The World of the City Bar – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, January 2015

As a French major who considered pursuing a career in the Foreign Service before deciding on law school, I was excited to attend the Rentrée, which I would translate as the “Opening of the Paris Bar,” in early December. And, as I complete this column, I am heartbroken and my thoughts are with the people of Paris at this incredibly difficult time.

The Rentrée is an annual event put on by the centuries-old Paris Bar Association that combines continuing legal education with a celebration including bar leaders from around the world. A highlight of the celebration was a rhetoric competition among a dozen recent law graduates who had been chosen for their oral presentation skills, and a nice twist involved the prize: a year of supported pro bono work representing indigent criminal defendants.

I met with solicitors and barristers from the UK. Of concern to them was the recent transfer of lawyer regulation and discipline from the organized bar to government regulators in England. Paris lawyers discipline themselves in a large courtroom in the Palais de Justice, where some 20 of them hear allegations against their fellows. No First Department disciplinary committee for them.

As I walked through the Palais de Justice, I reflected on the growing interconnectedness of the global legal community, and on the part we as City Bar members play in it with all of the international work we do.

In the last several months alone, the City Bar and the City Bar Justice Center have been visited by delegations or individuals from Bangladesh, China, Japan, Malaysia, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Spain seeking insights on how we deal with justice issues for application to their work back home. In November, I welcomed the president of the German Federal Bar Association, along with German government officials, to the German Bar’s exhibit (co-sponsored by the ABA) that we hosted on the persecution of Jewish lawyers and judges during the Nazi era.

With sixteen committees devoted to international affairs, our members must be among the world’s most traveled lawyers. Committee members with global expertise collaborate on reports and programs, often with multiple committees collaborating, each committee bringing its particular knowledge to ensure the end result reflects a rich set of perspectives.

There’s not room in this column to mention all of the great international-themed work that has taken place at the City Bar over the past few months. But as an illustration of how attuned our programming is to the issues of the day, I commend our Committees on Environmental Law, International Environmental Law, and our Task Force on Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation for their program “Leading by Example: State and Local Governments as Catalysts for Action on Climate Change” (co-sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s Environmental Law Section and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University).

The program, timed to coincide with the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September, featured a keynote address by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was joined on the program by the director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency; the Director of the California Office of Planning and Research and a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Jerry Brown; the former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection; and the Mayor of Boulder, Colorado. That same day, the City Bar and the Sabin Center co-hosted a public conversation at the City Bar on climate change with the presidents or prime ministers of seven Pacific Island nations.

The next month, another timely panel covered the issue of the growing numbers of migrants seeking refuge in Europe after escaping the effects of climate change, armed conflicts, religious persecution, and economic adversity. The panel, which featured government officials and academics from Italy, Brazil, and the Seychelles, was a true cross-disciplinary effort, produced by the European Affairs Committee with the European Union Studies Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY and co-sponsored by the Committees on the United Nations, Foreign and Comparative Law, International Human Rights, International Law, Middle East and North Africa, Immigration and Nationality Law, and the Council on International Affairs.

City Bar committees have written letters on a range of human rights and rule of law issues to leaders in China, Uganda, Egypt and Swaziland, among others, and have urged the United States government to use its power to achieve human rights objectives, such as eliminating the use of child soldiers. 

The City Bar’s Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice has been tremendously active as well, often working with our committees on various projects. The Committee on International Environmental Law and the Vance Center drafted a letter to the United Nations urging that its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) incorporate ambitious targets and substantial support for the reduction of toxic pollution, a leading cause of death in the developing world. Five Association committees further joined in a letter  urging UN Member States to make governance a stand-alone goal in the Sustainable Development Goals and throughout the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

The Vance Center has also been busy in Brazil, where the Brazilian National Truth Commission presented its final report to that country’s President on December 10th, International Human Rights Day. The report recounts the human rights violations against the Brazilian people during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1988 and lists hundreds of public officials, including military officers and former presidents, allegedly responsible for them. The Vance Center’s work with civil society and state institutions in Brazil in support of the Truth Commission over the past year included a City Bar program bringing together members of the Truth Commission, the Brazilian government, and NGOs. In addition, the Vance Center organized delegations that made two visits to Guatemala and followed up with reports addressing serious concerns over the country’s justice system and judicial appointment process. 

I look forward to seeing all of the international projects our association and others around the world will take on in 2015 and beyond. Here’s to the global bar and the crucial work that lawyers do to improve the world as it continues to get smaller and more interconnected.