U.S. Civil Rights Litigator Honored for Pioneering Work
By Ira Pilchen
Aug. 7, 2011
TORONTO—Elaine R. Jones received the _ Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities Thurgood Marshall Award Aug. 6 during the ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto.
Honored for her vast experience as a civil rights litigator and activist, Jones broke ground with a number of “firsts” as an African American woman, including her service as the first woman president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall.
In 1970, Jones was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law. In her acceptance speech, she recounted her arrival at the predominantly white male institution.
“When I showed up at UVA, with a dashiki and an afro, and sandals up my legs … and walked onto the campus, I am sure Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson and everyone else [thought], ‘What have we wrought?,’” Jones said to laughter and applause from those attending the ceremony.
Jones recounted that in 1988, at the recommendation of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, she broke ground as the first African American to integrate the ABA Board of Governors, where she served for three years.
A former council member of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, Jones has remained active within the ABA, and currently serves on its Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System.
Jones recounted the individual rights section’s role over the years in pushing the ABA to champion civil and human rights. The section is one of the ABA’s smallest, she pointed out, “but we have the biggest, heaviest mandate.”
Today, she said, the ABA must continue to improve its civil rights record. She singled out how its Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary evaluates prospective nominees for the federal bench who primarily have civil rights experience. Too many of those candidates, she argued, are given lower ratings because of an unfair bias that civil rights work is not as complex as commercial matters.
“We have to look at ourselves,” she told the ABA audience.
Jones was on the plaintiff’s legal team in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court case that in 1972 abolished the death penalty in 37 states. She also has litigated numerous class-action employment discrimination cases challenging race and gender discrimination in the workplace.
The Thurgood Marshall Award recognizes substantial, long-term contributions to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights in the United States. The ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities established the award in 1992, conferring the inaugural award upon U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Previous recipients have included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Attorney General Janet Reno.
The keynote speaker for this year’s 20th anniversary event was Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada, who has demonstrated a strong commitment to civil rights, human rights and social justice during her career. She served as a commissioner on the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a member of the Ontario Public Service Labour Relations Tribunal, and as chair of the Study on Access to Legal Services by the Disabled. She was the sole commissioner of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, creating the term and concept of “employment equity.”
Abella told of her family’s experience as Jewish victims of the Holocaust, during which her 2-year-old brother and father’s entire family perished. She cited how her parents’ hope for humanity was expressed when she was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II.
Still, the Canadian justice noted that 40 million people have died as a result of conflicts throughout the world since the founding of the United Nations, which was created to stem world conflict. About the UN, she said, “I know it’s all we have, but is it the best we can do?”
Abella told audience members how important it is to fight injustice, noting that few spoke out in the run-up to the Nazis’ reign of civil and human rights abuses.
“Indifference is injustice’s incubator,” she said.
Pointing out that the term “rule of law” has been used to justify repressive regimes, Abella spoke of the need for “the rule of justice, not just the rule of law.”