As President of the State Bar of Georgia, I recently had the distinct honor and high privilege of being the keynote speaker for the DeKalb Bar Association’s Annual Bench & Bar Dinner at the Emory Conference Center. This year the DeKalb Bar honored Judge Clarence Seeliger, a trailblazer in Civil Rights in DeKalb County, Georgia, with its Pioneer Award. The honor was well deserved. Below are my remarks from the wonderful event.
Remarks at DeKalb County Bar Association Bench & Bar Dinner
March 7, 2013
Robin Frazer Clark ~President, State Bar of Georgia
Thank you, Denise, for that kind introduction and the very nice invitation of the DeKalb County Bar Association, of which I am a card-carrying member, to be with you here tonight. I have tried two cases in DeKalb County already this year and I want everyone to know there is no more friendly and courteous courthouse than Dekalb County and it is always a pleasure to be in court here. Also, DeKalb County enjoys the most diverse bench in the State of Georgia, with seven judges who speak five different languages, one of only two Asian judges in the state, and the only Hispanic. That kind of diversity is certainly something to be proud of. I see many judges here tonight, many long-time friends of mine. You are true public servants and on behalf of the State Bar of GA we greatly appreciate your service to the State of Georgia, to the citizens of GA and to our profession. We know that you take a much reduced pay to serve the State of GA compared to what you would make if you were practicing law in the private sector and we all owe you a debt of gratitude for their public service.
I understand that I am a stand-in for former Justice Leah Sears, who had another engagement that popped up and she couldn’t attend tonight. Justice Sears is a true trailblazer, whom I am going to talk about tonight, and has an incredible personal story. I know I have some big shoes to fill in her absence, which reminds me of a story of a woman who appeared on Oprah years ago. This woman had bought a pair of Oprah’s old shoes at some auction, even though they were the wrong size and way too big. But she bought the shoes because she admired Oprah so much and Oprah was her role model. This woman said that when things would look down for her, when she got really depressed because she didn’t have a job, when she’s wasn’t certain how to take the next step forward, she would go in her closet and stands in Oprah’s shoes, for inspiration. That was in 1997 and now she doesn’t stand in Oprah’s shoes as often because she’s standing on her own. That’s what I feel like I am doing tonight; standing in Justice Sears’ shoes and standing in the shoes of so many other women trailblazers who led cleared the path for me and for you.
Members of the Georgia Bar here tonight need to thank all those trailblazers who cleared the path for us so that we can practice law or work in our businesses with Freedom and enjoy the independence of being a professional. Our Trailblazers cleared the path for us to allow us to have it all, to experience equality in the profession and not to have to apologize for being ourselves. Tonight I want to share some thoughts with you about the extremely important issue of diversity. Let me share with you some amazing trailblazer stories, who have led the charge for racial and gender equality and diversity.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg- She was 1st in her class at Columbia Law School in 1959 but Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to hire her as a clerk, as was the Supreme Court’s tradition, b/c she was a woman. She was a pioneer for gender equality at a time when most people had never even heard of that term. Ginsburg recalls, “My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent.” So she started working for the ACLU, the only place where she could get a job in the early 60’s practicing law and started taking cases in which she could advocate for gender equality.
Sandra Day O’Connor- Justice O’Connor only took two years, instead of the customary three, to complete law school. Along the way, she served on the Stanford Law Review and received membership in the Order of the Coif, a legal honor society. O’Connor graduated third out of a class of 102.
O’Connor faced a difficult job market after leaving Stanford. No law firm in California wanted to hire her and only one offered her a position, and that was as a legal secretary.
And we have our own trailblazers to thank right here in the GA Legal Community.
Judge Adelle Grubbs-Cobb County Superior Court-When she was still a practicing attorney, on Wednesday before Thanksgiving many years ago, she was arguing a divorce case before a Superior Court Judge. It got to be fairly late, near 6:00 p.m. and Judge Grubbs asked that Court adjourn for the day. The trial judge wasn’t going for it, until Judge Grubbs said: “Your honor, you get to go home and relax and wake up tomorrow and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow with your family. I get to go home tonight and clean house and polish silverware and get up early tomorrow and cook a turkey and an entire Thanksgiving Dinner after having been in Court all day today.” After that, this particular judge simply quit holding court on the day before a Holiday to be respectful to women lawyers.
Chief Justice Carol Hunstein-1st woman Chief Justice of the GA. Supreme Court. Born into humble circumstances, Carol contracted polio when she was two, survived her first bout of bone cancer at age four, and lost her mother at age 11. Her adolescent years were marked by frequent hospitalizations for cancer. Carol’s father actually discouraged his six children from pursuing an education beyond high school. She married at 17, became a mother at 19, and was abandoned by her husband by age 22. That same year, Carol lost a leg to cancer and was told by doctors she had only a year to live.
