Opinion: Alaska Bar Association convention shines light

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2008

Last week I attended the Alaska Bar Association annual convention in Anchorage. I've enjoyed this legal-education opportunity several times since becoming an attorney, but this convention was the most edifying for me thus far.

The Alaska Bar hasn't, until recently, mandated continuing legal education (CLE), but many attorneys have pursued it voluntarily. The Alaska Supreme Court changed the rule last year to make ethics CLE mandatory and also to require reporting of other CLE topics studied by individual attorneys.

I enjoyed my ethics session last week because there were so many attorneys in one room. While this might sound like the start of a joke to some, I appreciated seeing my colleagues gathered together to consider how to handle challenging situations involving clients and zealous advocacy.

One feature of all Bar conventions I've attended is an update of recent United Stated Supreme Court decisions by two talented law professors.

Most people know how powerful our nation's high court is, but it takes a learned perspective to put each decision into context, analyze why the case was decided as it was, and what the holdings mean for the future. The visiting academics went over cases of note, including one about using race as a criterion to prevent public-school segregation.

Our country has improved amazingly since the days of Brown v. Board of Education, but now statistics show that de facto segregation is on the rise. It is tempting to use race-based school assignment to counter this undesirable trend, but race-neutrality is a worthy goal, and the high court found such use demanded strict scrutiny, then overturned the programs.

It was interesting to hear a recap of Juneau's own Bong Hits 4 Jesus case, which seems to have weakened students' free-speech rights.

Only time will tell if Morse v. Frederick is limited to student speech advocating drug use or if school authorities can more broadly silence students to maintain order.

A case from the District of Columbia has tremendous potential to affect gun rights more profoundly than any Second Amendment holding since 1939. This won't make much difference in Alaska, where guns are part of the culture and law, but in the Lower 48's urban centers it could be huge.

Another case has limited employees' ability to sue for pay discrimination under one law, but there may be other federal laws that allow people who think they've been paid too little to sue for back pay; the issue is whether each paycheck is a separate discriminatory act.

After learning about U.S. Supreme Court decisions from top-notch legal minds, it was wonderful to hear from the only woman currently serving on the high court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared about what she's seen over the course of her legal career.

When she went to law school only a few women attended, and it was very hard to find work once they graduated. Ginsburg also had a child while at law school, making her career path even tougher. Needless to say, she overcame the obstacles in her way and rose to the pinnacle of her profession.

One point that Ginsburg made clear was the friendly and collegial relationships between most of the justices. She spoke of her good relationships with more conservative jurists, making me wonder if ardent partisans across America will ever accept that people with different philosophies can and must get along and work together to achieve progress.

Next year Juneau will be hosting the Alaska Bar Association's annual convention, and Justice Samuel Alito will be our honored guest. I hope we can provide as much worthwhile education and food for thought as I enjoyed in Anchorage, and that Alito will show as much judicial wisdom as his only female colleague.

Some in the Alaska Legislature question the independence of the Alaska Bar, and have sought to regulate it more like other professions. I returned from this year's annual convention more than ever convinced that the Bar is working well with its structure.

Members are conscientious and eager to improve their skills. Alaskans have a good group of legal minds at their service among the members of Alaska Bar Association. As long as we keep listening to other Alaskans, we should retain our independence.

• Ben Brown is a life-long Alaskan.

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