ABA President's Message

Leadership and Advocacy

ABA's service to society and legal professionals will focus on 4 specific objectives

Posted Sep 1, 2010 3:59 AM CDT
By Stephen N. Zack

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Photo by Neil Bredbeck

More than 130 years ago, it was a commitment to justice that led a small group of attorneys to create a national legal association that would speak with one voice to defend liberty and pursue justice in service of its members, the legal profession and society. Because of that commitment, the American Bar Association stands today as the largest voluntary professional organization in the world.

Continuing that commitment, the ABA will have four core initiatives this year.

Preservation of the Justice System. We must address the critical issue of the underfunding of our justice system. From shore to shore, our state governments are awash in red ink, struggling to provide core functions. Financial shortages have taken their toll on our courts and threaten even further harm. We recognize that our legal systems must share the burden of diminished resources, but our courts are struggling to fulfill their constitutional function to provide access to justice. The courts are doing this while—to the economic downturn—there is an even greater need to deal with foreclosures, debt and domestic relations cases. We must help them.

To address this need, the ABA is establishing a blue-ribbon Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System, co-chaired by David Boies and Ted Olson. The task force will draw on the talents of distinguished attorneys and judges across our nation. They are tasked with highlighting the devastating erosion of our justice system and advancing solutions to address it. Our courts are in jeopardy, and we must advocate on their behalf with all the skills we can muster.

Civic Education. One threat to our courts, and to our entire system of self-governance, is a national lack of understanding of how our government works. For too many years, civic education has been neglected in our nation's schools. As former Associate Justice David H. Souter reminded us just one year ago, democracy cannot thrive in a vacuum of understanding.

In years past, there was a genuine emphasis on the importance of understanding our Constitution and the inner workings of our democracy and our role as individuals. Today there is significantly less understanding and appreciation of our Constitution and its role in preserving freedom. Civic education courses have become electives in some schools; at others, they are not offered at all. We are producing a generation of citizens who are ill-equipped to govern themselves as participants in our democracy. We must do better.

To address this need, the ABA's new Commission on Civic Education in the Nation's Schools will draw on the talents of prominent attorneys, judges, educators and organizational leaders. They will aggressively promote civic education as a national priority, enhance existing civic education efforts and create opportunities for innovative programs throughout the United States.

Hispanic Legal Rights. The third initiative seeks to provide a better future for all U.S citizens. As we ponder whether we will ever achieve a "post-racial society," we must address critical legal issues affecting the fastest-growing segment of our population—Hispanic Americans. It is projected that by 2050, one in every three U.S. residents will be Hispanic American.

To address this issue, we have appointed a Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights. The commission and its advisory committee will include attorneys, judges, educators, and organizational and community leaders, who will identify solutions to important legal issues affecting Hispanics—issues that present barriers to full participation by Hispanics within the fabric of our nation.

The commission will conduct three regional hearings throughout the United States. The results will be gathered into a report with recommendations for use by the ABA and congressional and administration policymakers.

Disaster Preparedness. Recent earthquakes, hurricanes and oil spills remind us that we live in uncertain times. We must develop and implement measures to ensure security and stability when disaster occurs. What would the ABA's response be, for example, if after a new terrorist attack the president suspended habeas corpus? Or if our legal and judicial systems were rendered inoperable due to the destruction of courts, prisons and legal records—not to mention the death and displacement of judges and attorneys? Failing to plan and prepare will only heighten the devastation should a catastrophe occur.

The ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness will conduct "tabletop" exercises to assess the association's readiness. It will develop a comprehensive crisis plan to address institutional, domestic and international disasters.

Together, we can and will make progress in these areas. As attorneys, we have an obligation to provide uncompromised leadership and advocacy so we can make a difference in the lives of the people of this nation and continue what the ABA began 130 years ago.

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