the pandemic began,” she said.

Turning to the racial reckoning that began last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Refo said, “We are also sustaining the urgency of our work toward real racial equity, in our country and in the legal profession.

“Every one of the ABA’s sections, divisions and forums is making racial equity a priority, and we must never let up on the accelerator,” she said, and particularly applauded the work of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and Commission on Women in the Profession.

Last summer’s events also gave rise to the Legal Education Police Practices Consortium, currently involving 52 ABA-accredited U.S. law schools. “The group is addressing legal issues in policing and public safety, including conduct, oversight and the evolving nature of police work,” Refo said.

The president then turned to fallout from the “unprecedented attack on the cornerstone of the democratic rule of law, the election process and the great temple of our democracy, our nation’s Capitol building on Jan. 6.”

In the weeks after the attack, Refo spoke virtually at the opening of the legal year in Hong Kong, “where the rule of law is under extraordinary pressure,” and at a conference of international bar presidents hosted by the Austrian Bar.

“Our international colleagues were aghast at what happened here, in the United States of America,” she said.

“I assured them that our profession’s steady work, day in and day out, is what enabled the rule of law to prevail, and that it will continue to do so.”

Refo told them that the rule of law prevailed in the presidential election, which was conducted fairly and “produced accurate results”; when claims of impropriety were “thoroughly and openly investigated in courts of law”; and when lawsuits challenging the results were carefully “considered by independent courts,” including the U.S. Supreme Court.

“And the rule of law led our Congress that very day to return to session and certify the electoral college results,” she said.

Despite those heartening examples, Refo said, “we have some self-examination to do as a profession…. We must never accept it if a lawyer makes a statement in the public square on a matter of public importance knowing that the statement is factually untrue.”

In conclusion, Refo said that “lawyers everywhere are counting on us to lead our profession and shape our justice system with the spirit of uprightness, the spirit of discernment and the spirit of love for one another and those we serve.”

ABA introduces president-elect nominee

Later in the day, Deborah Enix-Ross, a lawyer with Debevoise and Plimpton in New York, was announced as the president-elect nominee. She recalled that at her nomination at the 2020 Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas, she highlighted a call to action in “civics, civility and collaboration.” After a year that saw a global pandemic, social unrest, a “contentious national election” and a storming of the Capitol, she said her call to action was “as important today as it was a year ago.”

“As lawyers, we can lead the way in these areas and bring required progress,” Enix-Ross said. “We are the ones who can restore confidence in the judicial system, fight for the independence of the judiciary and protect the rule of law.”