by Martin Murphy
For lawyers—indeed, for anyone who values the rule of law, cares deeply about civil rights, and envisions our legal system as a force to protect the most vulnerable among us—September 2020 was an extraordinarily cruel month. On September 14, we were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the sudden death of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. And only four days later, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, finally lost her long battle with pancreatic cancer.
The next issue of the Boston Bar Journal will be dedicated to Chief Justice Gants and his legacy. I’ll have much more to say there about his loss, which so many of our members felt deeply and personally.
But as I write this—less than two weeks after Election Day, and only a few days after the BBA’s 2020 Annual Meeting—my thoughts turn to a New Yorker essay paying tribute to Justice Ginsburg, written by our Annual Meeting keynote speaker, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore. Professor Lepore summed up Justice Ginsburg’s life this way: “Aside from Thurgood Marshall, no single American has so wholly advanced the cause of equality under the law.” One example: Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder , criticizing the Court’s decision to read the critical pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 out of the statute. “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Justice Ginsburg’s opinion quoted Martin Luther King’s familiar statement: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But, as Professor Lepore pointed out, when Justice Ginsburg read her dissent in open court, she added her own coda: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” she said, “but it bends toward justice if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” (You can hear Justice Ginsburg read her dissent here).
A “steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion” has long been part of the BBA’s DNA. Living up to that commitment remains as important now as ever.
At the end of May, we watched in horror as George Floyd called out “I can’t breathe” over and over and over. In the weeks and months that followed, we saw the possibility of a national reckoning on the question of race—and the prospect that here in Massachusetts we might take concrete steps to ensure that all police officers protect and serve everyone, including Black men and women and other people of color. The BBA’s Task Force on Police Accountability—chaired by former Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin, now General Counsel of Northeastern, and Natashia Tidwell, a partner at Saul Ewing and the Court-appointed monitor in the Ferguson case—is hard at work on this issue, and we believe the BBA can make a meaningful contribution to public debate.
As the election approached, the BBA sponsored programs that trained dozens of volunteers to protect voters’ rights as we prepared for what we expected—for good reason—would be one of the most contentious elections in our lifetimes.
BBA programs also trained dozens more to represent the many tenants affected when the eviction moratorium was lifted in October, and we are assisting the Governor’s Office and legal-services stakeholders in their Eviction Diversion Initiative—all to try to prevent a tsunami of evictions and resulting surge in homelessness.
And at our Annual Meeting last week, I was honored to present the BBA President’s Award to the many lawyers who put aside the personal challenges we all faced when the pandemic hit to think, not of themselves, but about the more than 14,000 individuals detained at Houses of Correction and prisons—thousands of whom had not yet been convicted of any offense. Their work changed the standard for release of non-violent offenders (something the BBA has long advocated), secured mandatory COVID-19 testing for individuals detained on civil immigration charges at the Bristol County House of Correction, and led to the release of thousands of individuals.
But, as recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the Essex County jail and at the MCI-Norfolk state prison remind us, much work remains to be done on this issue. So too does much work remain on the BBA’s other priorities: ensuring police accountability, addressing the school to prison pipeline, supporting civil legal aid (particularly following the end of the eviction moratorium), protecting the rule of law, among others. And, most of all, much more work remains if we are to be serious about dismantling the system of structural racism that that has worked itself so deeply into the fabric of our country and its laws.
I know I speak for my predecessors, for the BBA’s volunteer leaders, and for its extraordinary staff, when I say that I am optimistic—indeed, confident–that our members will meet Justice Ginsburg’s challenge and continue to prove their steadfast commitments to each of these tasks.