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February 06, 2024

Heart and soul of ABA: Are we diverse enough?

The American Bar Association Crossroads Caucus Promoting Diverse Viewpoints and Professionalism hosted a spirited discussion about the ABA and whether it fosters a sufficient variety of perspectives on Feb. 3 at its Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Crossroads Caucus’ goal is to strengthen the foundation of the ABA and encourage all lawyers in the United States to join and become active in the association. It wants the ABA to refocus its policymaking and advocacy on the practice of law and issues of professionalism, while also encouraging diverse opinions on issues that affect the profession through civil discourse.

The program – “Are the ABA and the Legal Profession Doing Enough to Promote Viewpoint Diversity?” – was moderated by Danny J. Boggs, a judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit and former chair of the ABA Appellate Judges Conference. Boggs opened the session by saying the perception of the ABA was important and that it used to be viewed as a “stodgy organization” but recently some have called it “radical and one-sided.” He said many “sections are ready to plunge into contentious issues.”

He asked the panel to spell out their observations.

Ellen Rosenbum, attorney general of Oregon, former ABA secretary and past chair of the Section of State and Local Government Law, related stories about her father and uncle who were also ABA members. They held some conservative opinions, she said, but being in the minority at the ABA did not dull their enthusiasm for the association.

“The ABA’s greater diversity has enhanced everything the association does,” Rosenblum said. “It makes debate more interesting, and it makes policy better.”

Josh Blackman, Centennial Chair of Constitutional Law at South Texas College of Law, admitted that this was his first ABA meeting. He said he is technically a member, but only because his school pays his dues.

Blackman wondered why the ABA even weighs in on ethnic and racial diversity, questioning its requirement on speaker diversity for its programs. He also did not know why the ABA would support getting rid of the LSAT. He said that its liberal leanings would harm the association, saying that it has already damaged its access in the federal judge peer review process and possibly the ABA’s accreditation of law schools. “It’s what gives the ABA weight, and it is at risk,” Blackman said.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Blackman said. “But it’s why you brought me in here.”

Philip D. Williamson, a litigator at Taft and not an ABA member, said the first two panelists “offered up praise and warning,” but that he wanted to raise questions.

“Are right-of-center lawyers welcome here?” Williamson asked. “Would right-of- center lawyers feel welcome here?”

Williamson said he analyzed the ABA’s amicus briefs and was hard-pressed to find one that supported a Red State attorney general. He questioned why the ABA would even weigh in on certain social or political issues and said that the perception of the ABA is important.

Juan R. Thomas, of counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer and former chair of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, said the ABA welcomes diversity of viewpoint but asked people to “be honest about the core of our disagreement.” Thomas stressed the importance of context in opposition to certain social-culture issues and quoted author James Baldwin saying, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Thomas, who is Black, said he draws the line at arguments that deny his right to exist and did not think that the ABA goes too far supporting hot-button cultural topics.

“We are not a partisan organization, but we are a political one,” he said. “We cannot separate law from the political process.”

Blackman countered that the ABA is too partisan and demonizes anyone who might vote for Donald Trump. “Half the country voted for Donald Trump,” Blackman said. Thomas then asked about core beliefs. “Tell me why you are voting for Trump.”

Blackman suggested that the ABA “do less” and avoid issues not directly related to the practice of law or risk losing members and becoming irrelevant “Don’t spread out like an octopus,” he said.

Rosenblum responded emphatically that “I want to do more!”

The audience’s response to the panel was represented by mixed viewpoints, with some questioning the lack of diverse views on ABA panels and in its amicus briefs, while others defended the ABA’s strong stance on issues from abortion to voting rights to LBGTQ + rights.

But Lauren Stiller Rikleen, the new vice chair of the ABA Advisory Commission to the Task Force for American Democracy and former vice chair of the ABA Center for Diversity and Inclusion, gave a full-throated response to warning that the ABA become “less liberal.”

“I would be proud to be the last member standing of an association that fights against oppression,” she stated.