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August 08, 2023

New leadership outlines priorities; outgoing ABA president passes gavel

Deborah Enix-Ross passed the gavel to Mary L. Smith, who became president of the American Bar Association on Aug. 8 at the end of the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver.

In her remarks, Smith urged the ABA to “run toward the storm,” in the words of Wilma Mankiller, first principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

The vice chair of the VENG Group and former head of Indian Health Service has a long history of service to the ABA. She served as secretary of the association from 2018-20, served on the ABA Board of Governors for two terms and in elected capacities in the Section of Litigation and Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. Smith also served as an ABA representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Stating that the theme of her term as president is “Lifting Our Voices, Charting the Future,” the Chicago native announced the creation of an ABA Task Force for American Democracy, co-chaired by former federal Judge J. Michael Luttig and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Charles Johnson. “This task force will consider and propose solutions for educating our citizens on the importance of an inclusive, strong and enduring democracy and help to provide bulwarks to bolster our democracy as conceived,” Smith said.

In addition, she spoke of the far-reaching effects of generative artificial intelligence, which she said would challenge democracy and, “frankly, all aspects of society.” Calling on lawyers “to harness both the promise – and the peril – of AI,” Smith announced the formation of an “AI task force that will take a comprehensive look at the use of AI and make recommendations on the impact on the practice of law, access to justice and laws and regulations.

“We are called again to lead the association through a thicket of challenges,” said the first female Native American president of the ABA, a graduate of Loyola University Chicago and the University of Chicago School of Law. “We are called on to run toward the storm. There is no more critical time to be a member of the American Bar Association.”

President-elect urges adoption of four principles to guide association

“In every Star Trek episode, viewers are reminded right at the beginning of a simple statement of their mission,” President-elect William R. Bay told the HOD on Aug 8. The ABA also has a mission, he said, a simple one that “should guide everything we do.”

“Our mission must be to make our association the home for all lawyers,” said the partner at Thompson Coburn in St. Louis.

“The American Bar Association serves a unique role, a national unifying role, a place where every lawyer can find a home, value, worth and fulfillment,” Bay said.

Referring to the Star Trek slogan to “go boldly,” he urged the ABA to be bold and adopt four “essential principles” to guide it:

  1. We must welcome every lawyer to the ABA. 
  2. We have a great story to tell and we must tell it. 
  3. In order for lawyers to think of the ABA as their home, we must expand opportunities for members to serve. 
  4. We must always be about leadership.  

“Let me be very clear,” Bay said. “The cost of not acting, the cost of delay while we seek the elusive perfect answer, the danger of applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s challenges is now too great. 

“We must have the courage to act now.”

Outgoing president reflects on the value of civics and civility

On Aug. 7, outgoing President Deborah Enix-Ross reviewed her year at the helm of the association.

Referring to the meeting’s host city, Denver, she said, “our involvement in the bar gives lawyers like us a mile-high view of law—not as a job, but a calling to justice,” which she said inspired her to focus her year “on the 3 C’s that are the Cornerstones of Democracy—civics, civility and collaboration.”

Saying that the legal profession and rule of law “are under the spotlight as never before,” Enix-Ross called it “our duty as lawyers to lead our communities in understanding and appreciating these Cornerstones of Democracy.”

She added that the 2023 ABA Survey of Civic Literacy found that a full 85% of respondents said that civility is worse than 10 years ago, and quoted Suzanne Spaulding, longtime ABA law and national security leader and member of the Cornerstones Commission, who said, “The need for civics education in America is a national security priority.”

This year the ABA also collaborated “with groups we don’t often interact with, including the Federalist Society,” she said, and that Cornerstones was the theme of a program held last month at the Columbus, Ohio, headquarters of Nationwide, which has long championed civics education in the workplace.

The ABA-cosponsored program “drew more than 700 Nationwide employees,” she said, including “two Ohio members of the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus—one Democrat, one Republican.”

Enix-Ross called Nationwide’s program a model “for the business community” and asked Nationwide’s Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Mark Howard to come up and receive an ABA presidential citation for the company’s efforts.

The outgoing president turned to the work of the Task Force on Law, Society and the Judiciary, chaired by past President Linda Klein. “Task force members connected to both political parties collaborated to develop concrete steps to improve the public’s understanding and trust of the judiciary,” she said.

“Its recommendations on the federal judicial confirmation process, judicial ethics, transparency in judicial decision making, security for judges and public education to bolster public confidence in the judiciary add to and complement the ABA’s longstanding policies and activity in these areas,” Enix-Ross said. She added that she sent the report to Chief Justice Roberts and that the ABA stands “ready to assist the Supreme Court in implementing its recommendations.”

Thanking the House for “this glorious, remarkable opportunity” to lead the ABA, she referred to both the Rocky Mountains surrounding Denver and the peaks suggested by the ABA logo, saying, “as we go uphill, may we ascend to new heights, magnificent views and perhaps even revelation. As we go downhill, may we return to our basecamp of civics, civility and collaboration with … grace.”