Bar Watch Bulletin November 2003

Spirit of Excellence Awardees

November 3, 2003

--The ABA has announced its "Spirit of Excellence Awards" which will be presented by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the February Mid-Year Meeting. Among the awardees:

  • Dr. Mary Frances Berry of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. According to the ABA, "Dr. Berry has worked tirelessly to ensure equal access to justice and education for minorities and the disadvantaged. [She] continues to set the standard for both professional excellence and a commitment to greater racial and ethnic diversity."

    Dr. Berry was first appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Civil Rights Commission and was named Chairman by President Bill Clinton. As Chairman, she has frequently sparred with both the Bush Administration (particularly in its appointments to the Commission) and her fellow commissioners, conduct which has frequently made headlines during the past several years. She often has garnered attention for controversial statements, including one incident where she praised the educational system of Communist China and the Soviet Union's "minority safeguards."

    One example of her headlines-garnering conduct concerns the Commission's controversial investigation of supposed voting irregularities in the 2000 election, resulting in a report finding that minority voters were disenfranchised in Florida. The results were vehemently denounced by Commissioners Russell Redenbaugh and Abigail Thernstrom. These two commissioners accused Berry of refusing to give them advance copies of the report before it was reviewed by the press, including the Washington Post and the New York Times (creating a particular difficulty for Redenbaugh, who is blind and needs additional reading time). Their dissent described the findings as "deeply flawed" and inflamed by "partisan passions." Chairman Berry subsequently refused to allow their dissent to be published by the Commission, branding it a "lie." This was not the only occurrence in which a report was released without full Commission consent. Another report, "Beyond Percentage Plans," was also released without review by the Commission's Republican members. This report criticized percentage-based college admissions systems in Florida, California, and Texas unless racial preferences were utilized in their plans.

    Chairman Berry also attracted headlines for her conduct concerning her refusal to seat Peter Kirsanow, a Bush appointee, to the Commission. Berry claimed that Clinton appointee Victoria Wilson held the rightful claim to that seat. Wilson had assumed her position after a Commissioner's death, and Berry argued that Wilson should serve a full six-year term, rather than only the remainder of the deceased Commissioner's term. Berry threatened the Administration that federal marshals would need to seat Kirsanow because she would not allow him to serve. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ultimately ordered Berry to seat Kirsanow months after he was tapped to fill Wilson's seat.

    The GAO has also criticized the financial management of the agency under Dr. Berry's chairmanship, reporting on the Commission's lack of fiscal oversight and communication problems as recently as last month.

  • Norma Cantú, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights in the Clinton Administration and former Regional Counsel and Education Director of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). She was a strong proponent of Title IX, extending gender-based quotas to ensure equal numbers of collegiate athletic teams. She also suggested that standardized tests discriminated against minorities and is a strong proponent for racial preferences and bilingual education.

  • Bill Lann Lee, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton Administration and current partner at Lieff Cabraser. The ABA praises his "quiet determination as a progressive, active, compassionate public interest lawyer."

    Lee, who previously helmed the Western regional office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, assumed his position after a recess appointment by President Clinton in 1997 after the Senate refused to confirm him. The Senate would not confirm him, particularly because of his strenuous support of racial quotas and disparate impact theory, and his campaign against California's Proposition 209.

  • U.S. District Court Judge William Royal Furgeson, Jr., appointed under President Bill Clinton.

-- Last month, ABA President Dennis Archer announced the formation of a commission to study the "'inadequacies' - and the injustices - in our prison and correctional system" as identified by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his August speech to the Association's Annual Meeting. In particular, the Commission will study and make recommendations concerning mandatory minimums, the high percentage of minorities incarcerated, prison conditions, recidivism, and the pardon process. George Washington University Law Professor Stephen A. Saltzburg will chair this "Kennedy Commission."

--The ABA Family Law Section's "Working Group on Alternative Relationships" was renamed the "Working Group on Non-Marital Unions and Same Sex Relationships." The Family Law Section is one of the lead entities within the ABA on these issues. The group plans to seek information from LAMDA and the National Gay and Lesbian Lawyers.

The Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR) Section has also been active in the area of gay marriage. The Section's "Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity" won the Committee Excellence Award last August. Its education campaigns (including the Summer 2003 issue of Human Rights magazine), amicus brief activity (Lawrence v. Texas, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, Romer v. Evans), and community outreach won accolades from the IRR Section for "advancing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons, contributing vitally to American Bar Association civil and human rights policy, and furthering the Section's mission of providing leadership to the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties, and social justice."

--In other IRR Section news…the ABA filed an IRR section-sponsored amicus brief in Tennessee v. Lane, an ADA case scheduled to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The ABA is supporting the respondents.

The IRR Section is sponsoring its Second Annual Environmental Justice Essay Competition. This year's topic is: "Environmental Justice and Tribal Cultural-Spiritual Properties: Protection of Sacred Sites on Federal Lands after Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association v. Babbitt." This year's contest, aimed at law students, is designed to "increase the level of discourse and understanding about the protection of American Indian/Alaska Native cultural-spiritual resources and issues of environmental justice." The Section devoted its Fall 2003 Human Rights magazine to the subject of environmental justice.