Courtesy of Emiline Fahmy

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Reginald M. Turner, president of the American Bar Association (ABA) and a University of Michigan alumnus, spoke at the Ford School of Public Policy on March 15 to discuss his personal experience dealing with issues such as racial injustice and the underrepresentation of minorities in the legal field. 

Michael Barr, dean of Ford School, introduced Turner and said he was chosen to speak because of his commitment to fairness and justice. 

“Mr. Turner’s lifetime of work dedicated to fairness and access to justice provides an inspirational example to all of us,” Barr said.

Turner currently works as a lawyer in Detroit and discussed the impact the University had on his career.  

“I was not expecting to become a bar groupie until I met Dennis Archer (the first Black president of the ABA) at the University,” Turner said. “He really got my attention with his gravitas and his concern for all people, and particularly for diversity and inclusion following the rule of law.” 

Turner then discussed the importance of pro bono work. According to the ABA, attorneys are strongly encouraged to practice at least 50 hours of pro bono work every year. Turner spoke about his biggest pro bono case on affirmative action, where he worked with a group of lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and appeared as counsel in the U.S. Supreme Court. After four and a half years in the Michigan court system, the case reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Law School’s affirmative action policies in a five-to-four decision.

The decision was overturned in 2006 following the passage of Proposal 2, which prohibited race-based discrimination along with other protected classes in any form in public education. 

Turner said he viewed the outcome as a victory and believes he has helped promote diversity at the University.

“What we called a ‘split decision’ was actually what we believed was a victory,” Turner said. “Because the rulings in those cases made it clear that the University could consider diversity, equity and inclusion in building its student body.” 

He then acknowledged the diversity of the students in the room, accrediting the diversity to his work on this case. 

“I look around the room, and I see diversity in this room,” Turner said. “It might not have been here had we not won that case.”

Turner went on to explain the root of his passion for pro bono cases, specifically those relating to DEI. 

He recalled events from his childhood when his family joined Focus: HOPE, a program designed to unite city and suburban residents with the goal of breaking down racial barriers. Turner called the relationship his family developed with their paired family “transformative.”

“My family came to have a close relationship with a wonderful Italian-American family from Saint Clair Shores,” Turner said. “They had six kids, there were four kids in my family, we had home-in-home visits, we had picnics, and my first trip up north in Michigan was as a guest of the Lotanzio family. The real lesson, the more important lesson, was that, again we had so much in common in terms of our families, our goals, our ideals, our beliefs.”

Turner said this experience inspired his efforts to promote DEI throughout his career.

“That was my first introduction to what we now call diversity, equity and inclusion, and I’ve tried over the course of time to fulfill the teachings that I learned from that Focus Hope program back in the late 1960s,” Turner said.  

With this background, Turner sought to further DEI efforts as president of the ABA. He acknowledged how far the ABA had come since 1912, when it rescinded the membership of an African-American lawyer based on their race

The next ABA president will be the fifth African American to hold this position, and following that term, the ABA is likely to have its first Native American president-elect Mary Smith, who was nominated in February. Her nomination was presented during the 2022 ABA Midyear meeting, and she is expected to begin her term in August. 

Turner went on to discuss the work the ABA is doing to ensure diversity across law schools.

“The ABA also invests in the pipeline for diversity (through) a legal opportunity scholarship fund … to ensure that there are diverse students who are getting the funds needed to go to law school,” Turner said. 

He emphasized the need for litigation on justice issues as well as the need for reforms that  reduce racial bias and inadequacies, both in the field of law and society in general.

Turner said he is working to fight these biases and inadequacies through pro bono work. He encouraged attendees to do the same. 

“Raise your hand if you’ve done some pro bono work,” Turner said. “I hope all of you will consider doing that work. It is extremely fulfilling. It’s the right thing to do.”

Turner concluded by commending the work that the Ford School has done and encouraging students to continue to use their education to make a difference.

“I think we all need to consider how we can help those who need help,” Turner said. “Whether it’s the legal profession or public policy generally, there’s always room to help this university make differences — positive differences — in the lives of people who would benefit from the wonderful opportunities here on this campus.”

Daily News Contributor Emiline Fahmy can be reached at emilinef@umich.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Reginald Turner represented Barbara Grutter in an affirmative action case against the University of Michigan. The Center for Individual Rights represented Grutter in the 1999 case, and Turner was not involved in that effort.