In 1880, my great-grandfather, Chun Cup Choy Acoon, left his small fishing village near Canton, China, at age 16, to harvest pineapples in Hawaii. Six decades later, after the Imperial Japanese Army ended its eight-year occupation of his homeland, he returned to China a successful businessman.
Acoon bought land, started businesses, and had a small fleet of fishing boats. But when the dark clouds of Communism swirled over China and after a commissar demanded my grandfather's cattle, he returned to Maui, leaving one son, my uncle, to manage the family's properties. The Communists eventually seized everything, including my uncle, who died in prison. Everything vanished into the hands of the government.
My family's story is replayed every day somewhere in some city or village. It is the weak, the elderly, those who are different, and the poor who are usually the targets of the powerful, who believe, like Chairman Mao, that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." The great achievement of the American people has been the attainment of liberty for its citizens through the rule of law-where the rights of the individual and respect for property ownership are protected from the grasp of the powerful and wealthy.
While the rule of law and American core values have produced a great nation, many poor among us still suffer. We, as lawyers who possess a monopoly on the practice of law, have a solemn duty to help. While our system of justice has worked well for much of our history, this has been due to the efforts of those, particularly lawyers, who have stood up for truth, who have had the courage to challenge injustice, and to help those who are most vulnerable. In the process of protecting others, lawyers have changed our society peacefully and avoided bloodshed and violence.
Those trained in the law have played important roles in the struggle for liberty and equality throughout America's history. Men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson laid the foundations for our legal system. It was lawyer Thomas Jefferson who drafted the Declaration of Independence. It was lawyer John Adams who insisted that the Bill of Rights be a part of the Constitution as a condition for its ratification.
In 1863, it was lawyer Abraham Lincoln who changed history when he proclaimed the abolition of slavery. In 1954, it was lawyer Thurgood Marshall who argued Brown v. Board of Education before Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, asking the court to end that particular legacy of slavery. Marshall's goal was to open doors to all, extend opportunities to those of every color, and ensure equal education for all our children.
We should be proud of our profession. Lawyers have been at the forefront of the battle against injustice and inequality and for the fight to preserve our liberties. The legal profession is a noble calling-one that calls for continued courage, vigilance, and a dedicated commitment to the people we serve and to our system of justice.
Lawyers are the ultimate volunteers and public servants in our society-service that shows many faces. Through the American Bar Association, state and local Bar Associations throughout the country, and a multitude of specialty and ethnic bars-and, particularly through public interest law firms like Public Counsel and Legal Aid-great work for this country has been done. There is no church, synagogue, nonprofit board, symphony, chamber of commerce, or Boys and Girls Club in our community that does not benefit immensely from the involvement of lawyers.
Vanderbilt has produced its share of committed lawyers, such as my former classmate, A. Hamilton "Ham" Cooke, '68, who recently received the Florida Bar Foundation's Medal of Honor Award, the highest award that can be bestowed upon an individual by Florida's legal profession for his many contributions to providing access to justice for those living in poverty, and for his service to HabiJax, the Jacksonville affiliate of Habitat for Humanity -service he offered while maintaining a thriving practice.
In Bar Associations throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours are donated by those who serve on our boards, sections, committees, the Dispute Resolution Services, and our public service projects-the AIDS Legal Services Project, Domestic Violence Project, and the Immigration Legal Assistance Project. We owe a special thanks to the many volunteers who donate so much of their valuable time to the numerous facets of this organization.
Yet much remains to be done. A path-breaking 2002 study by the California Commission on Access to Justice reported that only 28 percent of the urgent needs for legal services of California's poor and lower income residents are being addressed, and you are likely confronting similar statistics, or worse, in the area of the country where you live and work. Equal justice is no more than a pipe dream unless citizens can use our justice system. The words of former slave Frederick Douglas haunt us still today: "Where justice is denied, where poverty is ignored, and where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rule, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
Some have made deep commitments to public service and to pro bono work; others have not. I call upon all of you to look deep inside yourself and ask, "Why not?" When you give unto others, you leave a small corner of the world a bit better, and, just as important, you nourish your own heart and soul. There is still much to do. Join us in this great endeavor!
Charles E. Michaels, who is vice president and general counsel of LAACO Ltd., ended his term as 2006-07 president of the Los Angeles Bar Association this summer. [ see story ]
A version of this column appeared in the July-August 2006 edition of Los Angeles Lawyer, a magazine published by the Los Angeles Bar Association for its members.