Border No Bar to Justice
Going into my 50th year as an active full-time practicing lawyer,
recent events have brought back memories of the tumultuous year of
1968—with its news of the Vietnam War, assassinations, violent protests,
and overall political upheaval within our democracy.
I’m comforted now, as I was back then, by my belief that our republic will survive because of the rule of law.
Within 90 minutes of Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman swearing me in as the new State Bar president on June 22, I personally experienced how lawyers are uniquely equipped to address the problems vexing our nation—which now include the separation of asylum-seeking families at our southern border. In the weeks since then, lawyers have been instrumental in ensuring that children and parents are reunited and that legal rights are protected through due process of law.
Recently, the federal government reported it had delivered 1,442 children to parents detained in immigration custody and was expected to soon reunite all “eligible” families. According to the Washington Post, more than 700 children currently remain in government shelters—many because their parents are no longer in the United States.
As lawyers, we can argue over who’s to blame or what should happen next. Those debates are necessary, but I want to refocus our attention on what makes us great, rather than what makes us common.
Our republic was conceived as one of laws, not men. Inspired by the Magna Carta’s proclamation that no man should be deprived of life or property “except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land,” Americans have united for centuries in the belief that everyone is entitled to due process under the law.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once defined the rule of law as “a law that promotes freedom, that promotes justice, that promotes equality.”
Recently, some members of our bar have asked me why the State Bar of Texas is involved in the issue of family separations. They deserve a clear answer.
As a unified bar, the State Bar of Texas is not taking a political position on immigration policy. That’s for Congress and the president to decide. Neither is the State Bar taking sides in these asylum cases or expressing an opinion on how the federal government administers immigration law. Those are issues for our courts to resolve.
Instead, the State Bar is involved because this issue goes to the heart of two of its core purposes—“to aid the courts in carrying on and improving the administration of justice” and to “advance the quality of legal services to the public.”1 By connecting attorneys interested in helping with volunteer and donation opportunities, the State Bar is fulfilling these purposes.
Above: State Bar President Joe K. Longley with ProBAR Director Kimi
Jackson on June 27 in Harlingen. Photo by Lowell Brown.
At my own expense, I personally visited the border on June 26-27 to meet with various groups and people helping coordinate volunteer lawyer participation. These included the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBAR; Kids in Need of Defense; Texas Civil Rights Project; Texas RioGrande Legal Aid; and 2017-2018 American Bar Association President Hilarie Bass. I was impressed with their efforts and their steadfast commitment to access to justice.
Upon returning to Austin, I met with State Bar staff, including Executive Director Trey Apffel, and immediately issued a “Message from the President” to all members. The message invited lawyers to visit the State Bar website, texasbar.com/volunteer, for opportunities to volunteer with, or give money to, the organizations working to reunite children with their parents.
The greatest need at the border, then and now, is Spanish-speaking attorneys with experience in immigration law. Other national and state bar associations issued similar calls to action, and the response was overwhelming. Although the initial situation shows signs of easing, cash donations and skilled volunteer lawyers are still needed. The State Bar will continue to update its volunteer webpage as new resources and information develops.
Meanwhile, the ideals of due process of law and access to justice will continue to be my focus as State Bar president. Let us not forget that the rule of law is the true north guiding our profession.
Your questions and comments are always welcome—and I look forward to hearing from you.
Joe K. Longley
President, State Bar of Texas