May 26, 2023

What a Convention!

Russ Feingold President

I am still riding high from our 2023 ACS National Convention last week. It was impossible to listen to Representative Justin J. Pearson talk about showing up for democracy, to David Carliner Public Interest Awardee Oren Nimni talk about fighting the carceral state, and or to ACS Lifetime Achievement Honoree Sherrilyn Ifill’s challenge to the legal community to reckon with and redress its role in building and preserving this country’s oppressive legal systems, and not come away inspired and determined to play our part in shaping a multiracial, progressive future for this country.

Throughout our Convention, a theme tied every panel and keynote speaker together. That theme is the existential challenge confronting our country: the struggle between securing the promise of a multiracial democracy and succumbing to the resurgence of American authoritarianism. The promise is achievable, we know it is from the enormous strides we’ve taken in recent decades. And yet, as Sherrilyn explained in her remarks, it is exactly that progress that has triggered the backlash we are now confronting, led by political factions determined to preserve white supremacy and American oppression.

This is the struggle of our time, with the outcome unknown. And, it is why ACS has made “securing the promise of a multiracial democracy and defeating authoritarianism” our focus over the next year. So much of our work has long been about securing that promise, but the moment calls for an even more concerted focus. With this in mind, I came away from Convention with three big takeaways.

1.The progressive legal community is ready to meet this moment. Some of my favorite moments of the Convention were the dozens of conversations I had with ACS members and supporters in the hallways and between events. So often, these conversations revolved around, “how can I get more involved?” and “here’s an idea for how ACS can have an even greater impact.” I so value the ideas and contributions of our members in thinking about how best to position ACS to meet this moment and maximize our impact. It’s this focus on our collective responsibility and readiness that gives me confidence about the future.

2. Courts matter more than ever. Nearly every speaker and every session, regardless of the specific topic at hand, underscored the impact of the courts. From conversations about the falsity of originalism and the devastating aftermath of Dobbs, to discussions on buttressing worker’s rights and the fate of the First Amendment, courts are reshaping our rights and laws seemingly by the day. We are grappling with the continued devastation of an extremist Supreme Court and the Right’s packing of the federal judiciary with ideologues indifferent to sound legal reasoning and precedent.

The importance of our Path to the Bench work could not be clearer. Now more than ever, we need diverse, qualified judges, and those are the individuals whom our working groups are recruiting and recommending to the White House. President Biden has had 129 federal judges confirmed and roughly a third of those have been recommended by ACS. We will continue to be relentless in pressuring the White House and the Senate to maximize these next 19 months to fill all federal court vacancies. During the Convention, dozens of our working group members took time to meet with Senate offices to convey this exact message. Not a single judicial nominee should be left on the table at the end of 2024.

3. ACS members want to serve. One of the most inspiring moments of the Convention has to be Tennessee State Representative Justin J. Pearson’s conversation with Zinelle October, ACS Executive Vice President. His advice to attendees and to the progressive community more broadly was “run anyway.” Whatever reason a person may have for not running for public office, run anyway. I love that message, and it resonated with the audience. Our community is looking for more ways that they can get involved and have an impact in ensuring that our future is a democratic one.

If you have ever, and I mean ever, thought of running for office, we want to foster that inkling. Our democracy is stronger when more people run for office, when our legislatures, city councils, school boards, and courts reflect the diversity of the public they serve. Next week, we are hosting a virtual program about running for office, and I hope you’ll join. Whether you’re already planning to run or think there’s only a one percent chance that you’ll ever run, come learn more about what it means to run for office. Register here.

If you want to relive moments from Convention or missed the event and want to watch the incredible panels and speakers, you can watch it all on our YouTube channel. The challenges confronting us are enormous, there is no doubt about that. But, I am more convinced than ever that this progressive legal community is ready to meet this moment.