Struggling to find work to support herself and her son, Carol soon realized the value of an education. She went to college on a state vocational rehabilitation scholarship and to law school on the Social Security benefits she received after her former husband died. There were times when Carol could not afford to eat. Remarrying before graduating from law school, Carol soon had two daughters.
She opened a private law practice in Decatur in 1977 and, spurred on by a trial judge who repeatedly called her “little lady” in open court, Carol decided to run for the bench. She defeated four men and in 1984 became the first woman elected to the DeKalb County Superior Court. She has served on the Georgia Supreme Court since 1992.
Judge Anne Workman: In a speech given to this august group in 2008 entitled “A Curmudgeon’s View from the Last Century Forward,” Judge Anne Workman wrote:
”The presence and acceptance of women in our profession today tends to make one overlook the lack of presence and the lack of acceptance of women in our profession thirty five years ago not only here but throughout the country. When I graduated from Emory Law School less than ten percent of the class of 1972 – one hundred in number – were women as were less than four per cent of all lawyers in the nation. The downtown law firms would come to the Emory campus for employment interviews with the male students, but they would not interview the women students at all. And Emory allowed that to occur, finally changing this practice a few years after my class graduated. The criminal law students at Emory had always been allowed to do a ‘ride-along’ with the DeKalb police as part of the course until my first year at Emory when we women students were told that we would not be allowed on the ‘ride-along’ ostensibly because the wives of the police officers did not want us in the patrol cars with their husbands for the eight hour shift. It was never made clear to us exactly what they thought we would or could be doing in a patrol car driving around on shift. It was just not suitable. I suppose that we put up with all these policies and others which were worse because we felt we had no other recourse. We were desperate to be there and to become attorneys; we were a only a handful in number; and so we just hunkered down and fought to graduate as high in the class as we could to demonstrate our worth and our commitment to the profession as well as our revenge served cold.”
Judge Workman’s first attempt to get a legal job after law school was fruitless, but she recounted it very humorously. She had always loved criminal law and wanted to be a prosecutor when she graduated from Emory. She approached the district attorney at the time about employment in his office. Judge Workman recalled: “He told me in a very matter of fact manner that there were some places a woman did not belong and that a courtroom was one of them. But that was alright because I could have a baby and he couldn’t. It was not the reasoning I had hoped to hear; but in one way it was helpful as it provided a considerable amount of focus and direction to me to prove him wrong. You take motivation where you find it. It took twelve years, but in 1985 when I was sworn in as a state court judge, I saw him and reminded him of our long-ago conversation. I remarked that I must belong in a courtroom now because it had my name on it.”
Judge Workman was a remarkable woman, lawyer and trailblazer and I consider myself fortunate to have become her friend during the years she served on the State Bar Board of Governors with me.
And it is not just women trailblazers out there to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. There are many progressive men who have helped make the road smooth for those coming behind them.
Justice Robert Benham- Justice Benham distinguished himself as the first African American to win statewide election in Georgia since Reconstruction. In 1989, Justice Benham was further distinguished as the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of Georgia, following his appointment by Governor Harris.
He also made history both as the first African-American to establish a law practice in his hometown of Cartersville. In what can only be described as something straight out of a movie, when Justice Benham would walk down the street in Cartersville to go to the Bartow Co. Courthouse, many fellow African Americans would come out of their homes and out of their places of work to follow him down the street. The shouts of “Mr. Benham’s going to court, Mr. Benham’s going to court” could be heard as they followed their hero, then “Attorney Benham”, to the courthouse, because they knew Attorney Benham was going there to stand up for the little guy, the underdog.
Justice Benham’s first lesson of service to others probably came at the hands of his mother, who insisted that he shine shoes at the local barber shop.
His mother had this view that if you ever plan to lead people that you must be willing to serve them and there’s no more humbling experience than being down on your knees shining somebody’s shoes. And she says, “If you do that you won’t be full of yourself, you won’t be hording everything.” It reminds me of the lyrics in that U2 song that says “If you want to kiss the sky you better learn how to kneel.”
So Justice Benham as a little boy, with his brothers, shined shoes at Bob Cagle’s barber shop. As I have heard Justice Benham say, “The American Dream is that a black child from Cartersville who shined shoes in a barber shop can grow up and shine in the Halls of Justice.”
