ABA Mid Year Report

R. Jonathan Shirts

Published May 2022

The American Bar Association’s Mid-Year Meeting was held from February 9th through the 14th. What was supposed to be a renewed in-person gathering hosted by the wet and wonderful city of Seattle was once again moved to the virtual realm due to the cresting wave of the Omicron variant. Thankfully, that wave has passed and expectations are that the Annual Meeting in Chicago, scheduled for August 3rd through 9th, will be able to return in-person once again.

I am brand new to this role as the Idaho State Bar Delegate to the ABA’s House of Delegates, so please indulge the brief moment of self-introduction. Unlike many of you, but similar to many others, I did not begin my path as a lawyer until later in life. I had been searching for a career that would allow me to help people on an individual level, something I thought I had found early on in education, at least until I realized halfway through my student teaching that I was not a fan of the internal politicking and over-zealous parenting forced on teachers. I pivoted to higher education, but soon found myself trapped behind a wall of numbers, none of which I felt reflected my ability to engage and interact with individual students. So, after 10 years of prodding from my wife’s aunt, a retired Judge, I took the LSAT leap and was accepted at the University of Idaho, then started law school one month before my youngest son was born.

Before I started, I was encouraged to seek out and join the ABA, which I did. Then, a month into my 1L year, the opportunity presented itself to run for election as the school’s ABA Representative. I threw my name in the hat and was elected to a student body office for the first time since elementary school. Looking back now, that was probably the most impactful thing I could have done for my career. I spent three years encouraging law students to join the ABA, and was elated when the Administration elected to enroll all law students as ABA Student Members near the end of my 2L year. Among other events, we were able to host the then-President of the ABA, Linda Klein, at the Boise Campus, and later hosted the past Chair of the ABA Judicial Division, Col. Linda Murnane, at both the Boise and Moscow campuses.

I also spent two years serving as the ABA’s Law Student Liaison to the Judicial Division, a role advocating for how members of the judiciary could reach out and partner with law students more effectively. That experience allowed me, a lowly law student from the University of Idaho, to sit in meetings with State Supreme Court Justices, Judges from State and Federal Courts of Appeals, and jurists who would later end up on the shortlist for the Supreme Court. I was also able to serve as the Vice-Chair for Membership and the Co-Chair for the Public Outreach, Education, and Service Committee of the Judicial Division’s Lawyer’s Conference. After graduation and passing the Bar, I became involved with the State Bar, serving on the Appellate Practice Section as an At-Large Council Member. So when the opportunity presented itself to serve as the State Bar Delegate for the Idaho State Bar, I jumped at the chance, even though I knew I had big shoes to fill as Judge Oths’ replacement.

I will admit that preparing for my first meeting was a bit daunting. Luckily, my ABA experiences had given me friendships with amazing lawyers around the country who were more than willing to give me advice about what to expect and how to prepare. The pivot from an in-person to a virtual meeting just one month before was an experience, but one that showed me that one of the strengths of the ABA is its flexibility.

The House of Delegates had a full agenda of 27 Resolutions, including two that were submitted a day before the House of Delegates meeting. Those Resolutions considered topics ranging from the plight of Afghan refugees to the presence of children in dependency proceedings. Many of the Resolutions were uncontroversial, including those encouraging Bar Examiners to provide rooms for lactating mothers during the Bar Exam, recommendations regarding oversight of nursing homes amid many guardianship scandals across the country, and asking for support for foster children aging out of the system to help prevent them from being homeless.

Those Resolutions considered topics ranging from the plight of Afghan refugees to the presence of children in dependency proceedings.

The House urged the current Administration to overhaul the immigration and asylum systems to promote fairness and transparency. The House also debated support for guidelines for both landlords and tenants in the current eviction crisis, eliminating bias in pre-trial risk-assessment tools, and methods of calculating the decennial census. Changes to law school curriculums were passed which will require law schools to have loan counseling and classes on bias and cross-cultural competency, along with additional support for students related to mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Among the more controversial Resolutions, however, were those submitted the weekend before the House of Delegates meeting, both involving voting rights. The first of the voting rights Resolutions asked whether the ABA should take an official position on voting rights legislation across the country that many are worried will lead to discrimination at the polls. In an earlier address to the House of Delegates, the ABA President, Reginald Turner, encouraged all members of the ABA to “oppose any barriers to fair and open elections and any subversion of the voting process.” Some members of the House felt the Resolution was submitted too late for adequate consideration, but those in favor of the Resolution emphasized that “time is of the essence” because Legislatures across the United States were debating these bills at that moment.

After that spirited debate, the House voted to support the ABA’s official position as one encouraging state legislators to oppose legislation that would introduce barriers to fair and open elections, and for allowing elections to remain nonpartisan and independent. The second voting rights Resolution was filed in response bi-partisan legislation being considered regarding amendments to the 1887 Electoral Count Act as a result of the rally-turned-mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021 during the count of the Electoral College votes. Much of the opposition to this Resolution was also due to the lateness of its filing, not necessarily the Resolution itself, and the House passed this Resolution as well.

For a first-time Delegate, I was surprised, but encouraged, by both the diversity of the Resolutions’ topics, and the passionate debates on both sides of many of them. I didn’t know what to expect or what difference my lone voice could make, but I walked away from the meeting encouraged by what I saw and participated in. Over the next few months, the House of Delegates will be preparing for the Annual Meeting to be held in Chicago August 3rd through 9th. The incoming President of the ABA, the first Native American to hold this position, wants to encourage attorneys in non-metro areas to consider how the ABA can better support them.

The Young Lawyers Division will be submitting a Resolution encouraging the judiciary to allow more than one attorney to argue on a motion which would allow younger attorneys to gain invaluable experience in court. And a Resolution that was postponed on changes to the Lawyer Assistance Program Rules and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct allowing paralegals or other non-lawyers to give legal advice will be resubmitted. If you feel that these or any other ideas should, or should not be considered, contact your District’s Bar Commissioner or any of the other Idaho members of the House of Delegates: myself (r.jonathan.shirts@gmail.com); Jennifer M. Jensen, Idaho State Delegate (JMJensen@hollandhart.com); Anne Henderson, Idaho Young Lawyers Delegate (aeh@dukeevett.com); or Hon. Michael Oths, ABA Board of Governors (tcothsmj@adacounty.id.gov).

R. Jonathan Shirts graduated from the University of Idaho College of Law in 2018 and is currently the Staff Attorney for the Hon. Randy Grove of the Third District. He has also worked as the Staff Attorney for the Hon. Nancy Baskin and Hon. George Southworth. He enjoys good books and spending time in the outdoors with his wife, daughter, and two sons.