California Lawyers Association

Leapfrogging History

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By Ona Alston Dosunmu

July 2019

When I interviewed to become executive director of the California Lawyers Association, I told the Board that one of the biggest and most exciting opportunities facing the organization was the ability to scan the landscape, learn from mistakes made by others and in effect “leapfrog” history to build a bar association for the 2020s and beyond. Conceptually this is analogous to the way in which vast swaths of Africa and Asia skipped over wired telephony and went directly to cellular phone service—a phenomenon that also had beneficial economic side effects associated with the development of mobile payment systems.  

While this leapfrogging idea resonated with me on an intuitive level (and seems to have resonated with others since I was ultimately hired), it all sounds very abstract and it was hard to think of concrete examples. Last week our Board provided a concrete example by adopting a Public Comment Policy—a document we had been colloquially referring to as an “unfair criticism of judges policy.” Director of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives Ellen Miller drafted and coordinated committee input for the policy, which facilitates the ability of CLA to educate the media and the public on a variety of issues touching upon the judicial branch. The policy is anticipated to cover our ability to comment on the role of the judiciary; events or rules impacting the administration of justice and access to justice; the Constitution and separation of powers; and unjust criticism of judges under certain circumstances.  

The policy is designed to do three things: First, to give us the ability to insert our voices into the public debate when we deem it appropriate and constructive to do so. Second, to give us a set of questions and criteria to consider when deciding whether to weigh-in on an issue. And finally, to give us the flexibility and structure to respond quickly if we choose to do so.   

In developing the policy, Ellen and many CLA volunteer leaders from both the Committee on Civic Engagement and Education, led by Jerri Malana, and the Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Michele Brown and Chip Wilkins, brought to bear their knowledge and experiences about the ways in which other voluntary bar associations were stymied in their ability to respond when it would have been appropriate and desirable to do so. The need to respond quickly in today’s internet-fueled Twitterverse cannot be overstated. Our policy provides a mechanism to respond within two hours—a timeframe appropriate for today’s news cycle.

The pre-internet requirement that an organization procure the affirmative permission of the judge whose case is at issue in order to comment on it is another policy provision that has hamstrung other bar associations’ ability to respond to attacks on judges or the judiciary. Our policy contains no such requirement. These are just two examples of landmines CLA sidestepped by scanning the landscape and learning from history. Our Public Comment Policy is a concrete example of the opportunity our newness makes available to us. As we continue to build a bar association for tomorrow, I look forward to more future-oriented 21st-century innovations for the California Lawyers Association. 

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