Why Our Committee Reports Matter – by John S. Kiernan
President’s Column, February 2018
The mandate of our Association’s 162 Committees, Task Forces, and Councils regularly extends well beyond internal discussions. It prominently includes generating public expressions of positions in the areas of Committees’ particular expertise, directed at improving the law, refining interpretations of the law, or enhancing the administration of justice. In the year ended May 2017, our Association released 178 reports, letters to relevant decision-makers, amicus briefs, or other substantial public statements of position generated by Committees and formally approved by the Association. That dazzling collection of contributions on a vast range of subjects – from mainstream to arcane, from general to highly specialized – plays a substantial role in supporting the City Bar’s determination to be among the country’s most prolific rule-of-law think tanks.
The Association appropriately attaches lots of energy to ensuring that this enormous body of work is of high quality and reflects full appreciation for and attentiveness to the most thoughtful arguments on all sides of the issues being addressed. This requires a process of ensuring the quality of the initial product from any Committee and then subjecting the resulting drafts to rigorous vetting within the Committee, among other Committees that may share interest on the subject, and through Association staff and leadership. All of this requires enormous dedication, patience, and deft handling by our Committee Chairs, to whom we are most grateful.
The assurance that the contribution is high-quality and sophisticated begins with the composition of Committees, which are targeted to have a fixed number of regular members (plus a few “Affiliated” and “Student” members) who do not belong to any other Committee. Members are chosen by Committee Chairs, usually from a list of applicants, with the assistance of staff members who focus on making sure that the Committee includes top practitioners in the subject discipline; younger lawyers who aspire to develop expertise and show enthusiasm for the Committee’s work; lawyers from large and small firms, corporations, government, nonprofit organizations, and academia; and a broad diversity of viewpoints and demographics.
For some Committees, generation of a report offering a public advocacy position on a controversial subject sometimes seems impossible, because the viewpoints reflected among the Committee’s members seem unalterably different to a degree that precludes consensus. While Committee members agree in joining their Committees to leave their practice-based priorities outside the Committee discussions and to focus exclusively on collective advancement of the rule of law, Committee members consistently carry strongly-felt perspectives into their roles. When Committees with these highly diversified member perspectives are able to find common ground on a piece of advocacy, the resulting report tends to carry extra weight. When members of a Committee cannot align a strong majority of members behind a particular view, they typically try to see what if any common ground they can identify, and they sometimes adapt to their inability to generate a report reflecting consensus by organizing programs at the Association or releasing a white paper to expose the broader legal community to multiple sides of the debate.
Many (and possibly most) of our Committee reports address topics of interest to more than one Committee. When that happens, we promote communication among the interested Committees starting as early as practicable. Cross-Committee inputs regularly improve the quality of the final work product. As one of many examples, last year the collaborative efforts of our LGBT Rights Committee and our Military Affairs Committee yielded a particularly powerful and well-grounded report on transgender service members in the military.
While the report-generating process consistently features an energetic effort to build and disseminate consensus views, unanimity is not required for the City Bar to release a piece of advocacy. A requirement of unanimity would be too paralyzing to our Association’s ability to speak. But we take dissenting views very seriously. When Committees have conflicts over the proposed content of public statements of position, our policy staff try to reconcile the conflicts. Any conflicts that cannot be resolved are referred to the President, with an option (generally used no more than about once or twice a year) for any unhappy constituent to appeal the President’s decision to the Executive Committee. Even when Committees reach agreement, the process of review by policy staff and the President frequently leads to significant further refinements and improvements, and occasionally yields decisions not to release even finished reports or other statements on the basis that they do not or should not represent City Bar policy.
This process assures that the City Bar’s central and most essential voice is the voice of our knowledgeable and committed Committee members, consulting with peers holding substantial relevant expertise, and thoughtfully accommodating differing views into their analyses. Our Committees, and the 5,000 members who have sought and have been selected to belong to them, tend to approach their responsibility of principled and high quality public advocacy with a seriousness of purpose and an understanding that we try to speak in a way that is deliberate, credible, and adds value. Their collective contributions to debate and to advancement of the law are at the core of the City Bar’s contributions to the greater community.
We encourage Committee membership and the ability to participate in our deliberative report-writing process as one of the great benefits of City Bar membership. For those members interested in joining a Committee, please visit http://bit.ly/JoinACommittee. For those members interested in viewing our “Issues and Policy” page and our Committees’ many reports, please visit http://www.nycbar.org/issues-policy/.
John S. Kiernan is President of the New York City Bar Association.