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Diversity and Surprises

Departing President Archer Saw Minorities Advance, Handled Unexpected Issues

Posted Oct 28, 2004 5:38 AM CDT
By Terry Carter

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It was no surprise that as the ABA’s first black president, Dennis W. Archer worked on diver­sity issues. He convened panels and conferences concerned with women and people of color in the legal profession, asking law firms, corporations and other organizations to help diversify the profession.

In his farewell speech to the House of Del­egates in August at the association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, Archer said that within the ABA itself, “Members have shown they mean business when they say the doors are open to all.”

He then detailed the diversity in ABA leadership: Rob­ert J. Grey Jr., an African-American, succeeding him as pres­ident; Michael S. Greco, who emigrated from Italy, named president-elect; Stephen Zack, who fled Cuba with his family at age 12, named chair of the House of Delegates; and Ar­mando Lasa-Ferrer, a Puerto Rican who practices on his native island, named secretary-elect.

“Together, our leadership makes a major statement about the Amer­ican Bar Association’s commitment to provide opportunities for all members of our society,” Archer told the gathering.

While Archer had mapped out several issues, including diversity, to address in his year as president, he also dealt with the unexpected. Just as he was about to begin his term, for example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kenne­dy said in a speech at last year’s annual meeting that sentencing policies have become problematic. Kennedy called on the association to look at high incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders and the impact of inflexible sentencing guidelines.

In response, Archer created the Justice Kennedy Com­mis­­sion, which issued a number of recommendations later adopted by the House of Delegates in Atlanta. Among them was a call for state and federal legislatures to replace mandatory minimum sentencing laws with approaches that guide judicial discretion but also permit judges to consider “the unique characteristics of offenses and offenders.”

All manner of legal issues have come up in the war on ter­rorism. Under Archer’s leadership, the ABA was instru­mental in getting Congress to pass the Military Family Tax Relief Act and the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act. The measures made it easier for military personnel, who move often, to qualify for the capital gains exemption when selling their homes. The legislation also modernized protection of the legal rights of military personnel by sus­pending or postponing civil proceedings when they are deployed.

Then, just days before the annual meeting, the Defense Department contacted Archer with an invitation for the ABA to send an observer to hearings for detainees in Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba. Archer tapped Miami lawyer Neal R. Sonnett, who chairs the ABA Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants.

A Man in Demand

The ABA presidency was one more in a line of impressive roles for Archer, the son of a one-armed handyman, who grew up in a house without running water. Archer is a former Michigan Supreme Court justice and was a two-term mayor of Detroit from 1994 to 2001.

As might be expected, the ABA’s first black president was in demand as a speaker. “He probably had more speaking engagements than any other ABA president I know of,” says John A. Krsul Jr., former ABA treasurer and a longtime friend and law partner of Archer’s at Detroit’s Dickinson Wright. “He wanted to convey the new character of the ABA as a leader in diversity. He spared no time or energy.”

Archer says his first task after his year as president is to rebuild his law practice at Dickinson Wright. But speculation abounds that he may be offered a high-level appointment, possibly cabinet-level, should a Democratic administration come to Washing­ton, D.C.

“I’m flattered by it,” Archer says. “But I don’t think it’s there. I will say I’m not going to run for any elective office, but that I’m going to get involved in campaigns for other people--for school boards, city councils, gov­ernor and so on.”

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