Sr. Judge Horace Ward- In 1979, Judge Horace Ward became the first African American federal judge in Georgia, having been nominated by President Jimmy Carter. He had previously served in the Georgia State Senate and as a State Court and Superior Court judge in Fulton County. Since 1993, Judge Ward has served the Northern District of Georgia in senior status. He is also well known in Georgia history from his efforts to gain admission to the then-segregated University of Georgia Law School in the 1950s. For years, the Board of Regents denied Judge Ward admission to the law school, stating that the fact that no black had ever been admitted to the university was merely coincidental. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents decided to “modify” the admissions criteria by requiring that candidates take an entrance exam and that they get two additional letters of recommendation—one from a UGA law school alumnus and the other from the superior court judge in the area where the applicant resided. Judge Ward filed suit against the Board of Regents to gain admission, which, after years of delay, was eventually dismissed on the basis that Judge Ward had “refused” to reapply under the new admissions guidelines (which Ward’s attorneys had argued was yet another ploy to keep Ward out). Judge Ward decided not to appeal and attended law school at Northwestern University, from which he graduated in 1959. In what can only be described as poetic justice, Judge Ward was a member of the legal team representing Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes when they were admitted as the first African American students at UGA, thus ending 175 years of segregation at the university.
And tonight we honor another trailblazer, Judge Clarence Seeliger. Judge Seeliger, as you have heard, was a trailblazer for racial justice and equality. He hired the first African American employee of DeKalb County State Courts and courageously removed the Confederate flag from his courtroom at great personal risk. Judge Seeliger made it clear that no one, not even judges, was above the law. Judge Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Seeliger’s life embodies that principle and I consider it a privilege and highlight of my year as State Bar President to be speaking tonight, a night in which we honor Judge Seeliger.
I often wonder whether I would have the same courage of Judge Seeliger and Judge Ward and other progressive Americans to stand up against racial inequality had I been an adult during the Civil Rights Movement. I like to think I would have been right there alongside the Freedom Riders, or walking across the William Pettus Bridge, but admittedly, it is daunting to consider risking one’s life for something you believe in. I like to think I would have done that. I suppose the social justice issue that presents itself to me now in my career is that of equality regardless of sexual orientation. I have delivered speeches on this issue, I have walked in the Pride Parade with my husband and two children, and I have even filed for a pardon of a United States Veteran who was court-martialed for being gay. I will continue to fight for social justice for all regardless of sexual orientation…but I’m not risking my life to do so, the way Judge Ward and Judge Seeliger and Justice Benham for racial justice.
Those trailblazers are pretty inspirational aren’t they? There is no question things are different now for many of us than what they were for Justice O’Connor, or Chief Justice Hunstein or even for me for that matter, not only in the legal profession but in all professions and corporate America. Yet, we have constant reminders that we have to do better. For example, during a school’s recent visit to the Journey of Justice, a Bar employee saw a young African –American child looking at the photographs of the Past Presidents on the wall of the 3rd floor with his father who was there on the tour. The employee heard the young child say “There isn’t anyone who looks like us, Dad.” That hurts. We have over 10,000 children walk through that 3rd floor hall every year, and they observe, they notice, and I don’t want anyone of them to go home thinking the State Bar of Georgia doesn’t have a photo of a leader who looks like them.
While our State Bar is comprised of 34 percent women, I am only the second woman President in its history, and I am the only President also to be a mother. In my opinion, diversity of leadership – with proportional representation reflecting the makeup of any organization – is a key to its ongoing health and strength. When the leadership of an organization is truly representative of the membership, the members more readily support the organization and are much more committed to it. I believe diversity in and of itself is a positive desired thing because it allows all points of view to be heard and considered. It makes one stop and reconsider the framework through which you view all issues and makes you actually take a minute and put yourself in someone else’s shoes before reaching any decision.
I just recently saw a new survey from the National Law Journal about women partners in large law firms. It’s not that encouraging. It showed that today about 18.8 % of all partners, equity and non-equity, are women. That is up only 2.8% over the last 10 years. If we just look at women equity partners, that number has been fixed at 15% for the last 20 years. This National Law Journal survey also proved that if a law firm has two tiers of partnership, an equity tier and a non-equity tier, women are more likely to be placed on the non-equity tier than men. The survey showed that women make up 17.6% of equity partners with only the one-tier track but throw in a non-equity tier and the women who are equity partners in firms with both tiers comprise only 14.7% of equity partners. Some say acceptance of women as equals in the legal profession is a matter of culture. That may be…but I feel like it has to be more intentional than that, with women, with minorities, to make our profession more inclusive.
As I told one woman attorney, I am raising the issue of diversity and inclusion now because in 20 years, when my daughter asks me why didn’t I do anything about this back in 2013 when I had the chance, I don’t want to have to answer her “I don’t know why I didn’t do anything.” That is not an acceptable response. Women need to support other women. I am reminded of what a friend of mine who was running a political campaign for a woman who was running for office: “there must be a special place in hell for women who don’t support women.”
