Mar 05, 2019
Building Bridges in Defense of the Constitution
Mar 05, 2019
By Charles Dresow
You feel the presence of Barbara Jordan’s greatness when reading her speeches. The strength of her courage emanates from her words. Ms. Jordan was an attorney who started her law practice out of her parents’ home and practiced law until her election to the Texas Senate in 1966. She was the first woman to win that office. She was the first African American, male or female, to be elected to that office since 1883. She was even the first (and so far, only) African American woman to serve as Governor of Texas, albeit acting Governor. In 1972, she became the first woman elected to serve Texas in the United States House of Representatives. If she had not passed away at the tragically young age of 59, we likely would be referring to her as Justice Barbara Jordan.
The words of her keynote address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention—for the first Presidential election following the resignation of the President of United States—are as important now as they were then:
I could list the many problems which Americans have. I could list the problems which cause people to feel cynical, angry, frustrated: problems which include lack of integrity in government; the feeling that the individual no longer counts; the reality of material and spiritual poverty; the feeling that the grand American experiment is failing or has failed. I could recite these problems, and then I could sit down and offer no solutions. But I don't choose to do that either. The citizens of America expect more. They deserve and they want more than a recital of problems.San Francisco's long-serving public defender, Jeff Adachi, was another extraordinary attorney and leader who just last month tragically passed away too young. He served the public in ways that only the most vulnerable of our society can understand. Only they know what it is like to be facing the weight of an unfair world and find an advocate like Jeff, who helped ensure that our Constitution protects everyone, including the most vulnerable.
We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community. We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present, unemployment, inflation, but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.
Attorneys like Jeff Adachi and Barbara Jordan inspired the speech I delivered at last month’s gala and installation dinner. In slightly abridged form, that speech appears below. I do not purport to use words as powerfully as they did, but I hope that the spirit of attorneys like Jeff and Ms. Jordan nonetheless shines through:
We are lucky to be practicing law at a time when we can do something extraordinary. We have the good fortune to be able to protect and preserve our constitutional values in this time of eroding public faith in our country's institutions and traditions.
Every day our job requires us to have a direct role in guaranteeing that the clients we represent and those who come into our courtrooms are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.
We bear the burden of keeping truth alive. We are the engine that moves equal access to justice forward and the bulkhead that prevents injustice and unequal treatment from spreading.
We have the opportunity to protect our truth and evidence-based system of justice when those ideas are fraying in our political commentary and general society. We prevent the guarantees of equal justice, due process, and personal dignity enshrined in our Constitution from becoming hollow words consigned to the ashtray of history.
We work within a profession that connects directly to our Constitution. Our profession bears an extraordinary responsibility to protect our constitutional values today so that they can be preserved for tomorrow.
This is a wonderful duty to have. Not many professions can look back at their forbears, take up the baton from their hands, and continue to bend the arc of our society towards justice and fairness.
The architects of our Republic gifted us a magnificent dream when they wrote the words that became the Declaration of Independence. They lit the spark of freedom and gave birth to the ideal that all people are created equal and are therefore equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This dream continues to grow and evolve through the work of our profession. In 1974, attorney and congresswoman Barbara Jordan shared her view of our constitution and the importance of the constant spread and vigilant protection of its ideals,
Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: "We, the people." It's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in "We, the people."
Today I am an inquisitor. Any hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.
We must, as an association, dedicate ourselves to keeping the dream of a free and equal society alive. It is our good luck to be practicing law in this turbulent time because we can be extraordinary in our protection of our Constitution’s ideals and system of justice.
In his American sermon given in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. said:
When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.We must as an association dedicate ourselves to making sure our constitutional ideals are preserved for future generations to inherit.
Our association must come together to build bridges into the practice of law so that our profession can continue to break down the walls of injustice and inequity. So that new lawyers from backgrounds different from our own can join us in our mission as well.
I am well aware that my path into the law and ultimate success is in a large part due to my family’s tradition in our profession:
- My paternal grandfather Abraham Dresow, who fled the pogroms to become a career public defender in San Francisco.
- My maternal grandfather, Arthur Davis, who fought from North Africa, through Italy and into France before coming home to become a judge in Ulster County, New York.
- My mother, who worked at legal aid as she went to law school at night.
- My father, who for forty years sought justice in the same halls and courtrooms that I now walk.
I had a path into the practice of law rather than a struggle. I recognize that there are those in our society who have the potential of being 10 times the lawyer I will ever be, but weren’t born into the good fortune and privilege I was. As such, one of the most important ways our association can improve access to the practice of law is to continue to provide scholarships to deserving law students and welcome them into this wonderful profession.
If we don’t build bridges into our profession today there will be no one to break down the walls of injustice that might be built tomorrow.I reflect back on my Grandfather Abraham’s story. As a child he was forced to flee the land of his birth, across continents and oceans, to seek safety, hope and liberty in our country. He was able to become a lawyer and the chief deputy public defender in San Francisco. His son was able to become a lawyer and now I am a lawyer as well.
We have no idea who our next constitutional defender will be.
We have no idea where they will come from.
We don’t know whether they will do something extraordinary for our country, for our Constitution, or just be the difference maker in one client’s life.
As you read this issue of the Marin Lawyer and contemplate the role of women in our profession and our society, I urge you to let it inspire you to build bridges to all members of our society and of MCBA to help encourage and promote the next great defenders of our Constitution.
Charles Dresow is a partner at Ragghianti Freitas LLP and is the MCBA President for 2019. His practice focuses on representing those accused of crimes.