ABA President: There Are No “So-Called Judges” in America

Linda Klein on threats to judicial independen
Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers

February 16, 2017 01:23 PM

Linda A. Klein, president of the American Bar Association, discussed threats to judicial independence, the need for due process in immigration, and other timely topics in a speech on February 6 to the ABA’s House of Delegates in Miami. Klein is senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz in Atlanta. Here is a condensed version of her remarks.

Good morning. Thank you all for being here in service to our profession and our country at this critical time. By representing all practice areas and settings across our great nation, you are the collective voice of all lawyers. Your work throughout the year and your presence here is vital, especially now.

Last night, unfortunately, the Patriots came from behind to win the Super Bowl. But here in Miami, football history means one thing: the 1972 Dolphins. That team did what no team has done since: 17 wins and no losses. That was a defining season.

So here we are, as lawyers, in the city of the Miami Dolphins, facing our own defining season.

What defines the American Bar Association at this critical moment? It is our commitment to the rule of law, due process, and access to justice. With these foundations, our country has weathered every crisis: civil war, world wars, economic depressions, and social unrest.

There’s been a lot of talk about protecting our borders. Let me tell you what the most important border is: it’s our Constitution and the rule of law it embodies. We as lawyers are called upon to protect it. As Winston Churchill put it, “Never give in. Never, never, never, never!”

Make no mistake, personal attacks on judges are attacks on our Constitution. Let us be clear. The independence of the judiciary is not up for negotiation.

As lawyers, we are trained to be thinkers and leaders—in our profession, in our communities, and in our society.

"So, lawyers: Let’s lead! Let’s lead by promoting and protecting the rule of law. Let’s lead in our communities. Let’s lead together, in this, our defining season."

For a nation based on the rule of law, nothing is more important than the impartiality and integrity of our court system. A fair and impartial judiciary is a proud hallmark of American democracy.

It is vital that our judiciary remains independent and free from political pressure­—independent from party politics, independent from Congress, and independent from the president of the United States himself.

There are no “so-called judges” in America. There are simply judges, fair and impartial. And we must keep it that way.

Another pressing justice issue is immigration. Every nation has a right to protect its borders. But we are concerned about significant portions of the executive orders recently issued. They jeopardize fundamental principles of justice, due process, and the rule of law.

The Supreme Court has held that many fundamental rights apply to all “persons” within the United States, regardless of citizenship or status. We must avoid sweeping bans based on religion or national origin. We oppose detention, except in extraordinary circumstances, such as a threat to public safety or flight risk.

And we insist on the right to due process and legal representation, including hearings before impartial immigration judges. Under the rule of law, we owe due process to all, including those who face deportation.

We are very proud of lawyers from around the nation who flocked to airports where immigrants were detained. It is important that lawyers represent their clients’ interests—even unpopular interests—without fear of retaliation or persecution.

Faced with these serious concerns, the ABA has acted—and acted quickly.

On Friday, the Law Practice Division Futures Committee and the ABA Center for Innovation accelerated a project to coordinate the volunteer efforts of lawyers responding to the president’s travel ban. Working with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, they helped set up a website in one afternoon, with links to relevant law, habeas resources, how-to-help guides, and volunteer forms.

The website is live now at The groups worked together and completed the project in less than half a day, during this Midyear Meeting and at zero cost.

Thank you to everyone involved. Great work! This is a new model that will enable us to respond to events quickly, so the ABA and our members can make a difference.

Another critical issue we face is adequate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Our commitment with state and local bars to LSC is stronger than ever. The LSC provides hope and help to hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. It is a bipartisan necessity.

Reforming criminal justice should also be bipartisan. Thank you to the lawyers who helped inmates through the Clemency Project 2014. They ensured that many men and women convicted of low-level, nonviolent federal offenses received fair sentences. Of the more than 1,700 men and women granted commutations under President Barack Obama, more than half were supported by the Clemency Project. ABA members and other volunteers—backed by policies adopted by this House—made that happen.

And here's another way the ABA is changing lives, this time for young lawyers.

In December, the ABA filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education. This is an issue of fairness. Lawyers and others were promised that their student loans would be forgiven if they dedicated 10 years of their new careers to public service. Many young lawyers made life-changing decisions based on this promise.

And then the Education Department told some lawyers that their jobs no longer qualified for loan forgiveness, nine years into the 10-year program. That was unfair, a betrayal of not just a promise, but a violation of the law, one passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush to encourage public-service work. That’s why the ABA sued on behalf of these public-spirited young lawyers.

Our lawsuit is also a stand for access to justice. We want young lawyers to become public defenders, prosecutors, and city attorneys. We want them in rural counties where lawyers are scarce or serving immigrants or children in foster care or low-income litigants who can’t afford representation. We should encourage those choices.

So how do we meet the challenges of our defining season? We meet them together. Like America, the ABA’s strength is its diversity, and we need every member’s contribution.

This is the ABA’s defining moment: to show our relevance to our profession and the public. To hold power accountable. To insist on fundamental respect for our laws and the people they protect.

At the ABA, we work together. We protect the rule of law. We defend the Constitution. We are lawyers. We took an oath, and these are our values. We will never give in. Never, never, never, never.

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