As a mother of a 17 year old son and a 15 year old daughter, I am extremely cognizant of the example I set for them professionally and personally. You never know who you might influence. A Young woman at Athens UGA said she was definitely going to law school after hearing my speech to the State Court Judges. In a trial earlier this year in which I represented parents of a 23 year old young woman who had been killed in a car wreck, their other young daughter, in tears at the time, told me after the trial she had decided she wanted to go to law school.
There is simply inherent value in diversity in every endeavor. A diverse environment challenges us to explore ideas and arguments at a deeper level–to see issues from various sides, to rethink our own premises, to achieve the kind of understanding that comes only from testing our own hypotheses against those of people with other views. Such an environment also creates opportunities for people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, to come to know one another as more than passing acquaintances, and to develop forms of tolerance and mutual respect on which the health of our profession and our justice system depends. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince and who was killed in World War II said: “He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Man… For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass.”
There is no question we are making strides in Georgia. For example, the State Bar just recently hosted a reception honoring Judge Carla Wong McMillian’s appointment to the Georgia Court of Appeals. It was an historic appointment by Governor Deal in that Judge McMillian is the first Asian Pacific American state appellate judge ever in the Southeast and we congratulate not only Judge McMillian but also Governor Deal. In his wonderful remarks that evening, Judge Al Wong said we must remain vigilant and steadfast in the quest for diversity.
That is so true. But it’s really not enough simply to talk about it. Or complain about it. If you want to realize more diversity in our courts, in our Bar leadership, in our State leadership, you must get involved at the ground level. Last week I moderated a panel on Judicial Diversity at the University of Georgia Law School. Panel Members included Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton, state Court of Appeals Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes, Athens-Clarke County Chief Magistrate Judge Patricia Barron. The subject matter was judicial diversity. Justice Melton made the point that for the bench to reflect more diversity, more minorities must get involved on the ground level with various organizations so that when an appointment becomes available, these individuals are already well known.
Justice Melton said:
“One thing we need to talk about is party diversity,” said Melton. “I know there’s a lot of conversation about that. One conversation is, ‘What’s the governor going to do?’ We need to ask, What are ???we going to do?'”
“There’s a lot of discouragement in the African-American community about working with Republicans. I saw that in the governor’s office first-hand,” Melton said. The only time the governor heard from African-American lawyers or bar associations was when a judgeship came open, he said; meanwhile, other lawyers and organizations had been working to make contacts and establish relationships with the administration.
“So others have been working diligently, and you’re at a disadvantage if you take a hands-off approach.”
“I’m not saying we should compromise our views,” said Melton, “but we should be more involved.”
Justice Melton was 100% right. I have told you I am only the second woman President of the State Bar of Georgia, but do you know how many women have run for that office since Linda Klein was the first female president? One. Me. Former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote for the Daily Report last year decrying the lack of diversity on the bench. Of 464 judgeships statewide, wrote Sears, about 100 were occupied by women, 53 by African-Americans, and—at that time—one was Asian and one Hispanic. But how many African-Americans and how many Hispanics and Asians put in an application with the JNC? How can we demand the JNC recommend a short list comprised of only minority nominees to the bench if those applicants are totally unknown to the Commission members because they have never been involved in any local bar association, or any political effort? Women and minorities must get involved in professional and political efforts to build those necessary relationships. Women and minorities must offer themselves for the bench and for leadership positions or we will never achieve the diversity we say we want.
Which brings me to my closing thought…and it is often my closing thought in every speech I give…and that is “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.” This is literally written on the wall of my office. I believe it and it is that philosophy of mutual good and shared connections that has directed my entire career and my work on behalf of the Georgia State Bar. We are all in this together, and we must encourage one another and cheer each other on. By doing this for others, we will lift up ourselves unknowingly in the process. The more you help someone else the more you help yourself. The less you think of yourself, the smaller your problems become. We must work together to remove barriers to inclusiveness. Each time a barrier is removed in the leadership of our courts, our Legislature, our profession, a door opens to a new generation of potential great trailblazers, which might include the next Horace Ward, the next Sandra Day O’Connor, the next Robert Benham, the next Leah Ward Sears or the next Clarence Seeliger. And that is something to be celebrated.
Thank you again for your support. I hope you will remember that the State Bar of Georgia stands as a beacon to promote the cause of justice, to respect the rule of law and to protect the rights of all citizens of the State of Georgia.
God Bless you and God Bless the Great State of Georgia.
Robin Frazer Clark