President Donald Trump’s original travel ban had been in force just six days when American Bar Association President Linda Klein—a partner at Baker Donelson in Atlanta—took the podium at the ABA’s midyear meeting and called on lawyers to rise up.
By then, the new president had attacked the legitimacy of a “so-called” federal judge who had thwarted his administration’s enforcement of a Jan. 27, 2017, executive order suspending or curtailing travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
Klein was having none of it. “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,” Klein told the gathering.
“There’s been a lot of talk about protecting our borders,” Klein said that day. “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.”
Klein then called on lawyers to “lead by promoting and protecting the rule of law,” saying it was their “defining season.”
That is exactly what Klein did. As lawyers flocked to airports around the nation where U.S. Customs agents were detaining travelers, the ABA in a single afternoon established a website with links to relevant case law, habeas resources, how-to-help guides and volunteer forms.
Following Klein’s speech, the ABA also adopted resolutions demanding that the White House withdraw the travel ban, comply with court orders and support laws giving refugees and asylum-seekers legal protections.
It was not the first time Klein called on the ABA during her tenure as president to take on the federal government. After taking the reins of the ABA in August 2016, Klein championed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education after it reneged on forgiving student loans of lawyers who dedicated 10 years to public service. Klein called it “a betrayal,” “a horrible bait-and-switch” and a violation of existing law.
When the Trump administration requested draconian budget cuts stripping the Legal Services Corp. of more than $85 million in funds, Klein launched a nationwide effort to restore and increase funding. She called the budget proposals ”egregious cuts to the Constitution’s promise of a fair legal process.”
“We had to do it,” she said. “There is nothing more important than access to justice.”
Klein also stepped into the death penalty debate when in late 2016 drugs used in lethal-injection executions began expiring. Without comparable alternatives available, some states simply accelerated their execution schedules.
“It was a threat to due process,” said Klein, who wrote a letter to the governor of Arkansas protesting the stepped-up schedule. “The ABA has no position on whether or not there should be a death penalty. But certainly, every lawyer has a position on the need for due process before carrying out the death penalty.”
Georgia Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein, who nominated Klein as Attorney of the Year, said Klein has “vigorously defended justice in a turbulent time” while serving as the ABA president.
“By always being there for the legal profession, Klein tirelessly advanced the cause of justice in 2017,” Hunstein said.
During her ABA tenure, Klein also wrote nearly a dozen “Rule of Law” letters, many of them pushing back against threats to the rule of law, or in defense of attorneys facing potential persecution abroad.
She called out U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department for opposing a 2015 decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Klein also spearheaded a means of making lawyers in small practices more financially competitive. Under her guidance, the ABA created an online “law firm in a box.” Called the ABA Blueprint, it was a one-stop shop that included everything a small-firm attorney might need, including retirement plans, insurance exchanges and technology needs.
Klein said she learned of the need during a nationwide listening tour that took her to places like French Lick, Indiana; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Boise, Idaho; and Fargo, North Dakota.
“I met the lawyers who were the foot soldiers of access to justice,” Klein said of the tour.
During her tenure, Klein also established an initiative linking veterans in need of legal aid with pro bono attorneys. She created a childhood education commission to address lagging educational needs of children in rural areas and inner cities, children in foster care or juvenile detention centers and children with disabilities.
“What makes all this worthwhile is when you make a difference,” Klein said. “I became a lawyer so that people can have access to justice. And, when they have access to justice, it makes a difference in their lives.”
One of Klein’s final acts as president took place in August 2017. She was preparing her farewell speech as president when neo-Nazis and white supremacists convened a torchlight march through Charlottesville, Virginia. A paralegal was killed by a vehicle driven into the crowd during the ensuing protest. Another 25 people were injured. The suspected driver was identified as having marched in the torchlight parade.
Klein rewrote her speech, calling on the Justice Department to investigate the events as possible civil rights violations and warned that the ABA “will continue to monitor and ensure that justice is served.”
“I talked about how we can’t ever let hate rule,” Klein recalled. “The principles that underscore the rule of law and our Constitution and access to justice are also principles of tolerance and liberty, and they’ve got to prevail over forces of hatred and racism. … I wanted to show the profession and ask all the lawyers to deepen the commitment to justice for all.”