By John Minnis
University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman's ceaseless dedication to diversity was recognized recently by the Federal Bar Association, Eastern District of Michigan Chapter.
Coleman received the McCree Award for the Advancement of Social Justice at the federal bar's annual Wade Hampton McCree Jr. Memorial Luncheon Feb. 23 at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit.
The keynote speaker was Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine Law School. An alumnus of Harvard Law, Chemerinsky is the author of seven books, including his most recent, The Conservative Assault on the Constitution (October 2010, Simen & Schuster). His topic was the change of law under the current conservative Supreme Court of the United States.
"There are so many things to look forward to at this lunch today," said FBA Chapter President Laurie Michelson, "especially a chance to meet with the McCree family."
She noted that Dores McCree, wife of the late Wade McCree Jr. for whom the award and luncheon are dedicated, died in December. Speaking on behalf of the McCree family was Wayne County Circuit Judge Wade H. McCree, son of revered Wade Hampton McCree Jr.
McCree Jr. was the first African American appointed to the Wayne County Circuit, the U.S. District for the Eastern District of Michigan and to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He was the second African American to serve as Solicitor General of the United States.
A graduate of Harvard Law, McCree later taught at the University of Michigan Law School.
"I show no shame with this tie I wear today," said Judge McCree, who was sporting a maize and blue tie. "These lunches are such a wonderful tribute to my father."
He said his mother was "immeasurably proud" of the Historical Society for the Eastern District of Michigan.
"The McCree family thanks the Federal Bar Association for this annual tribute to my father."
Michelson added, "He comes by the tie honestly. Mrs. McCree was very involved with the U-M Law School. His father was also a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, so they would be very happy with the connection here today."
Miriam L. Siefer and Cynthia J. Haffey, committee co-chairs, explained that the McCree Award is given to individuals or organizations that promote and work toward social justice. In that regard, they were pleased to announce this year's recipient, U-M President Coleman.
Introducing Coleman was Evan Caminker, dean of the U-M Law School.
"To say President Mary Sue Coleman is passionate about core diversity values is an understatement," he said.
Coleman was appointed the university's 13th president in August 2002. Less than a year into Coleman's tenure at Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court in Barbara Grutter v. Lee Bollinger ruled that race can be used in university admission decisions. Grutter was a U-M Law School applicant.
The university's affirmative action program was blocked, however, when Michigan voters in November 2006 banned the use of race and gender preferences in public university admissions and government hiring and contracting.
Caminker noted that Coleman was listed among the Top 10 Best College Presidents by Time magazine.
He said he met the university president while on the school's affirmative action committee. Returning from a trip, they shared a cab from the airport. He worried about what they were going to talk about until Coleman asked, "'You're from Los Angeles. What do you think about Kobe Bryant?' We talked about sports the whole cab ride, and I knew everything was going to be just fine."
"It is so fitting that Mary Sue Coleman receive today the McCree Award for the Advancement of Social Justice for her courageous advancement of the values of diversity," he said.
In accepting the award, Coleman said, "I feel very humble in accepting this award, and I only accept it on behalf of the entire team at the University of Michigan."
Saying "our work is never done," she quoted Martin Luther King Jr.:
"'Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.'
"His words certainly apply to our campus community. We remain vigilant. Diversity and openness will always be Michigan values. We have to work at it every single day and every single year. Creating and supporting diversity strengthens our campus.
"We are the place others look to to see how we have done and how they can do it."
Introducing the keynote speaker, Caminker noted that as founding dean, Chemerinsky created the U-C, Irvine Law School from scratch, "from whole cloth." A former Duke and Southern California law professor, Chemerinsky is also a known scholar.
"Erwin is well-known to every lawyer and law student across the country," Caminker said. "Despite all his success and fame, he is one of the most humble people you will ever meet."
Chemerinsky said there are only two people who could get him out of California and come to Michigan on a cold winter day, and they are Wade Hampton McCree and Evan Caminker.
An expert on the composition and impact of the conservative Roberts court, Chemerinsky noted that the court's docket has decreased markedly over the past four years - 73, 75, 67 and 68 cases, respectively, from 2010 back to 2007.
"For much of the recent years," he said, "the court has been arguing little more than two cases a year. Not just fewer civil rights cases, but fewer cases of all types. As the number of cases has gone down, the opinions have gotten longer."
Citizens United, for example, was 157 pages, and McDonald v. Chicago was 220 pages, he said.
"There is just no way to edit a 157-page opinion and a 220-page opinion in order to assign it to students the next day," the law professor said.
"When it matters most," Chemerinsky said, "it is an Anthony Kennedy court. Kennedy is in the majority in most court decisions."
In 14 out of 17 5-4 decisions, Kennedy was with the majority, he said.
"Mostly we are appealing to a single justice," Chemerinsky said. "My brief (before the court recently) was a shameless pandering to Justice Kennedy."
He noted too that under Roberts, all decisions impacting the law have been in the conservative direction. "In 5-4 decisions down ideological lines, Kennedy is more likely to side with the conservatives," Chemerinsky said. "He sides with the conservatives more than twice the time."
Public schools are increasingly racially divided, he said, adding that Chief Justice John Roberts once wrote that diversity is "not of any compelling state interest."
"By almost every measure, American schools have been increasingly racially segregated," Chemerinsky, said, "and I believe the Supreme Court deserves much of the blame for this.
"Roberts says the Constitution requires color blindness. It does not. It requires equal protection. The only hope that historic (civil rights) decisions will survive is in Justice Kennedy, who has never voted for affirmative action."
Chemerinsky said that the conventional wisdom is that President Barack Obama nominee, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, will vote the same as Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, whom she replaced. Stevens, though nominated by a Republican president, Gerald Ford, was considered a liberal on the court.
"I'm skeptical," Chemerinsky said of Kagan. "No one has known less about a new justice since Sandra Day O'Connor."
Since Kagan was never a judge, he said, there are no decisions to review, and she wrote little as a law professor and nothing controversial.
Sonia Sotomayor, 56, is the most consistently liberal associate justice on the court, Chemerinsky said. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the oldest, 78. Antonin Scalia and Kennedy are 74. Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas are 60 and 62, respectively. Roberts, at 56, could serve to mid-century, as could Sotomayor.
"The best indicator of a long life is nomination to the Supreme Court," Chemerinsky said. "Any likely Obama nomination won't change the direction of the court."
"I think the bottom line as you think about this court," he concluded, "is that if you are politically conservative, this is a court to rejoice over."
Published: Mon, Feb 28, 2011