around the bar
February 14, 2011

Stellar Careers of Extraordinary Lawyers Honored at Spirit of Excellence Awards

left to right: Kevin Gover, Judge Bernice B Donald, Eva Paterson, Judge Leah Ward Sears (Ret.), <br>Judge Denny Chin, Charles Calleros

left to right: Kevin Gover, Judge Bernice B. Donald, Eva Paterson, Judge Leah Ward Sears (Ret.), Judge Denny Chin, Charles Calleros

Six legal luminaries were honored last week during the 2011 Spirit of Excellence Awards Luncheon of the ABA Midyear Meeting in Atlanta.

The award’s motto, “Ad Astra per Aspera – To the Stars through Difficulty,” embodies the struggles of the racially and ethnically diverse lawyers who personify excellence as they pave the way for others to reach new heights, both personally and professionally.

This is the 16th year the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession has highlighted the work of extraordinary lawyers who have devoted their careers to improving racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession.

Charles Calleros, a law professor at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., was recognized for his dedication to diversity pipeline programs that annually provide guidance and inspiration to hundreds of students—from kindergarten through college–helping them reach their goal of attending law school.

Calleros, who has won several awards for excellence and innovation in the classroom, challenged attendees to start pipeline programs in their own communities.

“I regard this award as the highest honor of my 30 year teaching career,” said Calleros.  “I will treasure it.”

Another award recipient, Appellate Court Judge Denny Chin is one of only 13 Asian American federal judges on active status—including four outside California and Hawaii—out of a total of 810 federal judges.  His grandfather’s naturalization certificate hangs on the wall of his chambers to remind Chin of the sacrifice and hard work that is now his heritage.

Chin’s grandfather worked as a waiter in Chinese restaurants in New York City, sending money back home to his family in China until relaxed immigration laws allowed him to bring them to this country. His father became a cook in a Chinese restaurant and his mother found work as a seamstress in the garment district.  Only recently Chin discovered that the man he once regarded as “just a Chinese waiter” had come to this country illegally.

“It was only later, after his death, that I came to understand how much of a hero he really was,” said Chin.  “I know I would not be here today, that I would not now be a federal judge, if my grandfather and my parents had not led the way for me, had they not overcome so many barriers.” He urged those in attendance to become trailblazers and heroes for those who need help overcoming barriers now and in the future.

U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald, who was recently nominated to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Barack Obama, also received a Spirit Award. Donald has experienced many firsts in her career.  She was the first African American woman to be elected judge in Tennessee, and the first African American bankruptcy judge in the United States.  She also became the first woman of color to hold an officer position when she was elected secretary of the ABA.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Donald described how she’s lived a significant portion of her life in a world that is not diverse, striving for “twin goals of equal opportunity and equal justice.”

“I’m looking forward to the day when we will not have to have awards that celebrate the accomplishments of people by racial and ethnic diversity,” she said.  “We will celebrate our contributions as members of that one race—the human race.”

When accepting his award, Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, credited his parents—an Indian and a white woman, “who had the temerity to love each other in post-dust bowl Oklahoma”—for teaching him that “all of us had the power to contest injustice.”

Gover, who served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs, won praise for his work to rebuild “long-neglected Indian schools” and for his apology to Native Americans for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “legacy of racism and inhumanity.”

Decrying myths “perpetuated by television, literature and film,” as well as atrocities to generations of his ancestors, Gover noted that promoting diversity has a greater purpose than fighting for social justice.

“It encourages the entry of new voices to the great human discourses,” explained Gover, who added, “All human wisdom has value in this discourse.  So, when we promote diversity, each of us truly is helping to save the world.”

Award recipient Eva Paterson, president and founder of the Equal Justice Society, a national organization dedicated to the changing laws through progressive legal theory, public policy and practice, has devoted her life and career to righting wrongs.

“I am the worst nightmare of some people in this country,” said Paterson, a self-described beneficiary and proponent of affirmative action.  “I am a black woman with a law degree.  I can take your deposition and make you answer my questions and I can nail you if you’re doing wrong.”

Addressing event attendees, Paterson warned against believing in a “post-racial” America. “All of you in your various spheres of influence must make sure people do not believe that racism is a thing of the past.”

She called upon the ABA to stand up against “evil, racist people” who are trying to reverse the 14th amendment by putting a stop to automatic U.S. citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.  “It is incumbent upon the ABA to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.  We are America’s lawyers.  This is wrong.’”

Another award recipient, Leah Ward Sears, was the first woman and youngest person ever to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court.  Now a partner with Schiff Hardin LLP, she leads the law firm’s appellate group.

She described her early experiences with racism when she was the only African American in the fifth grade at her elementary school.  Sears recounted her humiliation as three white girls taunted her by telling her she was ugly, ignorant and not worthy to attend their school.  When the bullies refused to let her play volleyball, “the only friends I had—two other white girls” came to her defense and, as she put it, “changed my life forever.”

“I urge every single one of you to do the right thing when you have the power to make decisions that affect other people’s lives,” said Sears. “Forty-five years ago, two 10-year olds made all the difference in my life and that’s why I’m standing here with you this afternoon.”