Addressing the Importance of the Rule of Law
August 9, 2021
Judge Langford Morris, thank you for presiding over my swearing-in, and also for your longtime friendship and service to the bar. We value your remarkable service to the ABA and our profession, notably your leadership as chair of the ABA Commission on the American Jury and as a member of several important committees, including the ABA’s Legal Opportunity Scholarship Committee, the Africa Law Initiative of the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative, the Criminal Justice Standards Committee of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, and the National Conference of State Trial Judges of the ABA Judicial Division. You are also a valued colleague in this House as delegate from the National Bar Association. Your record of service is an outstanding example for all of us.
Another outstanding leader is with us as well. President Refo, your service to the ABA and our profession, especially this past year, has been wonderful in a year that demanded intelligence, wisdom, judgment, hard work, tough decisions, and leadership of the highest order. Members of this House, I know you are eager to join me in a rousing thank you to Trish Refo for her devotion to our Association and for her passion for the causes that are critical for lawyers everywhere. Trish, thank you for all you have done, with your incredible grace, to keep the ABA strong and viable this past year.
Chair Howard, fellow delegates, ABA members, and honored guests, as I prepare to take the mantle of leadership of our beloved Association, I’ve been thinking about a well-known story involving George Washington’s armchair during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A half-sun on the horizon was painted on the back. Was it a rising sun? Or a setting sun? This is what Benjamin Franklin wondered as he vacillated between his hopes and fears for the new nation. He eventually concluded, with happiness, that the sun was indeed rising.Some may believe that a similar quandary faces us when it comes to the rule of law and the bar associations throughout our nation today. Over the years, amid the up-and-down cycles of culture and politics, with all the attendant successes and setbacks, it’s clear to me that the sun is rising on the rule of law in the United States and in free societies throughout the world, and it remains a powerful beacon of hope for those who do not now live as free people. The rule of law is what lawyers and our courts deliver every day. The rule of law is what the ABA and bar associations throughout the country—and the world—are dedicated to promoting.
It is also clear to me that the sun is rising on our bar associations themselves. The American Bar Association, for one, is part of the lives and livelihoods of every lawyer, every day – through our Model Code of Professional Conduct, our accreditation of law schools, our governmental advocacy, the work of our sections, divisions, forums and standing committees and commissions, and many other aspects of our profession and justice system.
It is true that these are not easy times for our bar associations. But with successful initiatives like ABA Practice Forward and the remote tools we’ve been employing at an unprecedented pace, we are continuing to learn how to serve lawyers as times and generations change.
I believe in the continued demand among lawyers for strong bar associations that deliver value for members, including access to quality information, professional connections, and advocacy on the issues lawyers care deeply about. The ABA’s investments in member services and development are very promising. And we will always support state and local bar associations through engagement in this House of Delegates and with resources from the ABA Division for Bar Services, including the Bar Leadership Institute.
As your incoming ABA president, I come to you as a believer in this House as the voice of our profession. I believe the American Bar Association is essential for excellence among lawyers and judges, as preparers for the next generations of lawyers, and as champions for equal justice under law. As former ABA President Bill Neukom noted when he accepted the 2020 ABA Medal, the ABA is a public trust. That public trust must and will endure with the continued cultivation we learned from our predecessors, and our successors are learning from us.
Our members want and need the ABA to continue to address public policy issues that are central to the administration of justice, and upon which we can have significant impact.
The American Bar Association is the leading advocate for legal aid funding in the United States with our incomparable support of the Legal Services Corporation. We also promote access to justice with Free Legal Answers, the Equal Justice Conference, the National Celebration of Pro Bono, and many other initiatives throughout our Association.
We are a leading voice on ensuring an independent judiciary that has the highest professional qualifications, that can rely on sufficient court funding, and—critically—that is safe and secure from harm.
We are a leading voice for criminal justice reform, especially as it rectifies racism and other roots of structural injustice.
We are an unwavering champion for the advancement of women in our profession, people of color, and others from marginalized groups.
We are a bedrock of public education about the value of the rule of law through activities like Law Day and lawyers in the classroom.
And, with the policies passed by this House of Delegates, we advocate for the voiceless and the disenfranchised in our system of laws and justice.
None of this is possible without the lifeblood of bar association membership. Wherever I speak, I urge that “each one, reach one.” As ABA and bar association members, let us make a habit of reaching out and mentoring young lawyers and law students by demonstrating how bar associations make us better lawyers and fulfilled citizens who make a difference. Let’s say it together, loud and proud: “Each one, reach one.”
Now there are folks back home who can’t hear us, and we can’t hear you, so let’s say it again! “Each one, reach one!” Thank you.
As it is for all of us, service is a guiding light in my life. As your president, I look forward to leveraging what I learned through service with the ABA, in this House, and with important organizations and allies.
As your president, I will model the lessons of service and integrity I learned in my youth. I grew up in Detroit in a working-class family. My father was a police officer, and my mother was a library aide. I was brought up to believe that we are all in this life together and everyone must be treated with dignity and respect.
I have vivid memories of the 1967 Detroit riot, which like others across the nation, devastated our community and were stoked by poverty, lack of opportunity, injustice, and police brutality. After that, my parents looked for ways to help heal our troubled minds and spirits.
They found a cultural exchange program called Focus Hope, which brought together city and suburban residents to break down racial and economic barriers. My family came to know and have a close relationship with an Italian American family, the Latanzios. That experience, in which I found that our similar family values outweighed our racial and cultural differences, fueled within me a passion for the causes that have been a huge part of my professional work.
An important one of these, diversity, includes all visible and nonvisible dimensions that make individuals who they are. Diversity means understanding that everyone is unique and recognizing our individual differences. As we aim to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must and will continue to address a history of laws, practices, biases, and discrimination that marginalized and kept broad sectors from participating in the political, economic, and social activities and benefits of society.
It is my honor and privilege to lead the American Bar Association as I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, most notably Dennis Archer, Robert Grey, Paulette Brown, and my predecessor who showed me the ropes, Trish Refo. I look forward to serving with my partner in leadership, our incoming president-elect, Deborah Enix-Ross.
Let me thank my wife Marcia and our daughters – Nia and Imani – for their love and abiding faith in me. I also thank my law firm, Clark Hill, for its support, and especially my Executive Administrative Assistant, Paula Proffitt, who’s here with her husband, Keith Proffitt.
And thank you all for everything you do to support the legal profession. As your president, I pledge that I will do everything I can to ensure that the sun continues to rise on the rule of law and our great Association.