“Most of the things worth doing in the world have been declared ‘impossible’ before they were done,” said ABA President Mary Smith, quoting Louisville, Kentucky, native and “people’s lawyer”-turned Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis at the 2024 Spirit of Excellence Award luncheon on Feb. 3. Smith, who was a 2012 award recipient, continued, “That epitomizes the work and passion of the wonderful awardees today. … despite obstacles, they still followed their North Star and continued to advance racial and ethnic diversity.”
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 ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession honored the five trailblazers during the ABA Midyear Meeting in Louisville.
The 2024 Spirit of Excellence Award honorees are:
Capt. Benes Z. Aldana, who has carved a legacy as a trailblazer in both the military and legal fields. He is the first Asian Pacific American chief trial judge in the U.S. military, following significant roles as an appellate judge, trial judge and prosecutor. He once led legal services for Coast Guard operations across 26 states.
Saying that receiving the award was “not just an honor; it’s a call to action,” Aldana referred to the “ideals of justice” being “under threat.” He said, “It is our responsibility … to speak up while there is still time. … Your recognition today honors not just me but the values we all cherish and strive to protect.” Aldana closed by saying, “Together, let’s continue to be the change we wish to see in the world.”
Col. Jose A. Cora, an accomplished military officer and an advocate for the advancement and development of Hispanic and Latino judge advocates. He is an attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and an expert in government acquisitions and appropriations law. He currently serves as the Army’s chief of the Contract Litigation and Intellectual Property Division.
Recalling hearing President Barack Obama say that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Cora said he realized “the responsibility for change was mine.” It motivated him to bring more diversity to the JAG Corps and he has worked hard to make progress. “Much work remains to be done,” he said, and despite headwinds, he asked those gathered to “lean into it with me.”
Judge Dolly Gee, who combines a brilliant legal mind with an unflinching devotion to the law. She is the first Chinese American woman to be nominated and confirmed as an Article III federal judge. As a jurist, Gee has presided over a number of landmark cases protecting the rights of migrants.
Gee said she accepted the award “humbly in honor of those countless, courageous immigrants like my parents.” DEI has been an integral part of who she is, she said, “even before that concept had a name.” DEI is part of all of us, “and as long as we continue to live it and incorporate it into our lives, it can never be taken away,” she said.
Sara Hill, committed to creating a more diverse, inclusive and equitable world for the betterment not only of her tribe and tribal members, but all Oklahomans, Native Americans and countless others impacted by her efforts nationally and internationally. She recently began serving on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
“There’s so much talent in Native America,” Hill said of her position as the first female Native American judge on the U.S. District Court. She lamented that “so much willingness and desire to serve the country in all these different capacities that was left on the table.” They were not given an opportunity, “and that is a shame,” she said.
Juan R. Thomas, a changemaker, mentor and source of inspiration for many diverse attorneys. He serves as of counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer P.A., and is the founder and principal of The Thomas Law Group. He is listed as one of the Top 100 National Black Trial Lawyers.
Thomas recalled a time when he considered leaving the legal profession. Referring to visiting a friend from law school whose body is progressively degenerating from ALS, he said, “Leslie showed me last week what a ‘spirit of excellence’ looks like,” and that he now received the honor with “a new sense of purpose to stand with others who cannot stand for themselves, to speak for others who cannot speak for themselves.”