American litigators fight their corner over civil rights

MARTIN Luther King's dream for civil rights was among the main topics considered by more than 1,000 US litigators at the American Bar Association's 20th Section of Litigation meeting in Miami.

A panel discussion, 'Holding fast to the dream – a symposium on civil rights', provoked a thoughtful analysis of 30 years of civil rights issues.

Members of the panel included Columbia University Professor Jack Greenberg, the US Department of Justice's Deval L Patrick, an assistant attorney general for civil rights, and private attorneys Rudolph F Pierce, of Boston, and Ernestine S Sapp, of Alabama.

King's birthday on 15 January has now been designated a US national holiday. It is celebrated primarily by government workers and the US financial markets which close down for the day.

Although charting progress was the goal of the ABA forum, discussing the lawyer's role in civil rights was its overriding theme.

Lawrence J Fox, litigation section chair and a Philadelphia lawyer, said: “Our meeting and discussions over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend were part of our responsibility as lawyers to re-evaluate our role in civil rights, public service and the concerns of the disenfranchised in American society.”

If symposium panellists are right, then a new civil rights consciousness is developing in the US and its lawyers are helping to bring it about.

Miami-based lawyer Benjamin Reid commented: “In the 1960s, Dr King presented a moral question to the American nation about its civil rights in the form of equality for blacks and the wisdom of segregation.

“Today, 30 years later, it has become the US lawyer's responsibility to bring the dream of civil rights to the next level. That level is of a national consciousness through the court system.”

As well as King's issues of racial equality, today's civil rights battles also involve complex decisions being made by the courts.

These include rulings on who should receive organs for transplant, affirmative action for women as well as minorities, and how to meet the needs of low-income Americans for access to the courts through organisations such as the federal government's Legal Services Corporation.

Both Fox and Reid said the Miami meeting had created an awareness of the impending crisis at the Legal Services Corporation.

As a federal programme, the LSC serves the legal needs of millions of low-income Americans but it has had its funding drastically cut by Congress to $278 million, which amounts to only 55 per cent of its previous funding level.

“The LSC continues to hang in the balance as its funding continues to be cut. Of greatest concern is the upcoming congressional initiative in spring to eliminate this valuable service,” said Fox.

The ABA, including its president Roberta Cooper Ramo, who took up the post last year as the association's first women president, has made saving the LSC a priority on its agenda.

However, Congress has pushed initiatives to dismantle the LSC and transfer funding responsibility to individual states rather than burden the federal debt.

Other events and issues at the conference included:

Efforts being made to increase the role of women and minorities in the ABA.

Lawyers including section chair Lawrence Fox sponsored an interactive forum for women and minority lawyers to learn how they could increase their visibility in the association as well as in the practice of law generally.

While nearly half of all US law graduates are women or minorities, they continue to represent less than 10 per cent of law firm partnerships.

The annual John Minor Wisdom Awards presentation to one public service lawyer, four private lawyers and US Attorney General Janet Reno.

Named after US Court of Appeals Judge John Minor Wisdom, the awards recognise those lawyers who make significant contributions to the quality of justice in their communities and fight to keep the legal system accessible to the poor, the disenfranchised and other un-represented groups.

With the exception of Reno, those who received this year's awards provided free legal services to children, indigent criminals, AIDS and HIV infected people and disaster victims, including Florida victims of Hurricane Andrew.

Reno was selected for the award because of her work as a near life-long government lawyer. From 1978 until her appointment as Attorney General by President Clinton in 1993, Reno served as the state's attorney for Dade County, Florida.

She was initially appointed to the position by the Governor of Florida and was subsequently elected to that office five times.

Reno also served as a lawyer in private practice, an assistant state's attorney and as staff director of the Florida House of Representatives.